According to Brad Feld’s Startup Communities, universities should be feeders, rather than leaders, in their local startup ecosystems. This means that universities should supply talent and provide support for local startups, instead of positioning themselves at the center of entrepreneurial activity. Although it may be difficult for universities to view themselves as feeders, this approach has merit and can ultimately lead to more cohesive startup ecosystems, as well as improved relations between universities and local communities. Additionally, acting as feeders can help universities become more competitive, secure increased funding, and create employment opportunities for students.
With broader community interests and self-serving goals in mind, universities should play three roles in startup ecosystems: suppliers, connectors, and accelerators.
What do startup ecosystems need most?
This comes in the form of founders, employees, and service providers. Universities are well-positioned to cultivate entrepreneurial traits and interests among their students, shaping them into key contributors for their local startup ecosystems. Since the modern workplace requires entrepreneurial skills and students are demanding them, it is in the best interest of universities to facilitate entrepreneurial learning.
One of the simplest ways to cultivate entrepreneurial students is by offering an entrepreneurship curriculum. However, entrepreneurship blurs the barriers between traditional university departments, so it is best to create a cross-disciplinary initiative, rather than merely setting up an entrepreneurship center in the business school. The courses within the entrepreneurship curriculum should be taught by practitioners. Students should also have opportunities to gain field experience through research, prototyping, and testing.
Another basic way to stimulate entrepreneurship is through student clubs and organizations that focus on startups. These may take the form of entrepreneurship clubs, consulting organizations, or investment groups. Such organizations will often evolve into research labs or fall under the umbrellas of larger entrepreneurship initiatives. They provide excellent starting points for universities that have little formalized entrepreneurship programming.
In addition to supplying entrepreneurship organizations and curriculums, universities can foster entrepreneurship by encouraging students and faculty to engage with local startup ecosystems, which we will cover in the following sections.
While talent is the bread and butter of startup ecosystems, technology also plays an integral role. Universities often contain technology transfer offices (TTOs) that license and patent internally developed technologies to existing companies. As startups increasingly drive innovation, the traditional models to release and transfer research findings from universities to feed innovation are often outdated and broken, causing a large portion of research findings to be underutilized. Universities may want to transition from traditional technology transfer models to Open IPR, a process with which Startup Commons can assist.
By acting as benevolent connectors, universities can start to see significant payouts from assuming the position of startup-ecosystem feeders. These payouts will include increased competitiveness, due to higher visibility, and improved community relations, stemming from collaborative interactions. Most significantly, alumni, faculty, and friends will donate more money to universities that act as connectors within their local startup ecosystems.
With rewards to be reaped, what actions can universities pursue to convene and connect startup enthusiasts?
When universities act as connectors within startup ecosystems, win-win situations result for everyone involved.
Serving as suppliers and connectors are the most important roles of universities in startup ecosystems. However, ambitious universities can deepen their impact by establishing accelerator programs.
Accelerators are designed to help entrepreneurs find product-market fit, acquire outside capital, and scale their companies. They can be publicly or privately funded, and under most circumstances, anyone can apply. These programs always provide education, along with mentorship, and they often make seed-stage investments in exchange for equity stakes in cohort companies.
While university incubators are fairly commonplace, university accelerators are a more novel concept. Since universities can provide housing, food, and workspace, they are good candidates for accelerators. That being said, universities must have strong relationships with entrepreneurial mentors, investors, and service providers within their local startup ecosystems before accelerators can be considered.
Also, accelerator initiatives should be piloted with student-run companies before universities open the floodgates to everyone.
Empower the Entrepreneurs
On a final note, academics and administrators should let entrepreneurial students and faculty lead these types of initiatives. Entrepreneurs gravitate toward one another, so allow university entrepreneurs and startup-community members to design how they engage with each other.
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