• Michael Hilb

In Praise of Acapreneurship

How to aspire for the best of both worlds by spanning the boundaries of academia and entrepreneurship? The article aims to show how the entrepreneurial and academic worlds can benefit from a greater diversity of integration. It addresses the specifics and commonalities of both worlds and makes recommendations for how synergies can be more effectively harnessed. A taxonomy of acapreneurship is proposed through seven hybrid forms of entrepreneurship and academia. The article concludes with a call for action to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of acapreneurs.



Introduction


The opportunity to reflect on your own activities, behaviors and motivations does not occur often. An entrepreneur strives to understand the needs of customers. An academic focuses on observing the behavior of research subjects and linking it to theory. The task for this article is different: I am asked to reflect on my behavior as a person who, among other things, considers himself both an academic and an entrepreneur.


As with any role that someone takes on, it is important to distinguish between thinking and acting. While the former is shaped by a mindset, the latter forms a community of like-minded people, i.e., a sphere. What does this mean for the roles of the academic and the entrepreneur?


Being an Academic and an Entrepreneur


Thinking and Acting like an Academic


The guiding principle of an academic is the search for truth, even though everyone knows that the truth does not exist. As such, academics are open to debate and have the ability and interest to engage in discourse on any matter, weighing all arguments for and against a thesis. In the absence of a scientific method, academics apply the same dialectical approach to define how they arrive at a conclusion. Overall, the mindset is tailored to answering the question "Why?".


The institutionalized framework of academics is academia, the world of universities and other research institutions dedicated to advancing knowledge through discovery and teaching. As with entrepreneurial ecosystems, the academic ecosystem consists of those who provide funding, whether government or private institutions and those who use the money. While some of the knowledge consumers are also driven by markets, such as students or the public seeking advice from experts, the other part of consumption is purely non-market. The institutional environment is designed to avoid any market acceptance, such as the peer review system for evaluating studies, or the tenure system that grants academics lifetime tenure without market scrutiny in the interest of academic freedom. While there is competition within the system, i.e., who gets published and who gets tenure, the ecosystem is insulated from outside influences and is often self-governing to exclude outside forces such as market competition.


Thinking and Acting like an Entrepreneur


The entrepreneur is a well-researched species. Hundreds of studies have been conducted to conceptualize homo entrepreneurius. From all these studies, certain characteristics crystallize. In addition to curiosity and drive, entrepreneurs should master the art and science of identifying and seizing opportunities without being opportunistic. To achieve this, entrepreneurs challenge conventions and anticipate trends that others do not yet see, and are guided by the question "Why not?"


The entrepreneurial sphere, i.e., the institutionalized community in which entrepreneurs operate, can be described as any ecosystem in which new institutions are created, whether in the form of a business, a social movement, or a political party. In all cases, entrepreneurs succeed in gaining a following and creating either wealth, an ideology, or power. To achieve this, entrepreneurs are embedded in an ecosystem consisting of the providers of capital, talent, and services, alliance partners, and those who consume the outcome of entrepreneurial activities. The ecosystem partners are often well-developed institutions, such as venture capital or fundraising organizations, that stand on their own. As a result, competition is fierce in this ecosystem, promoting those that add value and crushing the others that do not.


Combining the Worlds of Academia and Entrepreneurship


How can we best leverage insights from the entrepreneurial and academic worlds? We will explore different approaches to connecting the two worlds by considering the academic who applies an entrepreneurial mindset, the entrepreneur who thinks like an academic, and finally defining the boundary-spanning acapreneur who bridges the boundaries of entrepreneurial and academic thought and action. In this way, we will offer a simple taxonomy of acapreneurship by defining in which domain the discovery and dissemination of knowledge takes place.


The Entrepreneurial Academic


An academic is not an academic: Academics find various ways to apply the entrepreneurial mindset to excel in their field:


Capture a market niche

Identifying a scientific area and, within it, a research gap is the core of any scientific investigation and positioning. As in any market, there is supply and demand in scientific inquiry. While there are many incentives for researchers to focus on hot topics, whether for funding, career advancement, or attention, these topics tend to attract many peers, making it highly competitive to get noticed and published. Consequently, scientists who anticipate trending topics and understand the market for scientific knowledge are well prepared to identify scientific opportunities earlier and thus take advantage of them.


Understand the target audience

Another trait of an entrepreneur is customer-centricity. This is not just an intellectual conviction, but a matter of survival for an entrepreneur. If the customer is not willing to pay for a product or service, the business will not survive. An entrepreneurial academic understands these mechanisms and strives to understand the different audiences he or she must address to be successful: the scientific community, school administrators, students, funders, or the public. Because the expectations of the various audiences are different, an entrepreneurial scientist recognizes and responds to these differences by exceeding their respective expectations.


Succeed with scarce resources

There are few academics who do not complain about a lack of funding or at least have many ideas on how to invest additional funds in their research. In this sense, an academic shares the fate of an early-stage entrepreneur: having limited financial resources, he or she must be creative to make the best use of the restricted finances available. Constrained resources often lead to a competitive advantage, as entrepreneurs must take a lean and agile approach for the sake of survival. Scientists who see resource scarcity as an opportunity for agility and speed can achieve the same advantage over large, well-funded research consortia, which often lack speed and agility and are not infrequently shaped by political machinations and struggles for power and money.


The Academic Entrepreneur


Since academics can learn from entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs are advised to draw inspiration from the academic mindset to become even more effective and successful as entrepreneurs.


Think in terms of hypotheses

A core competency of any scientist, whether in the natural or social sciences, is to generate meaningful hypotheses that can be empirically tested with rigor. Hypotheses are at the heart of the deductive approach to research, a key concept for ensuring progress in the creation and validation of knowledge. Given scarce resources and lack of prior experience, the ability to derive meaningful hypotheses about products and markets is critical to the success or failure of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs as academics simply cannot afford to derive all knowledge in a purely inductive approach.


Apply evidence-based reasoning

Equally important as thinking in hypotheses is testing them. Here, successful entrepreneurs often borrow from the book of a thorough researcher, relying entirely on data rather than gut instinct to reach their conclusions. Empirical evidence is at the heart of scientific thinking, as it should be when testing in a business context where the results of such tests can lead to significant changes in strategic direction, i.e., realignment.


Understand complex systems

Finally, the ability of scientists to deal with complex systems and multidimensional explanatory patterns is another transferable skill that can prove valuable to an entrepreneur. He or she is typically dealing with several complex systems simultaneously, e.g., the market, the investment opportunity, regulation, etc., and must find ways to mentally simplify the complexity without lapsing into simplistic reasoning. This ability also enables entrepreneurs to construct meaningful theories about the various systems that allow them to anticipate dynamics that might directly affect their venture.


The Boundary-spanning Acapreneur


While the patterns described above can be effective, the real power of combining the two approaches lies in new business models. Five models are described below that are the result of overcoming the boundary between entrepreneurial and academic mindsets and spheres:


The Intellectual Property Realtor

Treating the result of scientific investigation, the scientific discovery, as the product of a venture can be seen as a first type of acapreneurship. In this model, the scientific discovery is considered intellectual property (IP) that can be traded, i.e., sold, licensed, or given away for free. The IP entrepreneur must identify and exploit opportunities where their product can add more value than competing IP products. In this model, the product comes from academia, while its application is clearly rooted in entrepreneurship, requiring both an academic and an entrepreneurial mindset. As a result, this acapreneur seeks to break through the entrepreneurial sphere by offering better science-based technology.


The Education Venture Builder

The educational entrepreneur model is related to the intellectual property model in that the product of an entrepreneurial venture is scientific in nature. Unlike the IP model, the acapreneur does not primarily market codified knowledge, but rather a process that enables others to become more effective. Moreover, the educational entrepreneur competes in the core area. As a result, this acapreneur seeks to disrupt the academic sphere by offering an alternative model of education.


The Venture-driven Inventor

The venture-driven inventor approach aims to drive scientific discoveries through entrepreneurship. In this model, a company is created specifically to enable scientific discoveries that would not be possible in a traditional scientific setting. Well-known examples include the space ventures of some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs. While their ventures aim to advance science, their goal is to convert the discovery into a new business. As a result, this acapreneur seeks to disrupt the entrepreneurial sphere.


The Data-venture Empiricist

Partially related to the former model, but still distinct, is the data-venture model. In this approach, a company is created with the objective of collecting empirical data that can be used by researchers to expand their knowledge. Such an enterprise is necessary because there are no other organizations that have, or are willing to share, the relevant data. This is another case where the acapreneur is attempting to disrupt the academic sphere.


The Thought Leader

Finally, there is a model that seeks to intervene neither directly in the entrepreneurial nor in the academic sphere, but rather in the court of public opinion. The thought leader model aims to combine the perceived need for knowledge from the entrepreneurial sphere with the knowledge generated in the academic sphere. In this sense, it translates the "E" into the "U" of knowledge, to use the music metaphor [1]. As a result, the entrepreneur seeks to disrupt the public sphere, which indirectly affects both the entrepreneurial and academic spheres.


Conclusions


Acapreneurship, as outlined above, can take many forms and shades, depending on how the academic and entrepreneurial spheres are influenced, but also depending on the mindset applied. In summary, we have outlined seven types of acapreneurship, providing a simple taxonomy of acapreneurship.


A Taxonomy of Acapreneurship.


These different types of acapreneurship share an underlying logic; that combining the best of both worlds leads to value-added results, whether it is simply a complementary mindset or a true boundary-crossing. In many cases, the results are not just added creativity and innovation, but real progress and contributions in the respective fields.


The benefits of such behavior are often acknowledged, but so are the obstacles faced by true acapreneurs. Some of those deeply rooted in one of the spheres and lacking experience and exposure to other contexts may see the value in combining different perspectives or fear the disruptive power of such combinations. Although such a taxonomy may prove persuasive to some of them, the real power of acapreneurship can only be experienced when acapreneurship becomes a personal endeavor and not just a theoretical construct.

 

[1] The division of music into serious music (E for “ernst”) and light music (U for “unterhaltend”) is a classification scheme for evaluating music in Germany. The classification plays an important role not only in remuneration in a public redistribution system, but also in public discourse about culture.

 

This article appeared as a chapter in the book Academic and Educational Entrepreneurship in October 2022.