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Startups need to collaborate with academia more often

Posted by Chad O'Connor  May 8, 2013 11:00 AM

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[Editor's Note: Join former Global Business Hub editors Devin Cole and Meg Reilly at Lir on Boylston Street on May 9th for the "Toast the Press" event to show some #journolove]

[Editor's Note: In case you missed Global Business Hub Contributor Ellen Keiley's segment on RadioBDC earlier this week, you can listen to it here.]

How can entrepreneurs best harness the wisdom from academics, and the energy from students, in order to advance small businesses? Startups are successfully solving big problems, which is why people are moving here, taking risks, starting companies and creating jobs. There is an obvious yet under-recognized advantage to being an entrepreneur in Boston: the potential for partnership with top academic institutions and young minds. It is time for startups to fully take advantage of one of Boston’s greatest benefits, and work with academics to form new businesses based on innovative research.

The Opportunity
It is hard to work in Cambridge and not sense you’re in a neighborhood built for collaboration. Entrepreneurs are working 80-hour weeks to ensure their businesses succeed. In the same neighborhood, academics work equally long hours forging ahead with new research and innovation, solving 21st century problems in completely new ways. While both the academic and business communities may be extremely tight knit, they unfortunately often work autonomously.

As an employee of a startup with both academic and business-minded founders, I have had the opportunity to see this convergence become a reality. The work we do each day would not be possible without this collaboration. One member of our founding team, Kyle Thomas, is a PhD candidate at Harvard University and used his work in psychology to create a new way of understanding consumer behavior. This opened my eyes to the tremendous potential benefits of collaboration and what can be accomplished with it. Particularly in Boston, the collaborative partnerships potential is huge because of the strength of connecting the business and academic sectors.

The Challenges
One initial fear of such partnerships is an obvious difference in goals. Typically, academics are interested in contributing original research to a larger body of knowledge and it can be viewed as taboo to take part in business ventures. Entrepreneurs are interested in creating a successful, profitable business while being innovative and unique. These two efforts do not need to be mutually exclusive. Undoubtedly, there are some academics who take advantage of this startup collaboration opportunity but typically it is with big businesses or large corporations.

A huge misconception about the differences between academics and entrepreneurs comes from a communication barrier. In order to gain respect for the work being done within the varying disciplines, it’s important to use the proper terminology. While it is a timely process to learn the language and intricacies of another discipline, the investment of time demonstrates respect and elevates mutual understanding for synergy. Learning how to communicate with academics or entrepreneurs, in their own words, immediately breaks down the barriers of misunderstanding. This initial investment will pay off in the long term, as it will allow for shared insight and mutual understanding. I find that one of the best parts about working with academics is that they are always willing to teach, while entrepreneurs are typically interested in learning as much as possible in order to grow their business.

Call to Action
There are over 150 education, technology and learning based startups in the Boston area, taking advantage of Boston’s interest in learning. Still, there are many fields that have yet to make this convergence of great minds, youthful energy and innovative research a priority, which only limits Boston’s entrepreneurial potential. Boston needs to brand itself as the incubator for businesses and academic partnerships to encourage startups to team with disciplines that are typically hesitant to collaborate.

In order for Boston to continue to compete for the top entrepreneurs, and continue to grow the startup scene, we must make this collaboration of academics and entrepreneurs a priority. The startup community offers many great advantages, but why not capitalize on an area that is already world renowned? Why not collaborate with our neighbors with some of the world’s leading institutions and create companies that provide outlets for mutual benefit? This type of collaboration would provide tremendous potential gain for both entrepreneurs and academics, and our community as a whole.

Emily Dyess is Marketing Manager for TipTap Lab in Cambridge.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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