Research Ventures
© 7 May 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Is academic research like venture capital investments?


I once I have been wracking my brain to figure out when and where. My best guess was it was a BYU CS department colloquium. heard a presentation on venture capital. The basic model, as it was presented there, is this. You find fifty bright people with cool sounding ideas. You given them each a million dollars and then start hounding them to work as hard as they can. A year later you cut off forty-five of them and give another million or two to the other five. Another year or two and one of those five will have actually gotten market share and you can sell it for a few hundred million dollars.

There is an interesting assumption embedded in that model of investment: there is no way to tell which ideas are good until after they’ve been funded. We can invest in people who are 98% likely to fail One of the points of the speaker was that it isn’t clear if they are inherently 98% likely to fail or just pushed there by impatient investors. and still end up several-fold richer than we were to begin with.

Is funding academic research like investing in venture capital? It surely seems to be true that the vast majority of academic research results are of little if any use, never cited and almost instantly forgotten. But when something does come along that is good, solid research it can influence myriad people in significant ways.

If research ventures are as unpredictable as venture capital, isn’t it dishonest to have researchers write about every project as if it were a success? Shouldn’t failure be expected and carry no stigma? Don’t we need some definition of a good researcher independent of their results?

Either venture capital and academic research are not well compared, or academia doesn’t know how to react to its own principle activity.

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