How to become a ‘vortex university’

Mark Goodwin looks at what it takes to be a ‘vortex university’, and why Exeter aspires to become one

November 16, 2017
Five lightbulbs

A flurry of recent research on the economic importance of universities underlines their role as generators of economic impact and regional development.

Indeed, a report out this week shows that the University of Exeter is no exception: in 2015-16, the report says, it created more than £1.1 billion in economic output and supported more than 11,000 jobs.

As well as its direct impact on Exeter’s economy, the university drives innovation and brings expertise to a range of local, national and international enterprises. Knowledge exchange is now a key part of a university’s role, alongside its core aims of education and research.

One way universities can develop this new mission is to develop themselves as “vortex” institutions. The term “vortex university” was coined by Mike Cohen, of the University of California, Berkeley, who contrasts “vortex” with “waypoint” universities.

The former refers to a set of complementary dynamics between a university and its local economic area, which together are able to boost the innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities flowing from staff and students. By contrast, “waypoint” universities are those where students simply stop for the duration of their course, before moving to build a life and career elsewhere.

In a “vortex”, a critical mass of innovation and entrepreneurial activity is retained and built on; in a “waypoint”, it is dispersed and lost.

Of course, vortex universities do not just happen: the innovation ecosystem around them has to be nurtured and deliberately built, and resources have to be put into this rather than other things. Over the past few years, we have been seeking to build just such a vortex university at Exeter, and our activities have fitted neatly with the four key elements that Cohen points to as crucial in transitioning, as he puts it, from waypoints to vortexes.

First, you need start-up and accelerator programmes that provide space, business mentoring and legal and financial advice. 

Exeter, with Bath, Bristol, Southampton and Surrey, is a member of SetSquared, which was named last year as the number one university-business incubator in the world, and we have used this to underpin a network of support for start-up companies.

Second, specialist space is required to enable companies to stay and grow. With this in mind, a new Science Park on the edge of the city (of which Exeter is a shareholder) provides plenty of opportunities to house our own spin-outs and other start-ups. We are doubly fortunate in that the Met Office’s new supercomputer, the fastest in Western Europe, is also located on the Science Park. It is beginning to attract interest from companies requiring environmental data and the skills necessary to analyse and process it.

Third, universities have access to highly specialised research and development equipment that can be accessed by entrepreneurs as well as staff and students, and in our case we have made sure that space on the Science Park is flexible enough to house labs as well as offices, to take advantage of this.

Fourth, Cohen refers to education programmes that support entrepreneurship. Typically these may have been located in business schools, but we are working with our students’ union to embed innovation and entrepreneurship education across our curriculum more widely.

Universities cannot do this on their own, and crucial relationships have to be built with local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships, which are able to cement other elements of the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem into place. 

Cohen points out how localities can either squander or enhance the innovation talent coming out of universities. In order to do the latter, local agencies need to make premises and “maker spaces” available for scale-up activities, as well as providing appropriate housing, transportation, cultural, educational and social facilities.

When all this is joined up, the research and innovation talent from a university can be allied to local development strategies. Science and Innovation Audits, now in their third wave, provide a means of underpinning and identifying which sectors might be best placed to succeed in which areas.

Looking around the UK, Cambridge, neighbouring a science park, is the obvious exemplifier of a vortex university. Imperial College London at White City, and UCL at Stratford, may be in line to join it.

But with the third mission of universities now being laid out much more explicitly by those who fund and oversee the UK higher education sector, there is no reason why other universities should not begin to consciously orientate their innovation and entrepreneurship activities towards this goal.  

Mark Goodwin is deputy vice-chancellor for external engagement at the University of Exeter.

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