Educating Entrepreneurial Researchers

How can you as a researcher work to create impact from your research? The course “Research-based Innovation” aims to develop the entrepreneurial mindset of PhD students to increase their engagement with practitioners, and create knowledge transfer from their research projects.

By Tina Larsen

The course was developed by Engage after the Faculty of Electronics and Computer Sciences at NTNU conducted a project with the aim to form the future PhD education at the faculty. The faculty discovered the need to focus PhD courses on broader personal and professional development topics, like ethics, communication, didactics – and innovation & entrepreneurship. The motivation for working with innovation & entrepreneurship is partly to improve collaboration with partners in research projects, but also that innovation, or impact, has evolved as a key priority for many research funding schemes.

We see that both the EU Horizon programmes, as well as programmes from the Research Council of Norway demand that researchers focus on the impact of their research and their contribution to society. I think this is a healthy development, and I see no signs that this focus will stop anytime soon.

Eirik Medbø, Innovation Manager at Engage

The first pilot of the course

Medbø worked with Professors Øystein Widding and Roger Sørheim to develop the first pilots of the course. The first pilot course were held in the summer of 2020. The aim of the course is to develop an understanding of the link between research and business, and some steps to facilitate transfer of knowledge between researchers and practitioners. This is important for the PhD graduates in order to contribute in their future careers.

As a PhD graduate, you will be instrumental in developing future research projects. If you continue in academia, you’ll work with new projects in collaboration with industry or public sector. If you start working in the industry or public sector, you’ll often become a champion for research within your company or organization – your employer will expect you to help them put new research results into practice.

Eirik Medbø, Innovation Manager at Engage

Current PhD programmes often include various courses on fundamental theoretical pillars within their fields, different research methods and tools or instruments. Many of these courses are “self-study” courses, including reading lists and written deliverables. The course “IØ8906 – Research-based Innovation” on the other hand, demands active participation from students. It challenges by focusing on the output of their research projects, encourages them to take actions, while at the same time reflecting on their passion and ambitions as a researcher.

Important aspects

The course focuses on two important aspects that are often overlooked in current PhD programmes: working with getting to know and understanding partners, users or customers, and communicating potential value of research results to managers, decision makers, investors and policy makers. The course ends with a pitching exercise, where PhD students are challenged to pitch their research, while focusing on business aspects of their research.

Still, I think the most important aspect of the course is that we give our students time to reflect on some fundamental questions, like “Why am I passionate about research?”, “How does my research contribute to society?” and “How would I like my results to be used?”

Eirik Medbø, Innovation Manager at Engage

A smaller subset of the course has also been used as a training course for PhD’s internationally in the ERASMUS+ project “Training the MindSET”, with researchers in Berlin, Warsaw and Milan. The goal of the ERASMUS+ project is to develop cross-disciplinary educational content for PhD courses all over Europe.

Learning outcomes

So, what about the students’ learning outcomes from the course? Students who have completed the course highlight the benefit of learning to communicate with leaders, business managers and decision makers, and have already recommended the course to their peers. In the “Feasibility Study”, which is the final delivery, students describe how they would work to develop their results into for instance new businesses, technology licenses, new research projects or new industry norms on ethical service design. As one student put it at the end of a course: “The way the course forced us to view our research in a different way was very meaningful.”

Engage aims to further develop the course to be included in the degree for technical PhD students at NTNU, and the long-term vision is to establish the course as a mandatory cross-discipline course for all PhD students – an Entrepreneurial Mindset should be a prerequisite for becoming a great researcher.

IØ8906 – Research-based Innovation

Contents of the course «Research-based Innovation»:

  • Entrepreneurship from a researcher context: Cornerstones of theoretical perspectives
  • Universities’ contribution to society through technology transfer – history and current trends
  • Knowledge transfer – channels and actions
  • Student reflections: How could I realize innovation from my own research?
  • Design Thinking and empathising with users and customers
  • Intellectual Property (IP) and IP Rights – strategic uses within research and innovation
  • Pitching – how to develop a pitch, what to say and how to engage an audience
  • Business Models – how to create, deliver and capture value
  • Panel Pitching: Every student pitch innovations from THEIR research

Written deliveries:

  • Feasibility Study – how could you work entrepreneurially to realize innovation from YOUR research?
  • Reflection Note – Students’ reflections on the course and innovation from research