Instilling a culture of entrepreneurship on campus: lessons from around the world

Professor Joe Little, Entrepreneur in Residence, Stirling Management School, University of Stirling

Students walk and talk using mobile devices in university

A little over a year ago I was asked, along with my fellow Entrepreneur in Residence Ross Tuffee, to write a paper on how ‘Entrepreneurial Campuses’ can help transform Scotland’s technology ecosystem. This was one the recommendations from the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review, led by Mark Logan, Scotland’s Chief Entrepreneur.

Rather than follow a traditional method of pootling around our existing institutions to find best practice and recommend marginal changes, we felt a more effective change would come through learning from world class entrepreneurial campuses such as Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Imperial College London, Aalto University and Delhi Technological University etc. and then look at how such institutions in Scotland could transform Scotland’s regional economies.

Institutions such as Stanford and MIT have recognisably transformed the regions they reside in. No longer do students aim to just complete an undergraduate degree and then move on elsewhere to develop their career and business ideas….they stay.

They stay because the resources they need in terms of academic support, venture funding, mentoring and technology are all to hand because over the course of several decades a virtuous cycle of engagement, enrichment and give back has made it happen.

These are academic institutions that encourage and enable industry engagement to enrich academic research with real world problems. They encourage faculty and students to collaborate for solutions and allow faculty to take sabbaticals to develop their business start-ups with the proviso that they return to teach.

They open up their research, making it easier for industry to discover the latest thinking. This in turn encourages industry to show up with their problems, and to help co-create solutions.

My own experiences of engaging with these institutions as an industrial partner gives a sense of the cultural difference that we need to instil. Working with researchers at MIT and Stanford, I frequently found midway through conversations that the phone would be picked up and other faculty members that ought to hear a problem first-hand would be brought in because they might have part of a solution. By the end the conversation, we would have a both plan and potential solution. This compares to the situation in many UK institutions where after expressing interest, I might get a call back nine months later to enquire whether I still had an appetite to discuss things further.

Professor Joe Little spent 30 years in the oil and gas sector, working with technologists and academic researchers to inform BP’s future business strategy.

In fact, we found that very few universities in Scotland made it easy for industry to engage. Moreover, where there was a possibility to do business, excessive licensing and lack of institutional resource at the university to sort out legalities became the ultimate barrier.

For real growth and transformative change, all universities and colleges need to embrace a new dynamic that inspires the development of a more entrepreneurial mindset in their students, staff and academics by promoting and teaching entrepreneurship. They need to provide environments for students to engage in creating start-ups and encourage cross faculty participation in solving global challenges.

They need to make it stupidly simple to start a business, spin out an opportunity, and not demand an excessive cut of the result.

Most of all, however, they need to make it far easier for industry and businesses to come and do business with us by making our research more discoverable and making our facilities more accessible, thereby opening-up possibilities to engage in cross faculty challenges to solve business problems.

In return, industry needs to reengage, sharing problems and ideas more with academia. The missing piece of the puzzle might often be hidden away or abandoned years previously through lack of engagement.

Finally, we also need alumni relations departments to transform their approach from the scary cap in hand requests for funds to a genuine connection and request for practitioner assistance.

Our message to industry is clear: your colleges and universities need you back. We need you to help mentor students and faculty through this new direction of travel, to help them see the value in their research, and to help create successful start-ups. Time invested now will pay dividends for the next generation.

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