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University of Houston: Tips for balancing faculty and founder life

Faculty in academia shouldn't be hesitant to follow their entrepreneurial goals just because it may be difficult to balance the two worlds. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Finding balance in your professional life and your dreams can be hard for anyone. Faculty in academia, hoping to become entrepreneur and start their own companies, find this especially difficult. Finding this balance is essential to having success both professionally and in entrepreneurial endeavors.

Amy J. Ko, a professor at the University of Washington Information School and Co-Founder of AnswerDash, said in a post on her Bits and Behavior blog that she found parallels between being an entrepreneur and being a professor that helped her start her technology company.

Here are four parallels between startup life and faculty life that Ko found striking.

1. Fundraising.

"I spend a significant amount of my time seeking funding, carefully articulating problems with the status quo and how my ideas will solve these problems. The surface features of the work are different—in business, we pitch these ideas in slide decks, elevators, whereas in academia, we pitch them as NSF proposals and DARPA white papers—but the essence of the work is the same: it requires understanding the nature of a problem well enough that you can persuade someone to provide you resources to understand it more deeply and ultimately address it."

2. Experimentation.

"Research requires a high degree of iteration and experimentation, driven by carefully formed hypotheses. Startups are no different. We are constantly generating hypotheses about our customers, our end users, our business plan, our value, and our technology, and conducting experiments to verify whether the choice we've made is a positive or negative one."

3. Learning.

"Both academia and startups require a high degree of learning. As a professor, I'm constantly reading and learning about new discoveries and new technologies that will change the way I do my own research. As a founder, and particularly as a CTO, I find myself engaging in the same degree of constant learning, in an effort to perfect our product and our understanding of the value it provides."

4. Teaching.

"The teaching I do as a CTO is comparable to the teaching I do as a Ph.D. advisor in that the skills I'm teaching are less about specific technologies or processes, and more about ways of thinking about and approaching problems."

Ko also mentions the distinct differences between the two are the pace, the outcomes, and the consequences.

Finding Balance as a Professor and Entrepreneur

Alaina G. Levine, an award-winning entrepreneur, science journalist, and STEM careers consultant said in a Science Mag blog post that the key to success is to find ways to balance the two worlds.

"Issues of intellectual property ownership, human resources protocols, and time management, as well as the challenge of keeping a delineated barrier between professorial and business activities can be difficult to manage, but these concerns shouldn't prevent academics from seeking to create a startup company," Levine said in the blog post.

How to Balance Entrepreneurship and Faculty Responsibilities

According to Levine, these are a few things to consider before perusing entrepreneurship in order to successfully balance professorial and entrepreneurial activities:

1. Know your priorities

"If you are a professor who ponders whether your research can be developed into a technology that can be commercialized, your initial step should be to ponder your priorities. Do you want to stay in academia? Do you desire a career in industry? Deciding these choices early on, even before the lawyers and university representatives get involved, is crucial to forging a balance and a satisfying career."

2. Figuring out what path to take

"To wrangle the options and make it through the multiverse of marketing and manufacturing without sacrificing professorial duties, an academic's initial stop should be their institution's office of technology transfer (OTT). The OTT can assist faculty with understanding how much time they can spend on outside endeavors and how it must be structured. Technology transfer professionals also provide insight into patent law and can help professors navigate intellectual property (IP) issues."

3. Managing potential conflicts of interest

"Once you engage in entrepreneurship, you must create a distinct separation between your university lab and your company's facilities. IP can't flow freely between the two, and neither can labor—your grad students cannot work for you in your group and intern at your company at the same time. Safeguards that prevent mingling are necessary for legal purposes, say experts, as well as to synthesize a balance between being in academia and being in business."

4. Getting a Return on Investment on the faculty side

"Even with a targeted separation of academic and business endeavors, pursuing commercialization can actually enhance your skills in education. The connections that faculty make not only help the students but benefit the department and university as a whole as well."

What's The Big Idea?

Faculty in academia shouldn't be hesitant to follow their entrepreneurial goals just because it may be difficult to balance the two worlds. Take what you already know as a professor and apply it to your new venture as an entrepreneur. Also, know where your priorities lie, what path you're taking, watch out for conflicts of interest and make sure you, your students and university are all getting something out of it.

According to both writers, universities and research go hand in hand and both are "of critical importance" to the advancement of our society. So, is your research impactful? If the answer is yes, go for it.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston this month. Photo via Getty Images

Houstonians are transitioning into a new summer month, and the city's business community is mixing in networking and conference events with family vacations and time off. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for July when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

July 10 — Have a Nice Day Market at the Ion

Stop by for a one-of-a-kind vendor market - #HaveANiceDayHTX - taking place at the Ion, Houston's newest urban district and collaborative space that is designed to provide the city a place where entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities can come together. Free to attend and free parking onsite.

Have a Nice Day is a creative collective with a goal of celebrating BIPOC makers, creators, and causes.

The event is Sunday, July 10, 4 to 8 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 12 — One Houston Together Webinar Series

In the first installment of the Partnership's One Houston Together webinar series, we will discuss supplier diversity an often underutilized resource for business. What is it and why is it important? How can supplier diversity have long-term impact on your business, help strengthen your supply chain, and make a positive community impact?

The event is Tuesday, July 12, noon to 1 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 14 — Investor Speaker Series: Both Sides of the Coin

In the next installment of Greentown Labs' Investor Speaker Series, sit down with two Greentown founders and their investors as they talk about their experiences working together before, during, and after an equity investment was made in the company. Attendees will get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important relationships in a startup’s journey and what best practices both founders and investors can follow to keep things moving smoothly.

The event is Thursday, July 14, 1 to 2:30 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 15 — SBA Funding Fair

Mark Winchester, the Deputy District Director for the Houston District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, will give a short intro of the programs the mentors will discuss. There will be three government guaranteed loan mentors and two to three mentors co-mentoring with remote SBIR experts.

The event is Friday, July 15, 10:30 am to 1 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

July 16 — Bots and Bytes: Family STEAM Day

Join the Ion for a hands-on learning experience to learn about tech and robotics and gain insight into the professional skills and concepts needed to excel in a robotics or tech career. This event will be tailored for 9-14-year-olds for a fun STEM experience.

The event is Saturday, July 16, 10 am to 1 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 19 — How to Start a Startup

You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable -- if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

The event is Tuesday, July 19, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 20 — Perfecting Your Pitch

Join the Ion for their series with DeckLaunch and Fresh Tech Solutionz as they discuss the importance and value of your pitch deck when reaching your target audience.

The event is Wednesday, July 20, 5:30 to 6:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 21 — Transition On Tap: Investor Readiness with Vinson & Elkins LLP

Attorneys from Greentown Labs’ Gigawatt Partner Vinson & Elkins LLP, a leading fund- and company-side advisor for clean energy financing, will present an overview of legal considerations in cleantech investing, geared especially toward early-stage companies and investors. The presentation will cover the types of investors and deals in the cleantech space and also provide background on negotiating valuation, term sheets, and preparing for diligence.

The event is Thursday, July 21, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

July 28 — The Cannon Community 2nd Annual Town Hall Event

Partner of The Cannon, Baker Tilly, has played an integral part in the success of Cannon member companies. Join the Cannon community for The Cannon's 5-year anniversary celebration!

The event is Thursday, July 28, 4 to 7 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

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