Skip to content

Is “academic” thinking really different than “business” thinking?

July 27, 2020 By: Alexandra Tavasoli

This post is also available in: Français (French)

Upon spinning off Solistra from the Ozin lab at the University of Toronto, the main piece of advice from my advisors was that I needed to switch my mindset from “academic” thinking to “business” thinking. They indicated they had seen this in many graduate students trying to spin off companies from their graduate research, and that I should be careful to be in the right frame of mind to build a successful business.

This was confusing for me as an engineering student, since, engineering is at its core, an applied science, meant to make pure science applicable in the real world. In fact, I had previously received the advice from one of my PhD supervisors, that my thinking was in fact too rooted in the application of the technology, and not academic enough.

With this confusion in mind, I went to the first of the MaRS course in the WIC program, which was on customer discovery. There, after having attempted to expunge all “academic” thinking from my brain, I was very surprised to hear the instructors tell us that the point of customer discovery is to validate your hypothesis about your business plan.

Confusion turned into suspicion. I had these cognitive problem-solving skills, and the ability to organize information. What was different in the “business” world? I did not understand.

Then came time to develop our first business plan, the hypothetical way our business would operate when trying to sell it to customers. Sort of like a sales experiment, you might say.I suggested building a process flow model to determine what our most economical case for business was. “Too academic,”I heard again as pushback.

Confusion returned, since this is how chemical engineers in industry verify if a process will be economical. As a result, meetings we had with potential customers and investors were ultimately pointless since our performance metrics we were selling were weakly founded and not flexible, and most importantly, we had no concrete and reliable documentation to show. It would be almost a year before this wheel-spinning got to me and I took this into my own hands and built a well-documented process model we could build business cases from.

My takeaway from this past year and a half of this confusion is that “academic” and “business” thinking are actually not different. They only differ in their framing of the problem, specifically that academic thinking is more bottom-up, whereas business thinking is more top-down.

The cognitive processes, however, and day-to-day experience of academic and entrepreneurial work are actually quite similar. Here are a few examples:

Problem solving

Academics read the academic literature to find the gap in knowledge in their field in order to address it.Meanwhile, entrepreneurs conduct customer interviews to figure out the ignored “pain point” in their sector in order to build a business around it.

High degree of ambiguity

In both academia and entrepreneurship, there is a great degree of ambiguity in the goals, path forward, and future success.

Gauging peer competition

Academics and entrepreneurs both:

  • Worry about their research/technology being “scooped”
  • Compete for grants/investors
  • Keep up with state-of-the-art products in their field to keep ahead

Given these similarities, is it useful to the commercialization of Canadian clean technologies to make such a cultural distinction between academia and industry? I think it would be more beneficial to blur this line rather than reinforce it.

Alexandra Tavasoli