The Journal of Technology Transfer

, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp 33–51 | Cite as

Navigating the role of the principal investigator: a comparison of four cases

  • Donna K. Kidwell


Principal investigators are the lead actors on projects at the forefront of nascent technologies, yet few studies have explored the personal actions and experiences of PIs as they navigate their roles. I investigated principal investigators and their approach to new boundary spanning and entrepreneurial roles. Following a multiple case study methodology with a combination of interviews and observation, four PIs in nanotechnology related fields are explored in three dimensions: career and institutional alignment, boundary spanning activities and the tensions created in the still largely uncharted waters of nanotechnology commercialization. I found that these PIs actively sought organizational alignment that allowed them “to make things happen” while keeping harmony between the university and enterprise. The PIs demonstrated boundary-spanning activities, in particular a propensity for welcoming strangers into their labs in the hopes of finding new knowledge and opportunities, and practicing “good grantsmanship” to convert these new relations into collaboration. I found that the PIs managed tensions related to academic progression and lack of institutional support. Through this study, I offer researchers an opportunity to hear the voice of PIs on these topics and seek to contribute to our understanding of PIs as critical actors in the pursuit of science.


Principal investigators Boundary spanning Entrepreneurial scientists Academic entrepreneurship Grantsmanship 

JEL Classification

O30 O31 

1 Introduction

Principal investigators sit at the forefront of new scientific knowledge. While we have a mature understanding of their role as research leaders, we have not investigated how they navigate their role within technology transfer and commercialization opportunities. The ability to innovate and commercialize nascent technologies relies on boundary spanning activities that close the knowledge gap between the closed communities of universities and firms. How do principal investigators navigate their roles as researchers while working in the largely uncharted waters of commercializing nascent scientific discoveries?

In this paper I present the perceptions of four entrepreneurial scientists as they navigate their roles. I selected PIs that over-express boundary spanning and entrepreneurial activity in their daily activities, resulting in multiple projects and a high level of interaction with entities outside their labs. The study was exploratory in nature, using a case study methodology, including in-depth interviewing, observation and document analysis. The study defined an excellent PI as one who successfully won numerous grants, hired and trained teams over a number of years, and was recognized as a good role model by individuals interviewed at grant funding agencies outside their institution.

Comparing four cases allowed me to compare and contrast the perceptions of PIs on research projects from the perspective of both the university and small firms. Two are academic PIs that actively in engage in large research projects in major universities and work with firms outside of their labs. The other two are entrepreneurial PIs who engage in multiple projects to push science within technology driven small businesses and who work with universities to accomplish their goals. All four PIs are actively engaged in projects that feature nanotechnology elements, two primarily from material science perspective and two from a life science perspective.

There is relatively little literature on PIs and our understanding of their roles is not well understood. The National Science Foundation defines PIs as “the individual designated by the grantee, and approved by NSF, who will be responsible for the scientific or technical direction of the project.1” Beyond that definition, the role of PIs have evolved over time, with a general expectation that researchers take on the tasks of crafting, funding and conducting research agendas (Melkers and Xiao 2012; Shinn 1988). Roles that embrace commercialization, while initially restricted to star scientists, have diffused within academic communities over the last decades and are more generally accepted (Stuart and Ding 2006). For example, within the nanosciences, funding agencies initially encouraged PIs to take on roles as the directors of nano-laboratories, resulting in labs that resembled start-up companies with PIs in the role of president (Stephan et al. 2007; Mangematin and Walsh 2012). While the literature recognizes this shift in roles, it has not examined PI’s perspective or the characteristics of roles that include both academics and technology transfer.

To navigate such funding opportunities, PIs must expand their roles and take on activities that are beyond the mere definition of a PI. Krabel and Mueller (2009) examined the characteristics of academic entrepreneurs, noting that peer relations, ties to industry and patent activity are key aspects. While the literature recognizes these new roles, there is a gap in our understanding of how PIs navigate those roles. I propose that to successfully develop research agendas in nascent technologies such as nano, PIs must participate in three activities. First, they must steer their careers in ways that position them to accomplish their research agendas with appropriate resources. Second, they chart the course of their research through boundary spanning activities allowing them to identify and align sources of grants and collaborating partners. And finally, they have to manage the tensions stirred in the organizational waters as they move along.

Careers provided and interesting first dimension to start my investigation, as researchers choose where to do apply their skills and which roles they identify with. The search for skills and role alignment begins early in the career of a PI. Indeed, it may demonstrate itself as early as in the Ph.D. training itself. Mangematin (2000) showed that Ph.D. students design their research results according to their post-doctorate goals. Those that seek academic positions published in journals, while those that seek private jobs try to build appropriate resumes during their research.

Once they have embarked on their careers, research indicates that some researchers move between industry and academic roles, and that industry experience may help universities develop commercially relevant innovation (Dietz and Bozeman 2005). Mobility between these worlds is not a haphazard decision. Evidence suggests that scientists are thoughtful about how they engage with industry and its positive or negative impact on their careers (Lam 2010). This extends beyond jobs, but to entrepreneurial activities as well. Shinn and Lamy (2006) discovered that in some instances, PIs who created firms felt it had a positive impact on their careers. Fiona Murray (2004) found that careers play a critical role in shaping the social capital researchers and mediates their ability to use networks and build social capital. Her work showed that academic inventors bring those networks with them into new firms that are commercializing their technologies.

Spending time during your career in a collaborative environment can broaden the management and leadership skills of a researcher, as shown in the interesting analysis of Australian Cooperative Research Centers (Garrett-Jones et al. 2009) where they learned that scientists at the CRC found benefits in learning about IP, commercialization and the ability to meet deadlines. The research shows that career experiences are important, but it has not investigated how PIs seek out environments were they are able to align their research capabilities and skillsets. This research led to Proposition 1 for the case study:

Proposition 1

The PIs are actively managing their careers through carefully chosen paths and developing research agendas out of those experiences.

Research on boundary spanning formed the second dimension from which I investigated PI roles. Through their experiences in their careers, PIs form social networks that enable them to become accomplished boundary spanners (Murray 2004). Tushman (1977) identified the importance of boundary spanning roles in the innovation process, where he described that in laboratories, special roles existed that transferred knowledge to entities outside the lab in specific ways, thus enhancing the innovation process. Indeed, boundary-spanning researchers have been shown to have an increase in perceived competence and colleague consultation and this strength in technical expertise makes them effective at boundary spanning to external links (Tushman and Scanlan 1981).

Research shows that entrepreneurs use techniques in boundary spanning to shape ambiguous markets (Santos and Eisenhardt 2009). It may be possible that researchers in nascent technology fields are doing something similar. In the nano sciences, researchers have shown that PIs are being asked to take on new roles that include boundary spanning and new skills in seeking grant funding (Melkers and Xiao 2012; Stuart and Ding 2006). Within the realm of nanotechnology research, PIs have access to novel discoveries, and novelty presents an opportunity to transfer knowledge of value across boundaries (Carlile 2004). In this study, I contribute to our understanding of boundary spanning by investigating specific boundary spanning actions in Proposition 2:

Proposition 2

PIs in nascent sciences are actively spanning boundaries to accomplish their goals through their dealings between industry (small and medium businesses) and universities and this activity influences their grant funding.

The final dimension for my research revolved around the tensions created as PIs go about these boundary-spanning activities. Research indicates that researchers in universities experience role strain (Boardman and Bozeman 2007), causing dilemmas that require new management skills to resolve the tensions created in the dichotomy of pursing both research and applied scientific agendas. Rowinsky (2005) discussed the tension between industry and the freedom of the PI to explore a pure research agenda where timelines and treatment of data within a project threaten to negatively impact the study design and analysis of the PI. Link & Siegel have approached this from research on the productivity of technology transfer, where they noted that some scientists felt that commercialization activities detracted from their promotion and tenure tracks (2005). Other research noticed that an academic entrepreneur’s behavior is modified by their organizations (Bercovitz and Feldman 2008) and they are more likely to comply with local norms when they experience dissonance with their commercialization interest.

A PI’s relationship with their students can also produce tensions. As noted above, Mangematin (2000) showed that PhD students steer their work to align with their career goals. This may not align with the hopes and expectations of their supervisors. While we recognize that researchers engage in mentoring and are creating human capital (Bozeman and Corley 2004), attracting training and mentoring sits alongside their other research responsibilities. This led to Proposition 3:

Proposition 3

PIs are managing tensions as they execute projects that arise out of their role as a PI.

To address these three key issues, I chose a research design of multiple case studies, with iterative in-depth interviews and observations that allowed me to develop theory while working with data from PIs that were conducting commercialization and technology transfer activities. The PIs were actively participating in the process, enabling this observation in a rich environment where they were actively engaging in boundary spanning roles and in technology transfer activities.

My contribution is an expression of the perceptions by four PIs of how they navigate their roles through strategic choices, boundary spanning activities and the tensions they encounter as they chart these waters. I found that the PIs were visionary and chose institutions that where they could fulfill their visions by mobilizing their resources (talent, equipment and research opportunities). I contribute to the work on boundary spanning with the insights that PIs deliberately welcome strangers into their labs, increasing the opportunity for boundary spanning. They use good grant making practices to structure these relationships, which align their academic goals with financial goals. I contribute an understanding of how the PIs arbitrate between the tensions created when they engage in these activities. Finally, I contribute to our knowledge about the roles of PIs, whose characteristics are poorly understood.

2 Design and methodology

My questions centered on how principal investigators navigate their roles as researchers while working in the largely uncharted waters of commercializing nascent scientific discoveries. To understand the navigation process I sought out PIs who were very active in multiple projects involving both industry and the university and over-expressing the ability to successfully engage on both sides of this divide. I used a research framework focusing on three primary dimensions: careers and the PI’s perceptions of alignment in their organization roles, instances of boundary spanning and the related activities, and their perceptions and tactics for managing the tension between their academic and commercial facing roles.

A multiple case study methodology was selected to study how principal investigators actively engage in the commercialization process. In each case, the commercialization process is ongoing, making a case study an ideal way to address these contemporary events while observing the behaviors of the PIs (Yin 2009). Multiple cases allow for better generalization and enabled me to contrast and compare perceptions across each case. I followed an iterative process of selection, interviewing, analysis, re-interviewing and when the opportunity presented itself, observing (Eisenhardt 1989; Eisenhardt and Graebner 2007).

2.1 Case selection

The cases were selected through a process of interviews with academic, industry and government representatives to identify PIs with a strong reputation as role models and champions for their research efforts. I began with contacts at technology transfer offices at five large US universities, members of the Association of University Technology Managers, and staff at a large US State agency that grants funding for innovative technologies. All of these interviews probed general expectations around the role of a PI and asked whom they would recommend as candidates for the case studies. I researched the resulting candidates for profiling using secondary research techniques including web and database searches to understand their various programs, patent and publication histories, and conference activity and academic collaborations.

The nominated cases were analyzed and the final selection was restricted to allow strong variance and where their progress would be transparent and exaggerated (Pettigrew 1990). To achieve transparency, the cases were limited to PIs with nanotechnology related projects, with the expectation that these cases would have the strongest requirement for boundary spanning activities because of limitations in available tools and personnel. I expected that these cases would have clear and dramatic reasons for their actions due to the level of uncertainty and lack of maturity of nanotechnologies.

Pettigrew also suggests choosing examples that have very high levels of experience of the phenomena studied (1990). To this end, each PI had to be recognized publically as having an aggressive and successful track record of winning grant proposals and have a CV and web history that backed up their reputation. Figure 1 depicts the functional orientations of the four PIs.
Fig. 1

Matrix of PI profiles

2.2 Case attributes

The following control variables were used across the PIs: all were designated PIs in a high number of grants, all were considered successful by agency program managers, local leadership and relevant media, and all participated in projects related to nanotechnologies. Beyond these controls, the four cases were chosen with dynamic variations to increase the likelihood of variation in their responses. These variables included organization polarity—two came from academia and two from small firms. The two entrepreneurial PIs were chosen from small businesses, but with very different profiles: P1 is from a start-up company less than a year old (at the time of the first interviews) with only eight employees, while P2 is from a company with 125 employees that is a spin-off from a university. To ensure variation in the two academic PIs, while both came from prestigious universities, P3 is from a private university, and P4 is from a large state university. Table 1 depicts the profile attributes of the four cases.
Table 1

Attributes of cases






Functional orientation

Small business PI

Small business PI

Academic PI

Academic PI

Current title

Founder, CEO

Founder, CEO

Associate Professor

Departments of Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering

Associate Professor, Center for Proteomics and Systems Biology

Research interests

Material Science

Life science


Material science

Life science

Relationship to academic institution

Occasional collaborations with public research universities

Occasional collaborations with public research universities

Tenured at a private research university

Tenured at a public research university

Publication pattern

Every few years and based on specific goals of research agenda

Aggressive publication pattern for all PIs within firm

Aggressive publication style (including both academic journals and patents)

Aggressive publication style (including both academic journals and patents)

Primary industry segment

Nano-material applications in fuel cells, energy, battery technologies

Molecular/nano scaled therapeutics with focus on reagents

Nano-material applications in biotechnology with focus on nanodiamonds and nanopolymers

Molecular pathology and nanoscale tools for clinical diagnostics

Initial funding sources

Non-diluted public economic development grants, personal and angel investment

Self funded/research grants

Grants/sponsored research

Grants/sponsored research

Team size



21 (including students)

8 (including students)

2.3 Research method

I conducted the research using Eisenhardt’s (1989) iterative data collection and theory development approach. Each PI was interviewed in person using open ended questionnaires, with follow-up interviews conducted on the phone, email when clarification or documentation was necessary and observation in two of the cases (Fowler 2008). Table 2 describes the case data collected for each PI.
Table 2

Description of case data






Number of interviews with PI





Number of observations


2 (total 2 h)


4 (total 16 h)

Internal interviews


Marketing VP

Lead researcher


VP Business partnerships

Lab director



External interviews

State grant reviewer

University partners

Collaborator (1)

Technology transfer manager

Technology transfer manager, external collaborators (3)

Secondary materials

Grant applications, website, publications

Websites, publications, presentation materials

Websites, publications

Grant applications, Websites, publications, presentation materials

Each candidate was interviewed for one and a half to two hours at their office, with initial phone/email preparatory interviews setting expectations about the overall research efforts and topics of the interviews. Each office visit included a tour of their facility and introductions to the team. The first of the cases, P1, was interviewed in a preliminary fashion to allow me to create a protocol, primarily about their most recent experiences and objectives, so that I could formulate a thoughtful approach that could extend over later cases. Once the protocol was identified, I revisited the technology transfer office and state grant agency interviewees and validated the protocol with them. P1 was later interviewed again after interviews with other PIs commenced to provide iterative collection.

After each interview, I immediately captured and checked notes and recordings. I validated the observations regarding the PI’s histories and training against web research and used follow-up emails and calls when needed to ensure a convergence of the evidence (Yin 2009). The interview protocol followed the same format for each case, beginning with asking each PI to tell me their history and asking questions about their actions along the way.

2.4 Analytical methods

The data collection, analysis and structure were conducted in an iterative fashion. Initial interviews were conducted with P1 and P3. After the data collection was finished and the interview notes transcribed and reviewed, emergent themes were coded and documented (Corbin 2008). To validate claims from the PIs, I examined the material supporting documents (e.g., does the grant application or proposal show evidence of the actions as expressed by the PI?). A round of external validation was conducted after each interview.

After the first round of interviews I analyzed first level themes and crafted interview guidelines for later interviews. Themes that immediately emerged included open codes for organization alignment, mentoring, and the creation of assets to help build trust. These themes helped to structure the later interview guides.

Interviews with P2 and P4 were conducted and reviewed in the same manner. At this point, axial coding was conducted on all of the interview material. After completing initial round of interviews and analysis, I conducted interviews to address emerging themes. P2 and P4 both included the opportunity to observe the PI practices in the lab, where I was able to watch and observe the PI in the lab working with teams and collaborators. These observations were ethnographic in style and allowed for some interaction with the team. After the observations, interviews were scheduled with P2 and P4 to finalize the study.

3 Key findings

In this study I sought to understand the role of a PI within nanotechnology projects by focusing on career characteristics, boundary spanning activities, and the management of tensions created by hybrid roles. The four PIs in this study displayed common characteristics, despite their varying functional roles (two within academia and two within small businesses) and the variation of their projects (two in material science and two within life science). Each actively navigated their careers, crafted their research agendas, created teams and collaborations and managed the tensions that came out of their boundary spanning roles. Out of the interviews, observations and triangulated against available documentation (grant applications, websites, etc.) a number of observations were drawn about each of the original three propositions.

3.1 PIs and alignment with their institutions

Proposition 1 held true for each of the four cases (The PIs are managing their careers through carefully chosen paths and developing research agendas out of those experiences). A strong theme of organizational alignment emerged, where each PI expressed purposeful selection of institutes and movement between institutes as each career progressed. Table 3 depicts the various organizational structures for each PI as their careers progressed.
Table 3

Career progression

Career progression





Beginning—post BA degree

Engineer/research scientist in small firms




Career progression


Achieved tenure

Tenured faculty & building academic career

Fellowship/residency NCI/NIH

Fulltime academic, began research outside of tenure domain

Founded company

Product manager/research scientist in NASDAQ company

Tenured faculty & building academic career

VP business development research based venture backed firm

Current career situation

Founded research based small firm

Sold company, founded spin-out

Successful academic career, scientific advisor to small firms

Successful academic career, founder/investor in CLIA lab, founder of small research/consulting based scientific firm

3.1.1 Finding a place to “Make it Happen”

The study found that PIs are taking the helm and “making it happen” in their career choice, acting in executive fashions in labs both in and out of the university (supporting the work of Stephan, et al. 2007). For example, P1 moved between academia and industry throughout his career, with 10 years in a small firm before his PhD, then 5 years within a large firm before he left to work within a small firm then ultimately creating his own research based small firm. Having been in multiple environments, he preferred working in small firms, there are “less boundaries and less specialization” and you could “wear many hats.” After leaving his Ph.D., he had acquired the skills to explore and address a particular technical challenge and left to find a way to “make it happen” (a phrase used often in his interviews). In the last firm he worked for, he noted “the goals of the company were not to commercialize, but to provide stable research and development opportunities for the core stuff.” P1 ultimately left and founded his own firm because prior organizations did not have the same end goal in mind: conducting research with the goal to “make it happen” and translate research results into industry.

P2 began developing commercially viable assets within the university that were unrelated to his tenure projects or the goals of his department. “My laboratory developed lots of different assays and made lots of different reagents and we were in effect a mini molecular reagent company within the university. My colleagues from all over campus came asking for various reagents and I said, ‘you know, I could be selling these.’” P2’s know-how and ability to make reagents was enough to form the basis of a venture, and he did not need patents developed out of his work. He was very successful in creating the company, and sold for $273 million USD. Throughout the development of the company, P2 was very active as a PI on numerous SBIR grants, and his company was 1st or 2nd in successful SBIRs granted by the National Institutes of Health for his region. He began to cultivate an academic and research based culture within the firm, which spent 17 years building and developing reagents and tools for researchers.

3.1.2 Finding harmony between research and enterprise within the University

P3 found that he could very successfully run projects, in his case research on nanodiamond applications and nanopolymers, within a well-known and progressive private university. In his case, the technology transfer office is very responsive and even proactive in helping him identify commercialization opportunities. His current university embraces and encourages his work as an advisor and founder to nanotechnology related small ventures, and he’s found it quite manageable to keep a active and prolific academic career (with 82 citations over 3 years) while consulting to the new ventures and being a founder and board member a start-up firms and working as an consultant to SBIR grants.

P4 is a molecular pathologist who balances a large research agenda (the discovery and validation of biomarkers and novel drug targets) while nurturing the development of specific technologies on the side. He deliberately chose hybrid programs as early as possible in his career, recognizing his desire to live in both the research and applied space. He applied to only M.D./Ph.D. programs and completed his residency and fellowship at the same time at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. He chose the NCI/NIH because “I really saw the chance to do clinical and research at the same time and I didn’t think there was any other place that I could do it to that degree.” P4 is now at an institute that is very supportive of both his research and commercial pursuits.

In each case, the PIs had made deliberate decisions on where and with whom to achieve their ideal situation. Table 4 depicts the alignment each PI felt with various roles held during their career and an Ideal Alignment Situation for each.
Table 4

Career alignment in various situations


As an academic

As an employee of firm

As founder

Ideal alignment scenario


Intellectually happy but had a strong desire to “make it happen.” Felt commercially blocked

Financially happy but research agenda stifled and desire to “make it happen” was blocked

Achieved balance to pursue both research agenda and execute on the desire to “make it happen”

Founder, Interim-CEO and CSO of small firms dedicated to research and commercialization


Intellectually stimulated but felt the university was “a bad business partner”

Never chose to be an employee

Transitioned from academia over number years while building a highly successful company. Later founded two spinout companies

Full time CEO of a company that operates in a very research centric fashion alongside strong business culture of delivering economic value


Very motivated by academic setting and committed to staying within it

Never chose to be an employee

Co-founder and consultant of small biotech firms but career is firmly in rooted academia

Chose university that embraced his engagement with industry and had a strong culture of entrepreneurialism


Very motivated to academia and committed to it

Never chose to be an employee. However, he did chose an MD/PhD program and was trained as a physician to achieve the practical skills only possible acquired by working directly with patients

CEO of small firm to handle his consulting practices. Co-founder of a profitable CLIA lab but not involved in day-to-day. Scientific advisor but stays away from formal business roles outside of consulting

Chose a university and institute that have a very strong commitment to cutting edge discovery and very embracing of his interface with industry

3.2 PIs acting across boundaries

Proposition 2 for this study held true for all four cases, (PIs in nascent techs are actively spanning boundaries to accomplish their goals through their dealings with industry and universities) with a theme of the PIs learning to cross boundaries outside their comfort zones. Each expressed a different level of engagement within the polarity of the case design: with the two small business PIs, P2 showed greater university involvement than P1. Within the two academic PIs, P4 showed considerably more industry involvement than P3. Figure 2 depicts the relative engagement of each PI within academia and entrepreneurial/industry.
Fig. 2

PI engagement level

Both P1 and P2 noted that they used the specific scientific training inside their businesses and ran the businesses in a very collegiate culture. Similarly, P3 and P4 both worked to create an environment that was friendly to industry within their labs. Two themes emerged that will be explored here: one of welcoming strangers into their environments, and a second of “practicing good grantsmanship through thoughtful collaboration.”

3.2.1 Welcoming strangers

Borrowing the concept of the stranger from turn of the century sociologist Georg Simmel, a stranger is one “who comes today and stays tomorrow.” (Wolff 1950; Butler 2002). In this sense, I am using it to introduce a new actor that is not part of the PIs current project or institution, but could become so through future projects and forming a union through interaction. The PIs welcomed new people, in each case identifying and inviting specialists that are “strangers” to their working group with the hopes of creating a new collaboration and in the second, welcoming the uninvited guest, the manufacturing representative.

P2 works to create a “vital scientific environment” by inviting in university researchers to stimulate research discussions while at the same time scouting for new business development opportunities “you love it when you get a two-for!” He actively brings in outsiders with very different research agendas to present their ideas to his working teams. These engagements are not random, but rather are very strategic. In one instance, his team had an idea that required a capability they did not have, so they invited in a researcher to help them validate the idea. Ideally, such discussions result in “… highly collaborative projects. We had one last year I’m referring to where we wanted to visualize individual molecules where someone was going back and forth every week – he was working here, we were working there.”

P4 described a similar embracing of strangers into his lab: the manufacturers representatives. In order to stay on top of new capability and to identify new opportunities he feels that he has to maintain good relationships with companies, which means welcoming the manufacturing representatives that visit the lab. “Which a lot of scientists don’t do, they hate these reps that come around – they hide from them. I embrace it. Yeah, they are a pain sometimes but I embrace it. I want to know what’s new and if it’s really unique, sometimes I’ll partner with a company to get the instrumentation for free and do something unique with it.” Rather than avoid the representatives who were not invited to the lab and came out only to sell products, P4 actively engages them. “And because I’ve done that, and I have papers out like that [exploring novel techniques using new equipment], a lot of companies come to me to do that. And I’ve gotten all kinds of equipment and partnering and have even published with some companies.”

3.2.2 Practicing good grantsmanship through thoughtful collaboration

Another theme throughout the interviews was the mastery of the grant writing process (with interview questionnaires grounded in the work of Boardman and Ponomariov 2009). All four PIs described a process of learning to write grants largely through mentors and failed grant proposals. Each learned the importance of including relevant partnerships between industry and the university. P1 remarked that US agencies like to see relevant university and industry collaborations in SBIR grants. He sought the expertise of a stranger (a large firm), but in his case he used the university as an intermediary. He initiated a project at the university to validate the potential market interest in a technology idea. Using nano materials he could precisely control the heating of liquids and thought this might be useful to companies in the food industry, specifically soup makers. The university reached out to industry to vet the idea and confirmed with a large firm that self-heating cans of soup would in fact be innovative and a new product opportunity. The university researcher facilitated in introductions between P1 and the firm, which resulted in a letter of interest in future collaborations. This letter helped convince two grant agencies that P1 had a viable technology idea. He went on to win a number of grants and launch a new venture specifically around this application. In this case, the university was able to act as a matchmaker between the PI and industry.

P2 discussed good grantsmanship, and how he encourages it amongst his team, by asking the team to talk directly to program managers within the granting agency. He works to establish a trusted relationship through aligning his grant objectives with the agencies, to the extent that he has even given back funding on a grant if the firm determined that the goals of the grant were not going match.

For example, SBIR grants are given to firms with the express goal of creating commercial products and have been the subject of recent studies on the effectiveness of entrepreneurial grants by the government (Audretsch et al. 2002; Link and Scott 2010). “We were highly disciplined and we would brag that if a project was no longer advancing a corporate goal we would return the money to the government. “We are not a grant mill. Our purpose was not just to get some funding. Our purpose was to advance a particular corporate aim.” They [the funding agency] loved that as a philosophy; it’s really a highest and best use.” P2 was willing to return funding and in some cases asked the agency if they could shift the use of funding, based on their internal clarity about the ability of the firm to create a commercial success. This in turn led the agency to deeply trust the firm, resulting in more grants. “The SBIR program loved us because we turned almost every SBIR project over as a product.”

P3 and P4 actively participate as consultants on SBIR/STTR grants and actively engage industry collaborators in their own grants. P4, for example, collaborated on a number of grants with US firms and a firm that manufactures a novel device used in molecular pathology. The firm gave him a 50 % discount on the piece of equipment and their engineers worked to refine their software to meet the specific needs of P4 s projects. In one grant, P4 serves as a consultant to a small life science firm on their application for an SBIR, which hopes to use the equipment to develop a novel diagnostic kit. The firm serves as a consultant on the same project. Between the three, the two small firms and P4 at the university, they expect to be able to create a novel diagnostic kit that would not be possible without all three partners.

3.3 PIs managing the tensions of entrepreneurial science

The final proposition of the study revolved around the management of tension due the hybrid roles. Proposition 3 (PIs are managing tensions as they execute projects that arise out of their role as a PI) revealed specific tensions around academic progression2 and the lack of institutional support, and revealed that the PIs would seek other institutes if this tension proved unmanageable.

3.3.1 Academic progression: for the PI and the team

Two issues arose during the interviews: tensions with tenure and on thesis committees for late stage Ph.D. students. P2 achieved tenure, but on projects completely unrelated to the success he’s built in the decades as a PI. In fact, he began building his research pursuits in molecular biology on top of his academic responsibilities. “Apparently I had sufficient bandwidth to be able to do the research that led me getting tenure and be able to on the side teach myself how to clone and do the various other things I needed to learn to do.” His tenured position in the university department did not overlap significantly with the emerging research opportunities in reagents, and for a number of years he managed his university research lab while operating a company outside the university. While he did not describe a particular tension from the university as he pursued tenure, his impactful research did not find a home within the university.

P4 described tensions around tenure, for team members and PIs. “I think that you lose, in an academic health center, for example, a lot of talent because they don’t feel supported and they don’t feel they are ever going to get tenure.” He expressed that, in some institutions, an interest in technology detracts from being involved in science.

P4 expressed concern for aspiring students while building his teams, as a mentor for their career and in helping train them (Bozeman and Corley 2004). “You do get a lot of attraction to that but in some cases the best post-doctoral fellows or students are a little leery of doing that because those projects may be high risk. They go into other labs. I’ve had a lot of interest and in some cases I’ve not taken students that I really wanted because I was a little worried, because I knew how the thesis committees thought. I would take engineering types [vs. bioscience degrees], where it was much more appropriate to their degree. I’ve had to be self-conscious for these people. I could have had many more quality students but I was worried about them being able to get their PhD.”

P4 explained the risk and time to work in nascent and enveloping pushing science for a young researcher balancing a doctorate and early career. This is further complicated by the learning curve required for a doctorate or post-doctorate to acquire the technical skills needed in the lab for very new techniques. P4 described spending a couple of years “homebrewing” talent, “Where people need a biochemist to run a western blot – those are a dime a dozen – but you want to get one that can do protein microarrays? You might have a number of people who would be able to do it but they don’t have the confidence and they are nervous.” P4 strongly correlated to Bozeman and Corley 2004 findings as a tenured PI working with graduate students and with a favorable view of both industry and research on industrial applications.3

3.3.2 Lack of institutional support and recognition

Another theme that emerged revolved around the lack of support or recognition in some institutions, although each PI stressed that not all institutions are unsupportive. Bercovitz and Feldman (2008) found that researchers who experienced organizational dissonance tend to follow the norms of the institution. An example from their case is a researcher who disclosed a patent and was told that patenting was not a desirable activity, then chose to direct his efforts toward academic pursuits. In contrast, three of the four PIs in this study chose to leave their environments when their goals do not align with the organization.

P2 left academia recognizing that his research goals were best fit for a small enterprise. He initially approached the university technology transfer office and the patent committee turned him away, directing him toward proof of concept grants in order to prove his idea could be reduced to practice. Two years later, publications in the field emerged that made his work look more interesting, and the university patent attorneys reexamined his work, telling him “this could have been done as an exceptional patent two years ago and you would have owned the space.” “I now recognize that it is unrealistic to expect the university and their patent committee to look that far forward. University patent committees and licensing offices just are not that capable. That’s why we have small entrepreneurial companies.” In this case, neither his department nor the technology transfer office were aligned with his research goals of producing novel new methods and technology for molecular biomarkers and he ultimately left the university. In this case, the university was a bad business partner and the PI felt that a company setting was more appropriate.

When asked about his relations with the university from the side of the firm, P2 expressly discussed moving outside the formal university technology transfer routes, “A lot of people try and understand what’s the nature of how someone out in the community can interact with the university. And the university tries to create offices to deal with it, etc. I always bypass all of that and find that it’s an impediment.” P2 s description of informal technology transfer from outside the university resonates with existing work looking at the engagement of academics in informal technology transfer (Link et al. 2007).

While P3 found an institution that closely matched his own motivations and objectives, he noted that many of the skills required for his role were not part of the training he received as a scientist. The complex management of a team, sponsor and firm negotiations, and intellectual property strategies are not taught to scientists. For example, he noted that in sponsored research agreements there were often clauses that indicate ownership of the IP created within the project and future IP that resulted from the originating IP. “No one teaches us that!” he remarked.

P4 elaborated on the tensions between researchers and technologists. In his view, technology and science are closely intermingled. “My Ph.D. work was very technical, I got into creating a very complex method to answer what I believed was an important question in biology. And I then kind of took that further because I wanted to relate that to medicine. I can create an assay as we say to answer a biological question, can I create assays to diagnose patients?”

P4 described palpable tension in some institutions where the researchers who integrated technology into their scientific pursuits were marginalized. “… I get into my first faculty appointment…and you know I was a little bit of an oddball. A lot of people wanted to collaborate with me, and thought of me as very technically savvy. … I had a very strong biology background - a strong science background – biophysics, molecular biology, biological chemistry – I had a very good paper, a strong thesis and a very difficult mentor. I had a rigorous training. But if you “chase technology” then people think of you as “science light” – “Oh they create technology, they don’t know much about biology” and that was kind of, I think, the way some folks came to see me.”

A PI’s proximity between science and technology can be problematic in some institutions where commercialization activity can be seen as hindering their careers (Link and Siegel 2005). This tension led P4 to ultimately move to an institution whose founder was highly supportive of translational pursuits and to focus on publications that would offset the perception of his work as a technologist. “Some institutions are very conservative that way and it’s almost anathema to mix an academic bent with commercialization.”

3.4 PIs navigating their roles across three dimensions

The PIs studied in the case each purposefully navigated their roles, aligning themselves with organizations that supported their efforts, participating in boundary spanning activities to achieve their goals, and managing tensions along the way. The following table highlights these themes across the four cases (Table 5).
Table 5

Thematic review of role navigation across 4 PIS


Organizational/career alignment

Activities across boundaries

Managing tensions

Finding a place to “make it happen”

Features of harmonious institutions

Welcoming strangers

Practicing good grantmaking

Managing career dilemmas

Lack of support or recognition


Moved from university, to large firm, to small firm, to starting his own firm, in order to find optimal environment

Free reign to respond to market needs rather than being held back by competitive or risk issues prohibiting commercialization

Sought university teams to augment specific research areas and to help in market validation

Collaborated with universities knowing these collaborations were attractive to sponsors and a useful way to access knowledge

Made clear decisions to move in/out of academia. Found firms to have limited roles and ultimately formed own company

Found that the firm’s goals did not support commercialization and did not support his desire to get projects to market


Began efforts within the university and created a spinout

Hybrid of academic collegiate culture leveraging the rigor and rapport of academics and the business drivers and commercialization goals of a firm

University relations especially in cases where specialized knowledge and equipment can validate a nascent technology idea

Pursued strong collaborative relationship with sponsored and engaged in goal alignment and negotiating even after funds were awarded

Started activities while in university as a parallel to tenure work; opportunity to develop was greater outside the university

Finds structured university commercialization efforts an impediment and goes around them when possible


Chose a university highly regarded for being friendly to research and business and forged a strong relationship with the TTO

Responsive and proactive TTO allows him to focus activities on R&D. Work with firms is considered desirable and not a conflict of commitment

Welcomed new partners when collaboration led to new capability: e.g., access to new process to enhance materials and lead to great functionalization

Actively sought grant collaborations where opportunities expanded through partnership

Supportive institution negates conflict in his case. Issues with students and tenure were managed by selecting a “home” that embraced his activity

Found that the university setting did not train him in specific skills, such as navigating IP strategies or complex team management


Sought MD/PhD and gravitated towards centers that encouraged highly hybrid activities

Highly translational environments where movement from “bench to bedside” and industry partnerships are not seen as suspect, but actively embraced

Made a specific practice of getting to know equipment representatives that visited the lab and reached out to forge new relationships that would lead to new capabilities

Creates his own grants and acts as advisor to firms on grants to allow multiple lines of research along his agenda

Uncomfortable attitudes towards commercialization impacts doctorate students and can adversely impact who he can bring/motivate on teams

Some fellow researchers have a sense that scientists who are technologists are “science-light” and not as committed as “pure” researchers

4 Discussion

In this study, I examined four principal investigators, two from academia and two within small businesses, in an effort to illuminate the nature of their roles and reveal their perceptions of these roles. This paper contributes to the literature on researchers by adding personal observations from four PIs who are “over-expressing” the ability to achieve successes through navigating their roles between industry and academia.

4.1 PIs as visionaries constructing their research agendas

I found particularly strong evidence that these PIs were visionaries who mobilized their resources to enact their research agendas. In some cases, this meant actually being mobile, moving from one institution to another. They made purposeful and risky decisions to leave institutions that did not match their goals. While they showed willingness to work within institutions to bring alignment, they were also very willing to move to new institutions that were more harmonious. They also mobilized the resources of the institutions to manage their projects, including graduate students, research labs, industry relationships and the networks of their universities. They recognized when their environments were not in harmony with what they needed to accomplish, and took decisive actions to make course corrections.

4.2 PIs as boundary spanning brokers

PIs are engaging in boundary spanning activity, both to expand their knowledge through inviting and welcoming strangers into their discussions and to actively engage collaborations and practicing good grantsmanship. The literature recognizes that boundary spanning in important to innovation (Tushman 1977) but rarely looks at the actions of boundary spanning individuals.

In each of these cases, the PIs engaged in purposeful boundary spanning activities: seeking and engaging individuals they were unfamiliar with in an effort to broaden their scope and capabilities, and then turning the most promising relationships into fruitful collaborations. Each of the PIs took up a personal attitude of taking on external inquiries, where people approached the lab. But more interestingly, each PI had a discipline of seeking unsolicited new knowledge. P4 is a great example: rather than avoiding the equipment reps that visited his lab, he embraced them. He brought them into a dialogue of what they could do, and what potentially could be done.

This activity presents itself as a form of brokering across divergent worlds and disciplines. In order to see their visions enacted, they bridge efforts outside of their labs, sometimes into other disciplines on campus, for example bringing together students and researchers from other domains into their lab for a project. Sometimes they broker between the lab and industry, going beyond the scope of work in the project to identify new academic and commercial opportunities. To do so, they create alignment between their own research agendas with the interests of their departments, students, and funding sources.

One of the more interesting elements of this is their ability to weave together the academic and financial goals into specific projects. This may manifest itself in new funding for students, expansions of their labs, or the development of specific projects of interest.

4.3 PIs as arbitrators and navigators

Finally, I found that PIs are arbitrating and navigating among the various forces around them. They manage the tensions between the scientific and technology realms as it impacts the progression of their careers (and that of their teams) and the lack of institutional support and recognition for their efforts. This presented itself in particular in how they managed the expectations of their students and their institutions.

They recognized that their teams included students at various stages of their academic careers. For some students, working on novel and cutting edge project offered an exciting opportunity to push the edge of the envelope early in their careers. While such a project was risky, it also increased the likelihood that they could be part of very novel discoveries. This increased their economic opportunities as well through the acquisition of unique and highly desirable skills that made them more competitive to industry, or through the opportunity to join a university spin out based on a novel new technology. On the other hand, the PIs had to contend with students who had the skillset and academic training, but were not motivated to work on risky projects, preferring safer tracks that would lead them to complete their dissertations in a safe and predictable fashion. In this way, these projects share characteristics with new entrepreneurial ventures, with the PI acting as the CEO of a start-up venture.

While this is very interesting at the level of the individual PI, this also has policy implications at the institutional and agency level. Institutions could be losing valuable talent, simply because they do not foster an environment where the PI can thrive. P4 remarked, “Look, I saw professors - very creative - who invented technology and brought in tens of millions to the institution but felt underappreciated. And I don’t just mean pat on the back, I mean politically, having support for their efforts, for their programs, and have left and gone other places in other states because of that. I think that’s a real loss for a university.”

Based on these findings, PIs are looking for an environment where their work is recognized and appropriately supported (by the technology transfer offices in particular) and where thesis and tenure committees are cognizant about the goals of the PI when considering their careers and those of their of students and team members. There are also indications that training programs along these boundary lines might be helpful for researchers, in particular around IP strategy and the implications of developing IP in sponsored research agreements.

One final comment should be made about the relationship between PIs and their environment. The study is limited by the small sample and the nature of the investigation, and while the study describes the phenomena as expressed by each PI, it is difficult to draw clear cause-and-effect relationships. Furthermore, there is significant potential for recollection bias with these PIs, since by definition they have been asked to look back at their careers and experiences. Despite these limitations, the study does indicate a positive relationship between a good environment and PI alignment. It is hoped that this study provides a personal context for the PI’s experience, and inspires further empirical research on PI careers, team building and management practices, and their personal relationships both within and outside of their institutions.

The work of PIs is important: they push the boundaries of science and knowledge and in doing so create opportunities for new avenues of economic development. This is particularly important in nascent sciences such as nanotechnology and biotechnology that call for interdisciplinary work in uncharted territories. While work in technology transfer and commercialization is looking closely at the changing nature of universities, this study offers a new dialogue with PIs as principal agents in the process.


  1. 1.
  2. 2.

    Of the four cases, only P1 never pursued tenure.

  3. 3.

    Bozeman and Corley looked at women in their study. While this study did not inquire about the PIs work with women versus men in particular, but all of the PIs in the study had women in critical roles on their teams.



I would like to thank Barry Bozeman (Univ of Athens), Vincent Mangematin (Grenoble Ecole de Management), Severine Louvel (IEP Grenoble), the anonymous reviewers of The Journal of Technology Transfer, my colleagues at the 2011 Nanowinter School in Pinsot, France and Valérie Sabatier (Grenoble Ecole de Management) for their helpful comments of the previous version of the paper. Usual caveats apply.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IC2 InstituteThe University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.Grenoble Ecole de ManagementGrenobleFrance

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