Using Academia to Create Value for Your Startup

The number of “tech-heavy” and “R&D intensive” Indian startups has been growing exponentially. Amidst all the talk of Indians not having a technology and research DNA and a faulty education system, a bunch of technology entrepreneurs across diverse age groups and backgrounds are silently pioneering a real research and innovation revolution in the country.

In parallel, some of our best technical institutions such as the IITs, NITs, IISc etc. are getting increasingly sensitized towards entrepreneurship. This reflects in the presence of vibrant incubation programs in these institutions, professors and research professionals increasingly looking to commercialize their work and build market relevant products, and more and more students developing concepts and starting companies right out of college.

While the above developments are heartening, strong “academia-startup” relationships are still clearly missing. Startups are strapped for cash and have constrained access to world-class labs, equipment, researchers and other facilities. On the other hand, some of our best technical institutions have the most expensive equipment that is under-utilized, some of the best research talent that never commercialize their findings and some very eminent academic personalities that are clueless about how they can potentially monetize their talent and experience. It’s not rocket science that it just makes good business sense for both these parties to collaborate.

Here are some practices that I have seen a few smart Indian entrepreneurs employ to constructively engage with Indian academia for the benefit of their startups:

Build relationships with professors that are thought leaders – if you are an alumnus of any of these institutions, or even as an outsider, it’s worthwhile to build relationships with select professors that are considered thought leaders in specific verticals of relevance to your venture. Often, these will translate into more tangible engagements such as the professor working on a specific consulting project aimed at solving a critical technology hurdle for the startup, ongoing engagement as a technical advisor in exchange for some sweat equity, or the professor evangelizing the startup’s technology in global conferences and events.

Check out specific research centers/ programs/ initiatives – increasingly, professors and other academic staff in these institutions are being encouraged to work on corporate assignments as it improves the institute’s brand and reputation, in addition to academic benefits in form of research publications and patents. Several institutions, especially the IITs, run specialty research centers and programs to streamline these efforts. With some luck, there is a good chance of a startup engaging with some of the best minds in cutting edge areas, for a very reasonable price.

Engage PhD students on campus – Indian PhD students are perhaps the most under-rated demographic. The best ones are often hungry, curious, creative, looking for corporate/ market exposure and have time to spare. This is a perfect cocktail for a startup! Engage with them while they are on campus through specific projects in their field of work. The best ones that connect most with your venture’s cause can be potentially hired later.

Run internship programs for undergrad students – undergrads in these institutions are young, fresh, creative and looking for both work experience and exciting work in an informal environment. When managed well through an internship program, they can create enormous value for the startup at virtually zero cost.

These are some ways Indian startups can create value for themselves by engaging with Academia. A few words of caution – go in for iron-clad confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements before starting the engagement. Also, for research assignments, startups should ensure that rights to the resulting Intellectual Property should vest with the venture (for instance, a resulting patent should be necessarily assigned to the startup), with no scope for any royalty or other claims by either the individual researcher or the academic institution. Instead, academic professionals can be compensated through other benefits such as a flat project fee, sweat equity, making the individual researcher a co-inventor in the patent filing, allowing them to present the work post-filing in conferences etc.

As an entrepreneur, going back to school isn’t that bad an idea after all!