Academia and business don’t mix? A group of Austrians set out to bridge the gap, and business is booming

Great ideas are born in the laboratories, classrooms and think tanks of Austria’s educational institutions. Many, however, languish awaiting peer review and publication, become integrated into someone else’s research, or are exploited commercially by foreign businesses. Often, neither Austrian academics nor their benefactors – the state-funded universities – receive any compensation for their effort.

“Most of us scientists are great inventors but lousy businesspeople,” said Amitava Kundu of AB&CD Innovations, a startup spun off from his chemistry research at the University of Vienna. “Most academics have had relatively little chance to develop any business know-how during their education,” said Irene Fialka, who runs Innovation into Business (INiTS), a so-called incubation center that has sought to address this problem since 2002.

Fialka’s center is part of a publicly funded national network known as Academia plus Business (AplusB) that serves as a bridge between research and business by offering academically originated projects early-stage financing, counseling, help with obtaining patents, infrastructure and credibility, as well as access to over 150 research institutions, grant agencies, investors, industrial partners and startup alumni.

Fialka recalled a professor at Vienna’s Technical University (TU) who told her: “I’m no founder, that’s not my world. I have a family to feed and can’t take such risks.” Her center, however, was able to recruit other technical and business students to co-found a successful startup using the professor’s research, for which he obtained a stake in the company.

Unleash your inner entrepreneur

Fialka claims that Austria lags behind other countries in converting academic research into commercial businesses. AplusB has done much to improve this, she says. “We’ve dusted off the universities and unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit.” According to AplusB’s 2014 performance report, 86 percent of  the companies founded with its support are active and successful in the market, 3,420 high-value jobs have been created and close to €400 million in public and private financing has been generated for the participating businesses.

INiTS, which has supported around 150 startups since 2002, each with an average of €32,000 in subsidy and loan funding, takes no share of the business profits in return. In 2014, it was ranked as the third best university incubator in Europe and the 11th best worldwide by the University Business Index, a Swedish research initiative.

The path to glory

Although some might see it as exploitation, developing commercial spinoffs from university research can promote academic goals. A startup “is the best way to transfer research results into practice,” said TU Rector Dr. Sabine Seidler, adding that startup cooperations increase the chance of “bringing back funds that we invest in research” and “raising the institution’s attractiveness to students.”

Dr. Heinz Engl, Rector of the University of Vienna, feels it is “imperative that new impulses from research are brought into society and the economy, and that is best achieved through founding startups.” Citing the success of Ubimet, an INiTS supported meteorology research spinoff that now employs over 100 people, Engl believes that “we need many such examples to revive our economy.”

Might encouraging researchers to become entrepreneurs create a brain drain, diverting academic talent from the classroom to the boardroom? Amitava Kundu doesn’t miss the academic life: “If I want to, I can put my white coat back on and get back in the lab. But it’s more exciting developing new ideas.”

Another entrepreneur who benefited from INiTS to set up a robotics firm agreed. “This is way better, more interesting,” he said. And besides, “becoming a professor in Austria is nearly impossible.”