Entrepreneurship Requires Cultural
Click here for a printer friendly version
of this article (120k)
The Advanced Engineering
Design and Research (AEDAR) Corporation
opened an office in Blacksburg in 1997 to be in close proximity
to the department's configurable
and custom computing research so that it can hire some of
the students in the program and collaborate with faculty and
staff. The first series of technologies developed by the company
are currently being commercialized.
On the surface, AEDAR's experience seems an ideal illustration
of a workable model of university entrepreneurship. However,
AEDAR president James Fabunmi disagrees. "It sounds good,
what is happening here at the Corporate Research Center - but
it is not yet entrepreneurship," he said.
AEDAR's mission is to fill the gap between academic research
results and practical applications of advanced technology. Although
technical advances can add value in the marketplace, they do
not always make for commercial success because they are not yet
understood by the potential customers, Fabunmi explained. "You
need to begin where the market is," he said, "then
bring it along by developing and educating the market."
He used Virginia Tech configurable computing as an example. "Virginia
Tech has the tools and the hardware technology. However, the
market is not ready for what that technology can accomplish yet.
Instead our company has only succeeded in selling derivative
AEDAR's current ventures are all commercial derivatives of academic
research, Fabunmi said. The flagship product, BioPIN, uses an
advanced algorithm to process fingerprint patterns for efficient
biometric identification. The product is derived from the Extended
Logic Information Processing System (ELIPS) custom computing
technology developed from earlier research. "BioPIN allows
the computer to use fingerprinting reliably and less expensively
than what is currently available," he said.
Another AEDAR venture, a computerized mobile bank, is low-tech
but lucrative, Fabunmi said. A self-contained bank on an armored
truck, it is currently being demonstrated in Ghana under a World
Bank grant. "This venture responds to the needs of many
in the world. In the Third World, banks are not computerized
to the same degree as they are elsewhere; people literally hide
their money in their mattresses. Money doesn't recirculate through
the commercial banks, and the economies suffer," he explained.
"We developed the computerized mobile bank by thinking backward
from what the market needs to what we can produce."
A third AEDAR product, Betacash.com, taps the BioPIN and mobile
bank concepts. "We're commercializing an Internet cash transaction
system that is more elaborate than current ones, but is intuitive
to the customer," he explained.
The commercialization of these ventures was hastened by AEDAR's
collaboration with Tech students and faculty. Fabunmi is pleased
with the results and is interested in formalizing a closer relationship
with the university. "What we have been doing with the configurable
computing team is a great concept, which could be more structured
and encouraged. We are hiring Ph.D. students who study on campus
while being involved in a commercial venture. A situation like
this could help Virginia Tech attract students who are the cream
of the crop."
"With its research capabilities, Virginia Tech has enormous
potential," he said. "The university has great technological
resources and great students - it should be thinking about commercializing
its technology in industry through entrepreneurship."
"If Virginia Tech truly wants to encourage entrepreneurship,
it almost needs to be born again." There must be a culture
change, he said. "Right now, there are some faculty members
and students getting involved in start-up firms that are barely
more than extensions of their academic research efforts, but
that is not enough. Entrepreneurship means creating and marketing
products and services that serve a large population of people.
It involves a culture change...The whole world is changing,"
he said. "Universities must also change to stay relevant.
"In industry, it is important to do things when they need
to be done. In academia, there seems to be a considerable lack
of urgency. We seem to be in different worlds. If the university's
lack of urgency prevents me from achieving my goals, our relationship
suffers, and so does the university's chances of entrepreneurial
success. I believe that relationships in business are the most
important elements for success. You can build a business with
no money, but you can't build anything without relationships."
Another cultural change that Fabunmi believes must occur for
any university to become entrepreneurial is the appreciation
of what activities are valuable. "In academia, individuals
are often looking for personal recognition and fame. In industry,
we are looking to meet the needs of others. We are looking to
help them, to create something of value to others so that we
get paid. It's not a narrow divide."
Universities that have been successful in developing their commercial
potential have recognized the importance of the marketplace.
"There has to be a commitment to the start-up firms,"
he said. "But at the same time, it is not right to steamroll
changes through without careful consideration of the effects,"
"Virginia Tech should be capitalizing on its technological
strengths in the marketplace." However, doing so will require
a cultural change, he warned.