Jake Wobbrock: Ivory tower research and startup innovation are two sides of a coin

I have two jobs, one as a tenured professor of computing and information technology at the University of Washington Information School, in Seattle, and the other as a venture-backed co-founder and CEO of a tech startup called AnswerDash. When I tell people that, many react with, “Oh, those jobs seem very different.”

There are more similarities than people realize. Being a professor has a lot in common with being a business executive. First, university professors spend most of their time conducting original research attempting to solve open problems, discover new knowledge and advance their fields.

A Ph.D. requires making an original contribution to a body of knowledge. Mastering the current state-of-the-art is not enough. Making an original contribution takes an unspecified amount of time,which is why Ph.D. degrees are not time-delimited like M.D.s, J.D.s, Psy.D.s, and the like. Some people never make that origninal contribution despite years of trying.

As a university professor, instead of asking what I teach, the more appropriate question is, “What open problems are you solving?”  I am fully devoted and proud of my teaching but it flows from and is informed by my research . My research, along with the work of thousands of others in my field, contributes to advancing the cutting-edge.

The most significant commonality between being a technology researcher and tech entrepreneur is the need to continually innovate, never accepting the status quo, creatively pushing on problems until they are solved. Whether attempting to discover a technical breakthrough no one else has achieved or create a best-selling product that no other company has conceived, the continual need for the blessings of innovation is vital to both endeavors.

Along with innovation goes the need for unbreakable optimism, the irrational belief that we can achieve something that has eluded others. Why is such a belief irrational? If what we are doing is so important, why hasn’t somebody else already done it? Are we so gifted? Are we sure it’s so important? Are we sure we can do it?

Such questions plague even the most intrepid innovators, whether researchers or entrepreneurs. Unbreakable optimism is the antidote to the self-doubt sown by (very reasonable) questions like these.

My research as a technology professor always involves work with small teams of graduate students that resemble the small teams I lead as a startup CEO. Teamwork, brainstorming, riffing on others’ ideas, giving and receiving criticism, not letting your teammates down, all factor heavily into innovative cultures that defy daunting odds. Researchers and entrepreneurs both know if you can’t work well in a team, your chances of making breakthroughs greatly diminish.

A banal but essential ingredient for both research and entrepreneurship is long hours. So-called “overnight successes” are rarely made overnight. Even flash-of-lightning breakthroughs require weeks, months or years to develop into consumable forms the world can absorb.

Newton’s "eureka!'' may have come after an apple bopped him on the head but it took him nearly three years to write the first version of his Principia. Despite the importance of long hours in both research and entrepreneurship, we are recognized only for our results, not our inputs. But long hours of sustained focus are perquisites for producing results that make a difference to anyone else.

The differences between research and entrepreneurship seem less significant, to me, than the similarities.

As a researcher, I work to derive generalizable knowledge that can stand the test of time. As a CEO, I want a desirable product that is salable today. As a researcher, I explore many ideas at once on multiple projects. As a CEO, I am focused on perfecting the many facets of one project.

As a researcher, my audience is the community of scientists, engineers,and designers focused on cracking open problems. As a CEO, my audience consists of customers, press, analysts and competitors.

These differences lay in the purpose of each endeavor and its audience, the deeper character traits of researchers and entrepreneurs are the same. Both must be innovative, optimistic, intrepid, team-oriented and gritty.

With all the contrasts today made between the academy and the marketplace, with many people driving wedges between the two or insisting one should operate like the other, it is worth remembering that both are populated by small bands of dedicated innovators who daily strive to manifest something the world has never before seen.

In the end, neither researchers nor entrepreneurs can accept the world as it is, but insist, through their work, on making the world as they think it should be. In all respects, research and entrepreneurship are arrogant, optimistic and difficult. And they are two of the best jobs in the world.

Published in Entreprenuer, July 19, 2014