Professor Thomas Hellmann is a member of the faculty at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, where he is the Academic Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre. His areas of expertise are entrepreneurship, venture capital, innovation, contract theory, strategic management and public policy.
Thomas is a leading international expert on entrepreneurial finance and high-growth entrepreneurship. His research explains how venture capitalists finance entrepreneurs. It studies the strategies used by entrepreneurs to gather resources for high-growth ventures. His research emphasises the interplay between financial resources, strategic objectives, and the sometimes complex governance of entrepreneurial ventures. It also examines how legal rules affect the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and how governments play a role in fostering entrepreneurship.
Thomas has collaborated with Professor Stelios Kavadias of Cambridge Judge Business School in producing a report on the challenges facing financing scale-ups. Thomas and the Oxford research team assessed the current state of the UK financing ecosystem for scale-up companies, with Cambridge examining the role of management and skills, and their findings are set to contribute to the debate on the future of business growth in this country. The report was released on 25 April by Barclays titled Scale-up UK: Growing Businesses, Growing our Economy.
Thomas provides an insight into into 'The very first mistake most startup founders make' with Noam Wasserman.
Thomas’ vision for teaching entrepreneurship is to give students a profound understanding of the entrepreneurial process, with a seamless integration of conceptual foundations and practical applicable tools. He has developed courses in the areas of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial finance for undergraduates, masters, MBAs and executives; and he has taught classes in a wide variety of places, including Stanford Graduate School of Business, Harvard Business School, Wharton, UBC, and the Indian School of Business. He is passionate about teaching entrepreneurship not only to business students, but more broadly to students across the entire university. He believes in bringing together students from all walks of life, and encouraging them to think outside the box.
Thomas is the academic director of the Entrepreneurship Centre. He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). He is the founding organiser of the NBER Entrepreneurship Research Boot Camp, which provides an intensive learning experience for PhD students who work at the research frontiers of entrepreneurship economics and entrepreneurial finance. He is also a member of the Strategic Research Initiative (SRI).
Prior to joining Oxford University, Thomas was the B.I. Ghert Family Foundation Professor in Finance and Policy at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He was also the Director of the W. Maurice Young Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Research Centre. Prior to that, Thomas was an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he was deeply immersed in researching Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. He also held visiting positions at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Hoover Institution, INSEAD, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Auckland. He holds a BA in Mathematical Economics from the London School of Economics. His PhD in Economics at Stanford University was under the supervision of Professor Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate 2001). He is fluent in English, German and French.
Thomas recommends the best books on entrepreneurship and explains what entrepreneurs can learn from them.
Thomas’ research perspective spans a variety of academic areas, including corporate finance, economic theory, empirical data analysis, and strategic management. The unifying theme is a quest to gain deeper understanding of the entrepreneurial process, thereby generating new insights that are both rigorous and relevant. His academic writings have been published in a variety of leading economics, finance and management journals, including the Journal of Finance, the American Economic Review, and Management Science.
Thomas’ main areas of expertise are:
Thomas’ research focuses on the value-adding impact that venture capital investors can have on their portfolio companies. Central to his analysis is the notion that whilst venture capitalists have incentives to improve venture performance, their help often requires founders to be willing to relinquish some control over their own ventures. The level of venture capital support is affected by the structure of the investment contract, both in terms of the allocation of control rights, and the type of financial securities used. Using both theoretical modelling and empirical data analysis, Thomas shows how the value-added component differs across venture capitalists. Beyond venture capital, his research looks at alternative methods for financing start-ups, such as corporate venturing and angel financing.
Thomas’ research provides a new perspective on the entrepreneurial process highlighting the microeconomic conditions under which new ventures are formed. Initially all start-ups are a combination of two key resources: ideas and people. Yet Thomas’ work argues that matching the right people to the right ideas is far from trivial, not only because of search costs, but also because of legal and contractual constraints. For example, employees in established companies can be potential entrepreneurs. However, they may not own their inventions, and they may not be allowed to start a new venture because of non-compete covenants. Thomas’ work shows how contractual constraints explain differences in the way that established and entrepreneurial firms develop new ideas, and how intellectual property rights can influence new venture formation. In his most recent work Thomas also looks inside founder teams, to understand when and how founders structure their original founding agreements.
In recent years governments around the world have dramatically increased their efforts to foster entrepreneurial activity. Thomas has been arguing that there is a need for a more systematic economic understanding and empirical evaluation of such government policies. In his own work he has focused on the effectiveness of government venture capital programmes. In a study for the World Economic Forum he provides a nuanced assessment of programmes across the globe, showing that such programmes work best when government venture capitalists co-invest alongside private venture capitalists. He is currently interested in exploring the role of government in supporting angel investment, and the role of government in helping start-ups to succeed at the ‘scale-up’ stage.e is also a member of the Strategic Research Initiative (SRI) where he is currently helping to launch a new PhD boot camp.
Thomas is deeply engaged in the interface between academia and practice. He frequently advises entrepreneurs and venture investors, especially his former students. At UBC he launched the “Sauder Entrepreneurship Luncheon” which is a unique networking event that allows highly entrepreneurial students to meet the local entrepreneurial business community of venture capitalists, angel investors and seasoned technology entrepreneurs. Recon Instruments is an example of a company that started in Thomas’ class, presented at the Sauder Entrepreneurship Luncheon, and was recently acquired by Google.
Thomas has collaborated with a variety of entrepreneurs and investors on writing business case studies that have been published at Harvard, Stanford and elsewhere. They cover a wide variety of topics and companies, ranging from the early days of a university spin-out, to the financing by angels and venture capitalists, all the way to how established companies such as Apple Computers or Symantec strategically invest in start-ups.
Going all the way back to a student internship at the World Bank, Thomas has been actively engaged in public policy dialogues. He is a regular keynote speaker at the “Public Policy Forum on Venture Capital and Innovation” of the Quebec City Conference, a global gathering of high-level policy makers and industry leaders. In 2010 he wrote a report about the role of government in venture capital for the World Economic Forum. In British Columbia he led the evaluation of the provincial equity capital programme that provides tax credits to venture capitalists and angel investors. He is also a special adviser to NACO, Canada’s angel investor association.
Thomas is frequently asked by the press to comment on a wide variety of entrepreneurship-related topics. For example, he provides expert opinions for the Financial Times. In Canada, he used to help with a column in the Financial Post that discussed select episodes of the famous “Dragon’s Den” TV show.
On the academic side, Thomas has taken on a variety of leadership roles. He demonstrated his commitment to multiple academic audiences by serving on the editorial boards of highly regarded journals in finance (Journal of Financial Intermediation), economics (Journal of Economics and Management Strategy), strategic management (Management Science), as well as a practitioner-oriented journal (Journal of Private Equity). He is a member of numerous programme committees (EFA, ISB, WFA) and a regular referee for all major finance and economics journal. He has received major research grants from SSHRC (Canada) and NSF (US), and has given a large number of seminars and speeches all over the world.
After teaching entrepreneurship for 20 years, Thomas believes that entrepreneurship is uniquely challenging because it requires an integration of a wide variety of business and interpersonal skills, it requires mixing logical reason with intuition, and it requires an entrepreneurial mindset that is focused and flexible at the same time; it also requires a lot of hard work.
His teaching philosophy is to provide a seamless integration of academic conceptual foundations and applied experiences. The purpose of taking an entrepreneurship course is not to make progress on a specific business plan, but rather to leverage the classroom experience as a learning platform for discovering and refining one’s own entrepreneurial skills.
At Oxford, Thomas is leading the teaching team for the ‘Entrepreneurship Project’, an experiential project where teams of MBA students develop their own business proposal, test it through extensive market research, and present it in front of a panel of experienced investors and entrepreneurs. He is also teaching an elective on Entrepreneurial Finance, at topic that he is deeply passionate about. Thomas is also working on a textbook on that topic.
Thomas strongly believes in bringing entrepreneurship teaching to students across the entire university. He opened up the ‘Entrepreneurship Project’ to allow other Oxford students to collaborate with the MBAs. In addition he recently launched VIEW (Venture Idea Exploration Workshop), a mini-accelerator program run by the Entrepreneurship Centre. This program allows students from across the entire University of Oxford to explore their entrepreneurial ideas in an experiential way, with the assistance of Oxford instructors and outside entrepreneurial mentors. He also hopes to contribute to the University’s broader efforts of promoting entrepreneurial thinking through a variety of cross-disciplinary initiatives.
The challenge of teaching entrepreneurship is that it requires both a broad understanding of the many relevant academic foundations, as well as practical knowledge of the entrepreneurial process. No individual can possibly cover the entire spectrum, which is why Thomas believes in team teaching, and likes to work with other academics, and practitioners from all walks of life.
At UBC Thomas pioneered a technology entrepreneurship class that requires MBA students to work on a business idea with students from other part of the university. He also designed a variety of foundational (undergraduate and graduate) courses in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial finance. He is proud to have won the Sauder “Talking Stick Award” which is awarded for significant pedagogical innovations.
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