We study how becoming an entrepreneur affects academic scientists’ research. We propose that entrepreneurship will shift scientists’ attention away from intradisciplinary research questions and toward new bodies of knowledge relevant to downstream technology development. This will propel scientists to engage in exploration, meaning they work on topics new to them. In turn, this shift toward exploration will enhance the impact of the entrepreneurial scientist’s subsequent research, as concepts and models from other bodies of knowledge are combined in novel ways. Entrepreneurship leads to more impactful research, mediated by exploration. Using panel data on the full population of scientists at a large research university, we find support for this argument. Our study is novel in that it identifies a shift of attention as the mechanism underpinning the beneficial spillover effects of founding a venture on the production of public science. A key implication of our study is that commercial work by academics can drive fundamental advances in science.
Science represents a distinct social system dedicated to the production of knowledge, often openly shared as a public good in scientific journals (Merton 1973, Polanyi 2000). Science is also a font of technological opportunities and has proven instrumental in the development of many innovations (Dasgupta and David 1994, Rosenberg 1994, Cohen et al. 2002, Nelson 2004). An important channel through which opportunities arising from scientific discoveries are exploited is by way of academic entrepreneurship, where academic scientists found a firm to commercialize their inventions or expertise (Zucker and Darby 1996, Hughes 2001, Shane 2001, Powell and Sandholtz 2012).
Although the impact of science on academic entrepreneurship is well documented, we know less about the reverse relationship. Academic entrepreneurs often remain at their universities while developing a venture (Lacetera 2009, Powell and Sandholtz 2012). Many universities promote this course of action as they seek to facilitate the commercial exploitation of scientific discoveries. However, entrepreneurial engagement will likely impact academics’ core task of conducting research. Entrepreneurship may affect individuals’ commitment to research projects, and take a toll on the time they can dedicate (Buenstorf 2009, Jain et al. 2009). Conversely, there may be complementarities with research, as the entrepreneurial project may require additional research or inspire new research questions (Rosenberg 1982, Shane 2004, Azoulay et al. 2009).
Extant research points to a positive association between academic entrepreneurship and research performance (Louis et al. 2001, Lowe and Gonzalez-Brambila 2007, Abramo et al. 2012, Shichijo et al. 2015), with some exceptions (Buenstorf 2009). Regardless of this empirical ambiguity, we know little about the mechanism responsible for generating beneficial effects—if any—from entrepreneurship. Therefore, in this article, we ask: How does engaging in entrepreneurship affect an academic’s scientific performance? Given that there are approximately 1.4 million higher education researchers across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) alone, working on research costing 230 billion USD annually,1 the question of how launching a venture shapes academics’ subsequent research is highly relevant.
We develop an attention view of the effect of entrepreneurship on a scientist’s subsequent knowledge production. We pose that involvement in a venture shifts the scientist’s attention away from problems associated with a scientific discipline and toward problems arising from the commercialization project associated with the venture. Addressing these latter problems will create opportunities for scholarly contributions in domains that are new to the scientist. We characterize this as exploration; a search for new knowledge domains (March 1991, Rosenkopf and Nerkar 2001). We further argue that this shift toward exploration will enable scientists to generate more impactful research as they redeploy concepts and frameworks from the technology domain into the scientific domain. In sum, we propose that academic entrepreneurship will increase a scientist’s chances to advance science, mediated by a shift toward exploration.