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Communications of the ACM

ACM Careers

Why Is It So Hard for Scholars to Launch Startups?

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One concern is that rewarding entrepreneurial achievements might lead to reduced research output.

There are challenges faced by those who develop entrepreneurial interests from within academia, a world that may be ill equipped to accommodate them.

While existing support structures work reasonably well for faculty members dabbling in innovation, there is no long-term road map for more involved scholar-entrepreneurs, forcing many early-career scholars to eventually choose between one or the other.

Tiffany St. Bernard, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell Tech, is at this fork in the road. St. Bernard is hesitant to try building her beauty tech computer vision company as a faculty member. She's seen how entrepreneurially inclined professors struggle to straddle the two worlds. She's also worried that waiting until after tenure to launch her startup would lower her chances of success.

While both research and innovation can advance the academic mission, they can clash when it comes to issues such as research transparency. "To get tenure, you have to publish. So being an academic and trying to run a business, you can't publish, because now you're publishing your secret sauce," says Eunice Yang, who resigned as a tenured professor at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown to form a startup.

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