University and the academic/startup idea space

(Note: my academia-related posts are strongly colored by my experience studying computer engineering. Other fields will/may differ.)

I am not shy about my opinion that universities should be more active in the startup space.

Often, when I voice this opinion, I get the reply that academia and startups are just two separate things.

This is true.

But are they actually mutually exclusive? Or do they have a relationship closer to our friendly Venn diagram?


I would venture to say that they look closer to this. Most of you would probably agree.

This means that there is some overlap.

Furthermore, this overlap is should be very interesting to universities. Why? Because businesses become the big movers and shakers of the world. They innovate. They create jobs. They generate the alumni that universities are so proud of. And more importantly, they generate the money that gets donated back to universities.

Where academia and startups overlap.

It is clear that academics should be interested in the red circle above; that is, the ideas that are academically interesting. That is the entire point of academic research.

The next natural question is: how large is the overlap with the ideas that are viable as a startup?

I can really only speak for the tech space, but that overlap may be larger than people think it is. Google and VMware are good examples of technology startups that sprang out of academic ideas. Many people may think that the big consumer apps aren’t academically interesting, but is it really true? Twitter is a new type communication protocol. Facebook is concerned with translating human networks into the virtual world. Apps like Instagram and Pinterest are very interesting from a design/UI/UX standpoint. I fail to see how these couldn’t be interesting academically.

The main problem is that most academics don’t make it their problem to work at the intersection, and even if they do, they don’t carry the project out to the real world. It isn’t really their fault. The problem is that it isn’t rewarded within the university system. But, this is a slight tangent.

Let’s not forget about that blue circle.

That isn’t even the whole picture. As of now, we have only considered the red circle of ideas that are academically interesting.

What about the blue circle of ideas that are viable as a startup?

Yes, these ideas aren’t all interesting to technical departments…

…but what about the school of business?

Shouldn’t that be their bread and butter? Shouldn’t the school of business be interested in all ideas that are viable startups, getting startups off of the ground, and then graduating them to full-fledged real operating businesses?

Of course!

What are universities doing?

Both of those circles in the academia/startup idea space are of concern to universities.

Stanford has understood this for a while. They have (1) cultivated the startup ecosystem over generations of entrepreneurs and businesses, (2) geared many business, undergrad, graduate, and design students towards startups, (3) spun up StartX (a startup accelerator), and (4) recently begun to actually invest in startups from their alumni.

I hope that in my lifetime, a few other universities realize this and place significant resources in this direction. It would do the universities, their alumni, and the entire world a whole lot of good.

P.S. This is post number #19 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

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