Josh Feng is an assistant professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. After receiving an undergraduate degree AB in applied mathematics from Harvard College, he pursued a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. His research interests are in intellectual property, entrepreneurship, and pharmaceuticals, all approached from an economics and social science angle. He is published in the “American Economic Journal of Applied Economics” and in the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” with many other papers in working stages.
Feng teaches his students to think about how their coursework fits into the bigger picture and consider their impact on society at large.
How did you get started in your field?
Feng: I entered my program in a rather circuitous way. The two subfields of economics I found most interesting in grad school were industrial organization and public economics. Sometimes, these two fields are hard to reconcile because on the one hand, you are studying firms competing and maximizing profits in generally free markets, and on the other hand, you are identifying inefficiencies, spillovers, and public goods that justify government intervention.
A good example is the healthcare industry. In America, healthcare is an industry where private companies compete with one another. But we also think of health as a public good — something that’s important to everyone, so it’s not just a market-only issue. I started to do some work on the prescription drug market, where there’s a lot of inefficiencies. Public interventions like Medicare, Medicaid, stepped in to try and make everything work. Innovation and entrepreneurship are very similar. There is a competitive, profit-maximizing aspect to it. However, innovators also create benefits to broader society, so we want to think about programs and interventions that can help them succeed.
This is how I identified healthcare and innovation as areas to be interested in, where there is a tension between thinking about things in a very competitive, efficient market perspective and from a societal good angle.
Why did you choose to come to Utah’s programs?
Feng: Honestly, I was a big fan of the colleagues in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy. They were very friendly and collegial, and they were particularly interested in studying entrepreneurship and innovation from many different angles. All of that combined was both impressive and attractive to me. My opinion hasn’t changed since then.
What is success for an entrepreneur? Is it quantitative?
Feng: First, an entrepreneur needs to be aware of personal success. Entrepreneurs don’t have a regular job — a lot more is at stake in terms of being personally successful, making the company profitable, succeeding in that sense.
But from a broader, societal perspective, entrepreneurs benefit lots of other people with their activity. They don’t fully capture all the value that they create, and they’re quite important for consumers having a better lived-experience. They solve problems for consumers by bringing products to market.
There’s the consumer angle, but then there’s also the worker and community angle. It’s important to note that entrepreneurs convert an idea into actuality, creating jobs. Therefore, entrepreneurs have the ability to create positive benefits for direct consumers, the workers they hire, and the communities they operate in. If you have a community that has high unemployment, or a lot of unmet needs, clever entrepreneurs can meet those needs.
What do you think the advantages are to viewing entrepreneurship from an academic lens?
Feng: Some entrepreneurs might just want to focus on their idea and getting it to market, but having a bigger picture view of the system can ultimately help you be able to advocate for why entrepreneurship is important for communities and systems.
I think I’m biased in the sense — I come at issues from an academic point of view. I know that entrepreneurs can’t spend half of their day thinking about these big picture issues, but just having a sense of the basic economics of a market and the general environment is valuable. Really, it’s the combination of being both detail-oriented about the entrepreneurship sequence — the funding process, intellectual property, business models — and having a big picture view of how entrepreneurship impacts the community. This is why understanding why people are interested in supporting entrepreneurs is important: they support entrepreneurs because of the potential positive impacts they can have on society. Knowing this can help entrepreneurs find resources and gain support from key people.
Is there a mistake or misstep that you’ve seen in your research, or that you can think of that entrepreneurs make while they’re running their own business?
Feng: My research so far hasn’t really looked at mistakes by entrepreneurs, and has focused more on inefficiencies in the funding system or blind spots in the system as a whole.
Right now, the venture capital industry is very interested in more diverse perspectives. In the old days, male venture capital partners in Silicon Valley would fund people similar to them. Now, I think venture capitalists have come to realize that there’s more ideas outside of just Silicon Valley or from only specific groups of people.
For example, Utah is really big into outdoor sports and equipment. Thinking about that from a bigger picture, you may think initially venture capitalists wouldn’t fund something like that.
But, if you can make the argument that you’re drawing inspiration from surrounding areas which is different than Silicon Valley, and that there are plenty of areas in the country that are like yours, you identify a bigger market, and, ultimately, an advantage. Being aware of those may be able to get you an advantage in terms of speaking to investors, and other people important to making your company successful.
What does an entrepreneur have that makes them an entrepreneur?
Feng: From others’ research, I’ve seen that many people have ideas. You may go throughout your day thinking “Oh, this thing is really annoying” or “I’d like to change this or that,” but by the end of the day, it seems like most people kind of just leave it at that.
Entrepreneurs are different. They identify problems, and then they keep thinking about them. By the next day, it’s more than an idea: they want to execute it, see it come to fruition, and fix things. They want to address needs in society, and they follow through. That’s the biggest difference to me. Obviously, you can talk about hard skills they might have, like being able to pitch well, or bring people together to actually build a company. But it’s the dedication that really sets them apart.
You were recently awarded a Kauffman Foundation research grant. How did you secure the award, and what impact will it have on students at the U?
Feng: The grant is for acquiring more data to add to my existing paper on social background and the direction of innovation. Our existing research has shown a strong relationship between the backgrounds of innovators (gender, age, geography, parental income) and the backgrounds of the consumers they end up selling to. We’ve analyzed a couple of contexts (goods sold at supermarkets, mobile phone apps) and want to expand to more contexts using additional data.