Building entrepreneurial ecosystems can help universities thrive

Providing opportunities for entrepreneurism and learning from start-up culture is no longer a cool optional extra for universities − it is a necessity, says Sam Robertson

January 19, 2021
Start-up thinking
Source: iStock

If the current crisis has taught us anything, it’s that universities need to be ready to deal with unexpected difficulties. For me, this means that offering entrepreneurial education and opportunities on campus should no longer be “nice to have” − it is an essential component for students, faculty and universities to thrive.

Having a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in place is like taking out an insurance policy that can help withstand volatility in the marketplace, along with other challenging disruptions that may affect campus life. Its purpose is to network, recover and adapt faster. Over time, this allows the university to modernise and become more nimble, as characteristics of entrepreneurship and innovation are infused into the culture and the curriculum. 

Inevitably, barriers must be identified and overcome when stepping into the realm of higher education innovation. Here are a few common obstacles:

The intimidation factor
When it comes to entrepreneurship, there is a serious intimidation factor for most people, and sometimes that includes a fear among faculty who are asked to teach it. Offering workshops, start-up weeks and weekends, webinars and other opportunities for entrepreneurs and peers to network is a good place to start.

Academics need more time, flexibility and incentives to get involved
One way to incentivise this is to incorporate an entrepreneur-in-residence type of model to attract innovative thinkers and accomplished business professionals to your campus − with the option to participate part-time.

Money spent on student recruitment
The amount of time, money and resources universities invest in marketing and enrolment tactics has increased exponentially, reaching the multibillions. The more strategic, long-term vision would be to reallocate and invest in forward-thinking programmes that are aligned with the future of work − more students and employer partnerships would be attracted if they knew programmes were better aligned with in-demand jobs. 

In terms of ecosystem formulas that work, an obvious example is Stanford University and Silicon Valley’s impressive start-up scene. Their success has been attributed to six conditions: a risk-taking culture; its student body; the culture of giving back; abundant capital; collaboration with industry; and government support.

Give students the confidence to ‘be wrong, loudly’ in online classes

That sounds like a tall order, but it’s important to keep in mind that innovation and change happen incrementally over time. Additionally, entrepreneurship is a broad term that can present itself in a variety of ways. There’s nothing wrong with taking baby steps − it’s more about having the courage (and the capital) to start that trips people up. So, where to start?

The commercialisation of university research
Universities have historically not been great at translating their intellectual property (IP) into something that is directly and rapidly valued by industry. When a commercialisation opportunity does exist, they also often tend to undervalue their IP. There are, of course, the age-old philosophical debates about whether this contravenes the main purpose of what a university does, but the economic reality is that commercialising research benefits the researcher and the university. Protecting IP through patenting, licensing and/or creating spin-off companies shows industry and the outside world where to find the top research, while fostering a culture of entrepreneurship among students and academic peers inspired to follow suit.

Develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem around the university’s strengths. At Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, where I work, we have Track, a sports innovation and consultancy initiative that helps organisations understand the science behind human performance. We advise national and international sports organisations such as Fifa, the Australian Football League and Tennis Australia on how to train athletes to maximise performance while minimising injury risk.

Industry collaboration has become critical to scaling competitive programmes
This summer, my colleagues and I became Techstars mentors to 10 of the most promising SportsTech start-ups from around the world. While Covid-19 affected initial plans, the inaugural virtual Techstars SportsTech Melbourne Accelerator was a success. The start-ups had access to university mentors, plus one of the top research facilities in the world, and VU’s connections to global industry experts.

The pace at which colleges and universities must reinvent themselves has undeniably sped up, but this should not incite panic − rather, a re-evaluation of untapped opportunities and resources. Are the people you’re hiring and collaborating with looking for ways to innovate? If so, will their voices be heard? Will they believe they have permission to take risks and experiment with different approaches? Do they have room (and budget) to ideate and design? Do you have enough support from the local community and government officials? Are there more creative, cost-effective ways to get them involved?

Higher education needs to reimagine itself on an ongoing basis, and there are lessons to be taken from the start-up world: know when to pivot; learn how to grow with adaptability and agility in mind; recognise when it’s time to seek outside help; and understand how crucial it is to select the right partners and employees.

Universities must become the dynamic incubators and launch pads the world needs. This will help governments and the public view them as worthy of ongoing investment but, to get there, the insular model must be shed entirely. We need to do what we can to design and redesign programmes that are primed for future innovators and problem solvers.

Sam Robertson is professor of sports analytics at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.

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