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



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 



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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