Academics · Advisors

How to Compensate Academic Faculty Advisor for Tech Startup?

Jenny Kwan Co-Founder and Technical Lead of Woodlamp Technologies

April 24th, 2018

I'm actively assessing non-tech co-founders. One woman challenged me to prove my claims around my tech, and is planning on finding academic researchers to validate them. She's the only non-tech person I've spoken with who's called me out, and I respect it immensely; I may pick her over that alone. In any case, I'm in the SF Bay Area, so we're going to hit up Stanford and UC Berkeley. It's a great idea; I don't have academic pedigree, and having a well-known tenured professor backing my claims would be hugely helpful.

In terms of getting the professor onboard, what would compensation look like? Obviously some amount of equity. But anything else? Board seat? I haven't even incorporated yet. Very unsure how to approach this problem.

Joseph Accetta, PhD CEO JSA Photonics

April 24th, 2018

Many profs work as consultants although their outside work generally has some limitations imposed by their institutions. You might consider offering up an hourly consultant fee which could be traded off for some equity later on. And of course do get something on paper up front before getting to far along.

Tatyana Deryugina Founder of

Last updated on April 25th, 2018

I'm an assistant professor at the University of Illinois. My guess is that if you want a Stanford or Berkeley prof on board, you're either going to have to (a) offer them large amounts of compensation (in cash or equity), (b) ask for very little of their time, or (c) get them really excited about the product. Professors are generally very busy. I doubt you can offer (a) unless you're very far along or if you're willing to part with equity AND get the professor excited. And I doubt (b) is feasible because otherwise you wouldn't need to validate the product (and I doubt professors would be willing to rubber-stamp things unless you offer a large amount of compensation). So my suggestion would be to not worry about how you would compensate them and try to get them excited about the product first. Ask for a brief meeting/phone call to discuss involvement, get them interested in the product itself, then ask what kind of compensation they would want and how much. The nice thing about professors is that while they are busy, they also have a good amount of leeway to work on things they find interesting.

David M

April 26th, 2018

It would be better to have someone in the field of your product/tech. Academics only goes so far in entrepreneurship. Granted I don't know anything about your "idea." The hard part is that respected people in your area probably wont get on board with an idea alone, whereas academics would be far more likely. Anyone worth their weight will ask you to prove your claims. Don't be so quick to reward on this alone as its not really anything that warrants reward. Once you start pitching EVERYone who is competent will want you to back up your claims, and you surely wont be giving out rewards for it then. Although, someone who dismisses the pleasantries can be valuable. Professors in highly regarded in their field that I know generally get 1% but that all depends on what they are bringing. Board seat would be extremely rare to offer an academic unless you are talking about someone who is very experienced in your niche. That is the only way it will have value beyond you, and if you think you may need investors some day....every board member make it count well!

Zachary Bos Experienced communications & strategy professional with a long history in mission-oriented ventures.

April 24th, 2018

Expectations and incentives for technology transfer, information security, and IP controls vary from institution to institution. You might ask the academic you have in mind to ask what their institutional office of technology transfer advises as best practices for enterprise involvement. A bonus of having that conversation is that this puts your start-up on the radar of that office -- and those folks have expertise in facilitating success.

Jenny Kwan Co-Founder and Technical Lead of Woodlamp Technologies

April 24th, 2018

Thanks, Zachary Bos. I wouldn't want any IP or tech from the academic institution. I'm looking for someone to verify and then to lend their name for credibility.

Given that, I assume that the professor(s) I speak with will know how to advance the process with whichever office is responsible for herding those cats?

Dane Madsen Organizational and Operational Strategy Consultant

April 24th, 2018

Offering a Board seat (resist negotiating against yourself) has its own issues for both you and the other person. If you are pursuing, or will pursue, investors, they may have their own thoughts about other Board members. As a rule, you want the smallest Board practical and, if you have granted a seat as a condition for an adviser role, you may force yourself to have a larger Board than is practical in a start up, or face an uncomfortable discussion of having the person step down, when it was perceived as compensation for their time. Start with a grant of equity vesting over at least two years with some high-level expectations for continuing. Without knowing the tech, do you think you need academic validation? Is it directed to that theme or is this more about if it really will work?

Jenny Kwan Co-Founder and Technical Lead of Woodlamp Technologies

April 25th, 2018

Dane Madsen, I know the tech works. It's really more of getting academic credentials behind the tech. These I do not have.