Management prof explores 'innovative' entrepreneurship

March 28, 2013
Matt Marvel

The noted New York University professor William Jack Baumol teaches a class each fall on "innovative entrepreneurship." He tells his students on the first day, "You are the unfortunate attendees of the course in which the professor does not know what he is doing," emphasizing that he is "no worse than others."

The problem is that innovative entrepreneurship is a dark continent, largely unexplored by research. Thus, it's a rich area for discovery for College of Business and Economics Coffman Chair of Entrepreneurial Studies Matthew Marvel, whose Technology Leadership 2020 project aims to scrutinize several aspects of the topic, bringing to light discoveries that may lead to better ways of teaching entrepreneurship.

His current endeavors investigate leadership and learning in the high-technology venture development process. He agrees with Dr. Baumol in that, although entrepreneurship is good generally, innovative entrepreneurship has the most bang for the buck — or might even be called "high-impact" entrepreneurship.

"I focus on new technology ventures because I believe this best fits the 'innovative/productive entrepreneurship' that Baumol describes," Dr. Marvel said. "I think this is the most exciting context to study entrepreneurship because this is where big things happen — this is where we get radical or breakthrough innovation."

There's nothing wrong with more traditional small businesses opening, but ventures focused on new technologies create higher paying jobs and are more likely to benefit society dramatically, Marvel said. "Many, if not most, of the ventures I study will not survive, but the ones that do are more likely to have big impacts in creating radical innovation, high-paying jobs and benefiting us all," he said.

His project involves surveys, facilitated by technology incubators, of successful regional technology entrepreneurs that will probe their leadership and learning qualities. Marvel suspects, based on previous research, that people with "wide knowledge domains" are among the best at starting innovative technology ventures. These are specialists who are likely experts in other, seeming unrelated areas, involving deep knowledge domains — a chemist, who, for example, knows about agriculture problems first-hand.

He also hopes to learn more about the types of education and experience among technology innovators. "We know that there is a diminishing return when it comes to areas of knowledge and experience," he said. "People who create most breakthrough and innovative products have high degrees of specific knowledge in a particular domain." Interestingly though, too much domain experience limits most people's willingness to pursue new innovative opportunities. These individuals may honor the status quo and not seek out opportunities as innovators, he said.

Another aspect is what scholars call knowledge-based situations that are either supply-driven or demand-driven.

The former happens when an individual knows of an existing or emerging technology, but not of customers' demand for a product. A good example is the introduction of the microwave. In 1945, Percy Spencer was working for Raytheon's radar systems and realized microwave radiation from a device he was using had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket.

He was not immediately aware of its possible use, but he did, nevertheless, conceive what would later result in the microwave oven.

The company filed a patent on October 8, 1945 for a microwave cooking oven, eventually named the Radarange. It was not like today's microwaves. It stood six feet tall, weighed around 750 pounds and cost about $5,000.

A demand-driven example would involve an individual who is aware of customer needs, demand, but who lacks awareness of possible technologies or products to meet the needs.

A good example is Nike founders Phil Knight, a middle-distance runner, and Bill Bowermans, University of Oregon track coach.

They knew long-distance runners wanted running shoes with lighter and better cushioning and lateral stability. They didn't know, but would find out, what technology would support this demand. They created the "Moon Shoe" in 1972.

Although Marvel won't have Spencer, Knight or Bowermans to survey, he hopes to have numerous data results from innovators in the West Virginia and surrounding Appalachian region as early as next fall. Working with Dr. Jeff Houghton, associate professor of management and industrial relations, he expects to publish in the leading entrepreneurship and management journals based on the project's data.

"While the field of economics was the first to study entrepreneurship, and I really appreciate Baumol's work, the reality is that most scholars now recognize that understanding entrepreneurship requires a multidisciplinary approach," Marvel said. "Baumol provides compelling evidence that most breakthrough innovation is driven by individual entrepreneurship. However, research shows that creating innovation requires deep knowledge, insights, counterfactual thinking, and learning from failure — and don't forget persistence." These are among the many aspects of the entrepreneur he hopes to analyze in his research.

"I believe the answers of how we can develop future technology entrepreneurs lies in studies of cognition and learning more so than economics," he added.

Baumol would approve. As he said in a 2012 interview in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, much is to be discovered so that entrepreneurship education may be advanced. "What I would certainly urge is government funding for research on how innovative entrepreneurship is taught because, as I keep emphasizing, we do not know what we are doing in the field," he said. "The point is that we do not know what works in teaching innovative entrepreneurship."

Marvel is from Mt. Vernon, Ill. He earned a bachelor's degree in marketing at Southern Illinois University, an MBA from Eastern Illinois University, and as a Kauffman Foundation Dissertation Fellow, wrote A knowledge-based View of the Venture Creation Process: How Technology Entrepreneurs Mix Knowledge to Construct Radical Innovations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received his Ph.D. there in 2006.

He joined the faculty at the WVU College of Business and Economics in 2012 after six years as the Vitale Chair in the Department of Management at Western Kentucky University.

He has published recently in Journal of Management Studies, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, and Journal of Small Business Management among others. He also serves on the editorial review board for Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice and Journal of Small Business Management.

He is married to Julie Marvel, who he met on a blind date at a Chicago Bears-Minnesota Vikings game. The couple has two children; Lila, 3, and Nina, 5.