Estonia is a pioneer, yet science-based entrepreneurship is scarce

Surveys showed that not all scientists are willing to cooperate with business.
Surveys showed that not all scientists are willing to cooperate with business. Source: Wellington College/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The process by which university research is transferred to a company, which then develops a service or product for society is commonly referred to as knowledge transfer. A researcher from the University of Tartu surveyed the collaboration practices between Estonian scientists and entrepreneurs.

"If you are entering into any kind of collaborative relationship, you need to know your partner a little bit. A scientist is at the forefront of their discipline, but an entrepreneur has a superior grasp of business logic. The partners come from very different backgrounds, but by finding some common ground they can bring new value to society," Sigrid Rajalo, a recent PhD graduate from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Tartu, and head of innovation policy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, said.

In her recent doctoral thesis, Rajalo examined the cooperation between researchers and entrepreneurs in Estonia. "There is a great deal of literature on university-business cooperation in general, but there have been relatively few studies on the level of the individual level," she said.

Rajalo examined the grassroots level of collaboration in greater detail through interviews and surveys with researchers and business owners. She determined that the key to effective collaboration is symmetry in the relationship, i.e., partners with comparable levels of motivation and capacity to absorb new information.

The unknown fascinates

"The ideal situation is when partners share a common ground, i.e., motivation and receptivity, at essentially the same level," she said.

When collaborators have diverse backgrounds and expertise, innovative practices are more likely to take off. "Paradoxically, if the partners are somewhat alike, it is easier for them to communicate, but they have little to learn from each other," Rajalo said.

In contrast, Rajalo said that parties must agree on a limited number of issues while remaining genuinely "interested in aspects of the work of the other partner."

She said that effective cooperation requires two conditions. First, both the researcher and the entrepreneur must have comparable levels of motivation to collaborate, followed by the capacity to assimilate knowledge. And in order to acquire new information, you must have some base that the new information can attach to, Rajalo explains.

In other words, an entrepreneur does not need to grasp the complexities of research, nor does a researcher need to know how to compose an annual report. "You don't need to understand the new information immediately," she continued, "but you must recognize its value and be willing to absorb it."

Communicative scientist gatekeeper

Rajalo emphasizes the theme of symmetry. "Three distinct models emerged when examining patterns of cooperation: limited cooperation, good-prospects cooperation and excellent capacity for cooperation," she explained. The model with the most innovation potential is the good-prospects cooperation. It is the situation in which both the researcher and the entrepreneur are moderately, but equally, motivated and able to acquire new knowledge.

She was surprised to discover, however, to discover that the group of collaborations with the greatest innovation potential included researchers and entrepreneurs with limited cooperation practices.

"In my second study, I looked at the expectations of these businesses to cooperate. Entrepreneurs with a lesser capacity to adopt innovation expected researchers to be more motivated to collaborate than they were themselves," she went on.

Rajalo also sought to understand what motivates these researchers to collaborate, given their unequal starting positions.

Researchers with a pro-social mindset appeared to be more willing to participate in unequal collaborative interactions, motivated by the chance to help the entrepreneur.

They took up a role of gatekeepers in their partner company. "A gatekeeper has excellent communication skills. They are capable of incorporating new knowledge into their organization," Rajalo explains.

The so-called gatekeeper is often a member of the R&D team, such as a department head or an engineer, in larger companies. "However, it is difficult, for example, in a small or medium-sized company whose business model is not based on R&D, to do the work of an entire R&D department with only limited resources," Rajalo said. As a result, these companies are more predisposed to seek outside expertise.

Meet, discover, try

Rajalo said that Estonian knowledge transmission is marked by the so-called European paradox, which is widespread throughout the rest of the continent and has been recognized since the 1990s.

While academic research in Europe is of a high standard, less of it reaches businesses than in other regions. The United States, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan have shown to be far more competence at this, she said.

"In Europe, we have not been as successful in establishing a mechanism for transforming academic research into new products and services that benefit society as a whole and contribute to productivity growth," she said.

"Estonia is a pioneer in startup entrepreneurship, but these achievements are often not linked to pure science."

Rajalo said that a variety of measures to support the transmission of knowledge have already been implemented in cooperation between ministries. "However, policymakers can only design measures for those who want to make a difference," she said.

Researchers and entrepreneurs have to find ways to interact as much as possible and become acquainted with each other's work, she said, at conferences, theme days or seminars. "However, I would advise researchers and business owners to maintain a critical mindset. They have to be able to evaluate each other's motivation and receptivity," she continued.

She said that universities could do more to expose doctoral students to private sector careers. "There is and should continue to be a so-called academic career path, but doctoral students could also be shown that there is the need for smart researchers in the private sector. And why not by starting a new business?"

She said, however, that based on her interviews with researchers, not everyone has an entrepreneurial spirit. Some researchers reported having no interest to collaborate with businesses. "However, there were also others who had made it their mission to serve small and medium-sized enterprises," she recalls. Rajalo said there is a distinct group of researchers who wanted to become entrepreneurs themselves.

The fact that more researchers could be attracted to business does not negate the need for academic research, she emphasized. "On the contrary, both are needed, as applied solutions are preceded by years of academic research," Rajalo said, adding that societal expectations for science-based entrepreneurship today are only growing.

"Climate change, aging societies, urbanization, and various crises necessitate, among other things, novel, so-called 'deep technology' solutions that are scientific in nature," she says.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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