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Employee Engagement in High-Tech Academic Startups

Employee engagement has become a key strategic concern for managers especially in the prevailing volatile and unpredictable environment. Most studies on the subject have focused on established organizations, especially large corporations. This is natural given that it is organizations at the upper end of the size spectrum that tend to have dedicated HR Departments and the resources to conduct employee engagement surveys. Ditto for undertaking engagement enhancing interventions that require considerable commitment and resources.

Startups, especially high-tech academic spinoffs, are a unique breed of company with their own life-cycle and growth trajectories. They occupy a niche in the business ecosystem that is susceptible to particularly high risk and volatility. The “valley of death” metaphor aptly conveys the difficulty of overcoming the initial gap from research lab to commercialisation. And given the small size and lack of organisational complexity of such new ventures, the primary concerns typically revolve around technology readiness, market penetration and funding. Human capital issues tend to be less well articulated, if at all, in most business plans. Yet, they may prove to be of vital importance to eventual success.

At their inception, high tech academic startups often rely solely on a founder or co-founder before they begin to form a more diverse team - provided they even make it beyond the first phase of their operation. Ventures may begin through minimal "bootstrapping" or initial government funding to reach a reasonable technological readiness with a minimum viable product and initial client interest. Academic founders typically command significant experience in research and academic credibility, but limited industry-specific, managerial, and entrepreneurial experience. This may create "knowledge gaps" which require the acquisition of relevant talent that can complement the founders' skill sets.

Beyond any technological or financial challenges, the founder’s values, beliefs, experience as well as working style are critical factors behind the likely success of a new venture. He or she typically leaves an indelible mark on the culture which, once created, cannot change easily. Indeed, once values, norms, beliefs and ways of working are embedded in the company, they tend to have an enduring impact.

Although there is no universal formula for successful new venture development, there are some tried and tested principles that may help create a sustainable business.

-Start thinking about people issues early

-approach shareholder or employee agreements with sustainability (not short term expediency) in mind

-Instil trust by being transparent and fair

-beware of burnout

The Stanford Project on Emerging Companies studied 200 startups to examine how organizational and people structures impact their success. The authors identified five organizational "blueprints" or "archetypes" and cautioned that, once formed, they tend to be hardwired. The five types were: star, commitment, engineering, bureaucracy and autocracy.

I'll expand on this in a future post but a concluding thought is that founders have a diverse menu of organizational forms or models to choose from, yet the decision process defies simple explanations as to how this "pre-programming" at inception is influenced or shaped. What we do know is that the choice is hugely consequential for future outcomes.


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