Entrepreneurship is good, but responsible entrepreneurship is better

The core purpose of the University of Texas at Austin is “to transform lives for the benefit of society,” and entrepreneurs do this when they take huge risks to develop crucial technologies that change the world.

But we need to be careful about how we promote entrepreneurship on campus. As one of America’s finest public research universities, UT must ensure that our entrepreneurs make the public good the goal of their every project. When promoting entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking on campus, the University should also emphasize the basic research that contributes to new technologies and social entrepreneurship.

Basic research is close to the heart of our University: We were the first higher education institution from the state of Texas to be admitted to the Association of American Universities, the prestigious organization of North American research institutions. And according to UT’s 2010 Report on Research, UT brings in over $600 million annually in research grants. 

That research also leads to technology commercialization. In 2010 alone, the University granted 32 licenses for new technologies to UT researchers, and revenue from existing licenses was $14 million. Yet the incredible economic impact of university research is only a worthy by-product of our quest for truth and knowledge, not the main purpose of our researchers’ work. 

Fundamentally, UT should conduct basic research to expand our understanding of the world, not to expand its own coffers. Consequently, while we promote entrepreneurship on campus, we should also remember the value of conducting basic research, even research without an immediate monetary payback. 

The University should also place a greater emphasis on social entrepreneurship. I was introduced to the concept of social entrepreneurship by Suzi Sosa, an adjunct professor at the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, a department of the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Sosa defines social entrepreneurship as innovating in order to solve social problems. Sosa also serves as the executive director of the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, a competition that seeks to find and fund startups that benefit society. 

UT should be emphasizing this kind of entrepreneurship on campus, yet we seem to place a greater emphasis on tech startups. For example, during UT’s Entrepreneurship Week early this year, out of 12 featured on-campus startups, only two were led by social entrepreneurs trying to tackle major world problems. 

Social innovators may not bring in millions of dollars in donations, but they do change the world in a meaningful way. 

Consider the grand prize-winning project of this year’s Dell Social Innovation Challenge, a “solar conduction dryer” aiming to reduce food spoilage by 20 to 30 percent, allowing rural farmers in developing countries to better store and sell their produce. 

As a major research institution, we should better define how we want our entrepreneurs to develop their ideas. The University of Texas at Austin exists to transform lives, through the pursuit of truth and the intellectual development of its graduates, and entrepreneurship is the most important instrument we have to change the world for the better. But we have to remember not to lose sight of how we affect the world at large when we push for technology commercialization.

Sridhar is a Plan II, math and economics sophomore from Sugar Land.