Turning universities into hubs for start-ups
The author is dean at Sungkyunkwan Graduate School of Global Entrepreneurship.
Korean universities commanding more than 78 percent of intellectual elites are gigantic suppliers of knowledge. Universities subject to Article 2 of the High Education Act total around 400, a large number compared to the country’s GDP. Intellectual property from university research projects are world-class. IP rights registration grew 8.3 percent annually on average from 2015 to 2019. Overseas patents increased 16.6 percent annually, overwhelming a 6.6 percent gain domestically.
The research work, however, mostly aims for patents. Start-up results from universities based on the patents are pitiful. According to the National Research Foundation of Korea, a total of 281 business projects were launched by professors in 102 universities in 2019, which amount to three projects per university. Seoul National University holds the most patents at home and abroad. But start-ups by faculty have been declining to 10 in 2020 from 15 in 2019 and 22 in 2018. Elite science and tech academy KAIST famous for lab projects produced just five start-ups by professors last year.
Professors do not necessarily have to start a business based on research. But Korean universities have long been too complacent. According to a website providing information on colleges and universities in Korea, faculty start-ups have been mostly a disappointment. Six out of 10 professors who founded a business regretted their decision. If so, how can research work inspire a business that can generate jobs and growth for the economy?
First, furlough or dual-profession rules should be eased to facilitate faculty members to start a business. Universities must consider a potential conflict with professors who do not run a business, and ease the teaching burden on those who run businesses at campus. They should adopt the so-called “course buyout system” so that lecturers can find substitutes to teach their courses. The U.S. utilizes project-based course programs to lessen the lecture workload on tenured professors who have turned into entrepreneurs.
Second, for faculty members to start a business based on a technology in examination stage, bigger funding is necessary. Policy funds are needed to back a professor in founding a business. The subsidy from the Ministry of Science and ICT for project-based business start-ups in universities is too small.
Third, graduate students involved in research projects should be encouraged to build businesses. Since many universities still value research works to evaluate professors, they do not welcome business launches by graduate students. But cases in the U.S. and Israel show many enterprises started by graduate students have been highly successful.
The presidential race has entered a peak. Candidates are pouring out platforms outlining how they can better the future of the country and living standards. But they mostly focus on spending instead of ideas to increase growth potential. To bolster growth potential, commercialization of R&D projects in universities could be a good option.
Universities must move beyond education and research to business employment and the application of research work. Universities must become hotbeds for start-ups. Presidential candidates and university faculty as well as deans must seek a paradigm change.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.