The silent rise of academic entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial mindset in Bangladesh
Entrepreneurship is not just a jargon anymore. In the wakes of Pathao, Truck Lagbe, Obhai and others, all of us understand what the term really means. The term 'Entrepreneurship' is derived from the French word 'Entreprendre' which means to undertake. French economist Richard Cantillon was the first person to introduce this term in English economic literature in the 17th century. But, the concept remained significantly under-researched for a long period of time. Another famous German economist Schumpeter had tremendous contribution in the field of entrepreneurship. Schumpeter's definition of entrepreneurship is centered on innovation. He said that an entrepreneur, through his/her activities, tries to invent new things or add new dimensions to already existing things. Famous textbook author Kuratko said that an entrepreneur is an innovator who recognizes and seizes an opportunity, converts that opportunity into marketable idea/s, adds value through time, money, efforts and skills, takes risks and realizes economic rewards from such activities. If we look at any entrepreneurial activity, we can relate that to the definitions discussed above. However, neither Kuratko's, nor any other entrepreneurship text books have really focused on the concept of academic entrepreneurship and its impact on the overall entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Academic entrepreneurship is simply the process of commercializing academic research. Universities in the world, especially US Universities, are far ahead in implementing the concept of academic entrepreneurship. Legislators of USA have also enacted a law called the 'Bayh-Dole Act' in the year 1980, to support and enhance academic entrepreneurial activities in the country. Every entrepreneurial university has established "Technology Transfer Office" or TTO, through which the activities of research commercialization is tackled. TTO helps the in-house researchers and students to connect with the industry for preparing a new commercially viable technological solution for the latter and/or commercially applying already developed solutions by the former in collaboration with the industry. TTOs also help researchers to get trademarks, licenses as well as patents from different authorities. In some universities, the TTOs offer incubator services, accelerator programs as well as training programs to the entrepreneurial students and researchers in an attempt to work as a meaningful catalyst of research commercialization.
What do the universities receive in return?
They receive financial returns in the form of onetime cash fees, equity of the startups which is built following research commercializing activities through the TTOs or certain percentage of the total cash received by any organization, created through the research commercialization process, during a merger or acquisition by another larger firm.
What do the universities do with this money?
They use it to finance further research projects. Therefore, sustainability of the TTOs is immensely important for creating a research culture and influencing the overall process of innovation through creation of new knowledge by the university researchers. USA has regained its technological superiority after being surpassed by Japan through successful implementation of the research commercialization activities. However, researches show that TTOs could not yet establish themselves as self-sustaining authority. One of the biggest reasons behind that might be the narrow focus of the TTOs. TTOs only work in the technological fields leaving out huge research commercialization potentials of business researches. Another reason for lack of sustainability of the TTOs is the unwillingness of the university leadership to see them as financially successful institutions, because, universities are not supposed to be profit generating entities. Other reasons for failure of the TTOs include inability of universities to attract enough entrepreneurial talents, lack of professionalisms of the TTOs which often leads to adverse selection, which refers to the fact that TTOs, sometimes, may fail to identify true potential of a research idea and end up selecting poor ones leaving out good ones due to the lack of expertise of the officers who are employed by the TTOs.
You might be astonished to find that Bangladesh has TTOs.
Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and University of Dhaka (DU) are the two universities who received funds from the University Grants Commission (UGC) under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) to form TTOs. They have started their journeys a couple of years ago. BUET has a website detailing the works of their TTO. However, DU does only have a facebook page about their TTOs and therefore, it is difficult for general people to know about the works of this office at DU.
Are these TTOs effective?
Well, it is too early to answer this question. The impact of TTOs is generally found through the number of patents which are created through these offices. In order to see the trends of the patents we still have to wait a few years. But, we can at least conclude for sure that a new era of academic entrepreneurship has been silently started in Bangladesh.
What can be the potential impact of these academic entrepreneurs?
To find the answer of this question, we have to understand the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem. Entrepreneurial ecosystem generally comprises of institutions which stimulate, support and help sustain entrepreneurial initiatives. In Bangladesh we have lot of organizations who are involved in these activities. Such as - numerous entrepreneurship development programs initiated by the Government, non-government and private organizations like - Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC), Bangladesh Rural Development Board (BRDB), Bangladesh Institute of Management (BIM), Directorate of Women Affairs (DWA), Department of Youth Development (DYD), Startup Bangladesh of the ICT division, Micro-Industries Development and Assistance Services (MIDAS), Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), GanaShasthya Kendra (GSK), Business Advisory Services Centre (BASC), BD venture capital, etc. The list of services offered by these organizations and initiatives includes accelerator programs, entrepreneurship and leadership training programs, information dissemination services, financial support services for the entrepreneurs. TTOs of Bangladesh are offering only a few of these services which include training the researcher on the activities of the TTOs, offering a bridge between the industry and the academia and patenting commercially viable ideas. But, they do not offer majority of the services which are listed earlier while discussing the participants of the entrepreneurial ecosystems of Bangladesh. I along with two other researchers SM Nazim Obayed and Qazi Mutmainna Tahmida have recently published a paper titled "The silent rise of academic entrepreneurs and their potential impacts on entrepreneurial ecosystem and entrepreneurial mindset of potential entrepreneurs in Bangladesh", which suggests that if TTOs are converted into Knowledge Transfer Offices (KTOs), they will be more viable. The purpose of the KTOs will be to offer stimulating services (such as - motivational workshop and trainings), Support services (Such as - incubator, accelerator and venture capital services) and sustainability ensuring services (Such as - lobbying for implementing new acts supporting the activities if academic entrepreneurship, developing new courses on entrepreneurship and implementing them at the school level, making sure that KTOs are increasing its horizon of services like - introducing business consultancy services) will create a huge impact in the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem and the mindset of the potential entrepreneurs. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report suggests that Bangladeshi people have a significantly high risk avoidance tendency. It is higher than regional as well as global standards as well. Therefore, through establishments of the KTOs it is possible to create a support system for the students when they are still young. Availability of such a support system will surely erase any fear of failure from the minds of the young students. Who knows? Enriching the activities of current TTOs and implementing KTOs may give us our very own Bangladeshi version of next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Jack Ma.
Writer is a Doctoral Candidate, Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.