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

Abstract: Creating spinout companies (USOs) from university research is one focus of innovation policy. The phenomenon features in two main fields of enquiry: academic entrepreneurship studies, and literature on academic capitalism and the entrepreneurial university. Studies have explored the academic entrepreneur, the development stages of these nascent ventures, and the tools universities can provide to encourage and assist in the spinout process. This literature is however limited in that it is overwhelmingly concerned with resources, and little is known about how the USO relates to the parent research institution over time.The purpose of this study is therefore to explore social forces in research linked to a USO, and the main research question is: how can a social lens help us to understand some of the forces at play in research commercialisation, specifically through the early development of a USO from a parent research organisation?The case study is based on interviews and observations of university researchers, USO actors, and representatives from state agencies and a multinational corporation involved in a technology demonstration project. The sociologist Robert Park’s concepts of social groups, the individual within the collective, and social forces are used to explore the experiences of actors involved in academic research and industrial development throughout the changing relationship of a research group and USO.Five social forces were identified around the border between academia and industry, based on some of the concepts that seem to inform the actors’ understandings of the case at hand.An exploration of these forces helps to develop an understanding of how actors experience and negotiate various forces, and positions the results of the study in relation to the dominant models in academic entrepreneurship and academic life. Park’s concepts of specialised roles moves the discussion forward by considering how social forces might be handled within research and research commercialisation, and how such forces might in turn motivate the movement of individuals within and out of a particular social group. This discussion leads into the metaphor of the theatre, connected to project management literature, and research commercialisation as a performance by actors to safeguard the collective’s interests. 

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