An unlikely superstar is emerging in the battle for ETF supremacy: the professor.

 Over the last six months, the $3.6 trillion U.S. exchange-traded fund industry has plucked several prominent academics out of the classroom and put them on the corporate payroll. OppenheimerFunds has appointed a brain trust to help generate and validate ideas for new products. Research Affiliates, a strategy and index creator, hired a Duke University scholar as a partner and senior advisor. And one college professor on the outskirts of Boston even started his own fund.

It’s easy to see why. With the three largest ETF issuers controlling 83% of the assets, others must go above and beyond to stand out. That means pioneering higher IQ products, like smart-beta, which shun traditional indexes in favor of weighting by other factors. It also means innovating wherever possible, setting an attractive price, coming up with a memorable ticker — and now, getting backing from an array of big thinkers.

“Academics always bring credibility to the table,” said Rusty Vanneman, chief investment officer at CLS Investments, which manages $9 billion from Omaha, Neb. “They have always been important but probably even more so in recent years.”

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