New study reveals how universities affect business innovation

A new study reveals that university involvement in the development of business innovation isn't always positive. Photo credit: Dayday Wynn

By Megan Rule | Staff Writer

A recent study by a Baylor professor and a University of Bath professor looks deeper into the definition of a university.

“As universities get into more things like business creation, does that detract from the main mission?” said Dr. Peter Klein, professor of entrepreneurship and co-author of the study. “The study forces us to step back and ask bigger questions. What is a university? What is its purpose and what is it supposed to do?”

A study titled “The Effects of Academic Incubators on University Innovation” analyzed the impacts of academic incubators on the quality of innovations produced by a sample of United States research-intensive universities.

Academic incubators are both programs and physical locations in which people who want to start a business or a company can get help with office space, lab space, advising and consulting, Klein said. Incubators also offer networking events where people can meet potential funders and employees.

Basically, the incubator follows the idea that, just like a chick needs the sunlight and warmth to grow, businesses also need to be nurtured to grow, Klein said. The academic incubator is a location that can incubate businesses in the same way.

Klein co-authored the study with Dr. Christos Kolympiris, associate professor at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

“We weren’t hoping to find anything new,” Kolympiris said. “It was a phenomenon-driven study.”

Klein said the study looked at a question that hasn’t received much attention: “When a university decides to emphasize things like business creation, what happens to other activities on campus that are also geared towards innovation and entrepreneurship?” The study focused on how emphasizing business incubation affects entrepreneurship teaching programs research and specifically, the quality of research done on other parts of campus once incubators are in place.

“I found most interesting the fact that universities are placing so much emphasis on these things, that they patent as much as they do and place emphasis on helping entrepreneurs,” Klein said. “I think it’s great, but at first glance you might think it’s odd that they place so much emphasis on those kinds of things. It doesn’t seem like that might square with the traditional mission of universities.”

Kolympiris said the study was done to connect the trends in research and incubators on a university campus. This connection was found through looking at the quality of research done and the quality of patents made by the university on other parts of campus outside the business incubators. Baylor was not one of the universities studied.

“I found it most interesting that we found negative relationships,” Kolympiris said. “That the establishment of incubators is correlated with a deduction in licensing income with the quality of innovations coming out of universities, which was not what we were expecting.”

Klein said the study does not say that incubators are bad at all, and it certainly does not say that universities should not establish incubators. The average patent quality falls after an incubator, but incubators have lots of benefits besides creating companies, Klein said. These benefits include opportunities for work and internships for students, the educational experience. It benefits the economy, and professors who are scientists would want to work at a university with an incubator because the business start-up is there.

“We are not claiming that the effect could be true for every single university in the sample,” Kolympiris said. “There are some universities that will benefit from having an incubator and some that will lose. What we found is the average effect, so on average there is a deduction in licensing. You have to interpret our findings keeping in mind that we focus on a specific sample of universities.”