Innovation vs. Entrepreneurship in Academic Medicine: It’s Not Either Or, It’s And and And!

In our quest to make innovation and entrepreneurship a natural and expected academic behavior to accelerate great ideas toward patient impact, my team and I have begun to talk about barriers that make it difficult for innovators in university-based Academic Medical Centers (AMCs) to engage. I have received feedback both internally and externally (including some outright flack) regarding combining the terms.

A good bit of of this has come from traditionalists inside the AMC. For example, many academic scientists feel they are innovating by virtue of making fundamental discoveries, but think of this activity as completely separate and distinct from entrepreneurship. Indeed, they do not feel compelled to think about the transition of this new knowledge into anything other than an outward-facing communication to the world of science (read: publication) or perhaps another grant. Others feel they are producing new knowledge that is innovative and inherently distributive (can be provided broadly to others in many forms to make a difference) but feel they are not entrepreneurs because they have not commercialized that knowledge as a product. In essence, within the university setting, “entrepreneurship” is often separated from “innovation” and many flat out disdain the association of the two.

From outside the university, I have heard from traditionalists in industry (including the startup world and large biotech) who reinforce a lot of this as they, too, see a definitive difference between “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” and suggest that innovators should stay in their own swim lane and do what they do best and allow entrepreneurs to do the same. In short, this reinforces the above notion that the two are necessarily separate, making many innovators within the AMC feel uncomfortable identifying as entrepreneurs. I think this is shortsighted, propagates stereotypes, and produces unnecessary, and even harmful, cultural barriers, especially within the basic sciences.

To be certain, there are differences between hardcore innovators and hardcore entrepreneurs and by and large, there is merit to the argument that those who can do both well are really, really rare (like the Golden Tabby Tiger and Javan Rhino, but not as rare as unicorns).  After all, there can be a difference between great chefs and great restaurateurs, actors and directors, musicians and producers, etc.  There are a few that are great at both: Emeril Lagasse is both a renowned chef and restaurateur (I’ve eaten at all of his New Orleans restaurants – 5 stars), Clint Eastwood is both a great actor and director (I almost named my son Dirty Harry).

In fact, I would submit that if you are a successful basic medical scientist, clinician scientist, medical educator or other researcher motivated by the importance of fundamental discovery, developing new scientific techniques or innovative ways to educate, you are in most cases already engaged in entrepreneurial behaviors!  You want your new discovery, newly developed technique, new curriculum, new book, new policy, etc., adopted by others. You have journals, grants, scientific and educational venues, etc., to help you propagate and share your new discovery and message. Some of you are even monetizing these discoveries in the form of promotion and tenure (getting pay raises and job security), notoriety, and awards (travel and presentations), and in getting more grants and resources to let you do more of what you love.

Well, that’s exactly what entrepreneurs want and do as well. Entrepreneurs want discoveries and inventions to be propagated to the masses, in this case through commercial use.

In the AMC, if innovation is like your mom who says to you when your were a kid, “Dream my child, dream big, change the world with your big ideas,” then entrepreneurship is like your dad three years after you have graduated from college and says, “Hey, kid, you can’t just live in the basement all of your life – use those ideas and do something, will ya?” Entrepreneurship is the transition of your innovation into something that propagates and brings continued, sustained value.

In the end, innovation needs entrepreneurship.

Innovation that does not couple itself with entrepreneurship doesn’t make a lot of sense. It would be a practice that is divorced from reality. It would be like making the discovery and then saying, “I am not going to publish or present it.” It’s the same for those developing innovative teaching techniques, policies, or clinical care processes. Truth be told, these discoveries and techniques are products! Your research, discoveries and innovations are platforms for building your professional credibility that will be leveraged for bigger things. There is really no difference in the world of industry where entrepreneurs succeed or fail based on the products they are commercializing.

So the bottom line is this: You don’t have to call yourself an entrepreneur – you can just say that you have the entrepreneurial spirit (it will be our little secret). I just hope that you take a moment every now and then to think about how you could accelerate the impact of your new research discovery by thinking of it in terms of how it could impact patients sooner as a potential product.

Lastly, hardcore entrepreneurs outside of the AMC would also do well to cede a little ground regarding the definitions of innovation and entrepreneurship. I think the best entrepreneurs are those who understand the process of innovation and even though they are many times not responsible for the idea itself, they encourage and create a culture that promotes continued innovation. Such understanding is essential in making innovation and entrepreneurship a natural and expected academic behavior and a force multiplier for improving human health.


3 responses on "Innovation vs. Entrepreneurship in Academic Medicine: It's Not Either Or, It’s And and And!"

  1. Great article Kevin!

  2. Well said. I don’t see how we — faculty, staff, and trainees at a medical center with international leadership responsibilities — can separate our mission from that of biomedical innovation aimed directly at real-world impact. We aim to attract the best and the brightest into academic medicine. If we don’t then have the best and the brightest working on translation of medical discovery into products and strategies that directly benefit patients, who will play this key role? The corporate and industry settings cannot be the only ones focused on this aspect of translation. If we leave it them, we wall off much of our most capable talent from a destiny of societal impact that we cannot afford to lose.

    • Dr. Chervin…thanks so much for weighing in and underscoring the issue of REAL WORLD IMPACT as a mission of Academic Medical Centers like Michigan Medicine. Changing our mindset about innovation and entrepreneurship will greatly reduce the “Happenstance” whereby an innovation reaches real impact. Innovation leading to impact is a team sport, and as you point out,it can’t just be left to industry. Even within the great AMC, it can’t just be clinicians. It has to come from all who are drawn to the AMC to make a difference. By the way…to all of you out there…Dr. Chervin, himself is an accomplished innovator with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, creating tremendous value in the fields of Neurology and Sleep Medicine!

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