by Henry Etzkowitz By Henry Etzkowitz
Universities have long played an essential role in economic development, providing the skills, training, ideas, and basic research that all countries need to ensure progress and growth. But how directly should an academic institution involve itself in for-profit activities? If it establishes its own businesses, or supports those founded by its members, does the university risk undermining its traditional independence and commitment to open intellectual exchange?
During the past two decades, academic research in an increasing number of countries has become a profit-seeking enterprise. According to the Association of University Technology Managers, at least 300 new companies based on inventions at US universities were formed in 2000. What began as a unique American model in 1980, when the US Congress turned over to universities intangible intellectual property arising from federally supported academic research, has spread to such diverse countries as the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Zambia.
Inevitably, profit-oriented academic science has become an increasingly guided process, assisted by university technology-transfer offices, entrepreneurship centers, and incubator facilities. Typically, faculty members establish private firms, often with students and support staff, while retaining their academic positions, and university administrations invest in legally independent incubator companies, usually in molecular biology, computer science, combinatorial chemistry, and other fields.