NSF NCSES fellow uses data analysis to identify innovative entrepreneurship in microbusinesses Meet Tim Wojan, Ph.D.

Tim Wojan, Ph.D.

Tim Wojan, Ph.D., outside of the Rockville Innovation Center, part of the I-270 Technology Corridor in Rockville, Maryland. Photo Credit: Christian Steenburgh

Tim Wojan, Ph.D., recognizes the value that science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) can bring to other fields such as economics.

Wojan’s interest in economics began with the desire to understand why some regions are successful and others are not. He was particularly fascinated by instances of success in unexpected places, and dedicated his career to using qualitative and quantitative methods to explain entrepreneurial surprises. Currently, Wojan is studying innovative entrepreneurship as an established scientist fellow in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) Research Ambassadors Program.

NCSES is the nation’s leading provider of statistical data on the U.S. science and engineering enterprise. The NSF NCSES Research Ambassadors Program provides research opportunities for participants to be involved in the collection of statistical data regarding: research and development, the science and engineering workforce, U.S. competitiveness in science, engineering, technology, and R&D, and the condition and progress of STEM education in the United States. Under the guidance of his mentor, John Jankowski, Director for Research and Development Statistics within NCSES, Wojan’s research project focuses on innovative entrepreneurship in research and development (R&D) performing microbusinesses.

According to Wojan, the study of innovative entrepreneurship has suffered from a lack of data. Anecdotes and detailed case studies of radical innovation in small, high-tech firms and businesses abound; however, these firms are often masked by the much greater number of small firms with no interest in radical innovation. Getting a handle on the extent of this innovative entrepreneurship in the nation as a whole requires both a very large dataset and a method for reliably identifying the target firms.

The inaugural version of the Annual Business Survey (ABS), conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and NCSES in 2018, collected data on approximately 850,000 firms of all sizes, but only asked businesses with fewer than 10 employees details about their R&D activities, if any. Wojan’s research project seeks to take these data and differentiate the small firms operating in innovation markets and contributing to radical innovation from the much larger number of small firms with more modest aspirations.

”In addition to identifying just how numerous these firms are, my project examines factors associated with innovative success such as the role of diversity in ownership teams along the dimensions of discipline of highest academic degree, race, ethnicity, gender and age, as well as the impact of the creative milieu where these small firms are located,” explained Wojan.

Wojan’s project will play an important role in assessing the size and health of the innovative entrepreneurship ecosystem. Findings gleaned from his research may also help identify possible threats to the supply of radical innovation, track the trajectory of such firms over time and examine factors associated with success.

“There is growing concern that increases in the burden of knowledge are making it more difficult for small teams in start-ups to keep pace with the cutting edge required for radical innovation,” said Wojan.

“Large companies that have pursued radical innovation through the acquisition of promising start-ups may be reluctant to invest in high-risk R&D where expected returns are close to zero given the low probability of success. The data collected in the ABS will allow for the first generalizable assessment of this sector and its contribution to the science and engineering enterprise in the US.”

A typical day for Wojan involves reviewing literature, developing testable hypotheses, writing proposals and manuscripts, performing data analysis, preparing presentations, attending conferences and reviewing manuscripts of agency colleagues or academic peers. Wojan has also had the opportunity to participate in activities related to high quality data collection such as cognitive or debriefing interviews for survey development, reviewing tables and datasets and contributing to the release of data products.

He describes his fellowship experience as immensely valuable, and is grateful for the opportunity it has afforded him to pursue his research interests.

“There are a lot of synergies in combining one’s core knowledge with the new knowledge and skills acquired over the course of a developmental fellowship,” said Wojan. “Speaking to my fellowship in particular, the opportunity to delve deeply into a new field—even one tangential to one’s current expertise—is a rare opportunity.”

When his appointment concludes, Wojan hopes to obtain a position where he can work to bridge the gap between seemingly separate disciplines. His goal is to continue examining the third rail of the economics of innovation – the role that imagination plays in innovative success.

The NSF NCSES Program is funded by NCSES through NSF and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.