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Product development or research – how do you juggle the dual roles of researcher and entrepreneur?

26 April 2017

In her dissertation, Nina Fowler has investigated the relationship between a spin-out company and its original research team.

How can you separate your role as researcher from your role as entrepreneur? The answer is that you can’t, says Nina Fowler, whose dissertation investigates the relationship between a spin-out company and its original research team.

Cooperation is a concept that is high on the agenda these days. Innovation, entrepreneurship and research utilisation are encouraged from various quarters and are a stated goal of the Swedish government bill on research. But how do researchers relate to the different roles that arise when they take their innovation to market? In a new dissertation, Nina Fowler, doctoral student at the Department of Engineering Sciences, investigated the relationship between a spin-out company and its original research team.

“High demands are placed on producing good research results,” says Fowler. “But there is also an expectation that the research will lead to innovations and patents. This means that researchers can spend a lot of time on tasks that are not academically qualifying, and are more about product development than research.”

Strict boundary requirements

There is an idea that research should be useful and relevant for society, but that there should also be strict boundaries between academia and the corporate world, says Fowler.

“We set strict financial and legal boundaries to safeguard our integrity and not mix research with business development,” says Fowler. “But in reality, these boundaries are rather often crossed. As long as there are points of contact between people, there can be no complete separation between different organisations and enterprises.”

This can concern both ideas and more concrete tasks.

“A researcher may have an idea on how they can improve a product to make it more commercially viable, but which may not be conducive to a research project. But it can also be about more practical goals, such as that a researcher needs to borrow a certain type of tool from a spin-out company, or ask for advice about a manufacturing process.”

In the spin-out company that Fowler followed in her dissertation project, the tasks in the research team were often defined by the researchers’ different roles. Senior researchers were more likely to work with applying for direct government funding, while junior researchers worked more with the practical development work.

“One problem here was that many junior researchers got stuck in the more practical work, and thus did less work with academically qualifying tasks,” she says.

Awareness must increase

The purpose of the dissertation was not to provide answers on whether this is right or wrong, but rather, Fowler says, to raise awareness of the situation, especially in light of the growing demands for cooperation and utilisation.

“We need to think about how we can handle this and what we mean by good research,” she says. “Is the commercialisation of research something that should be prioritised?”


Learn more:

Dissertation: Walking the Plank of the Entrepreneurial University: The little spin-out that could?”

Survey: Double roles as researcher and entrepreneur