Universities: An Entrepreneur’s Ecosystem
Universities offer a thriving ecosystem that lends itself particularly well to entrepreneurship among students, faculty, and staff. My belief in the ability of the institution of higher education to foster entrepreneurship comes first hand from my experiences as a student entrepreneur at the University of Toronto, as well as my work with Young Inventors International, a non-profit organization that has taught hundreds of student entrepreneurs at universities across North America about innovation and bringing new products to market. Regardless of how directly supportive universities are of the commercialization of research, they offer access to a number of unique resources particularly helpful to budding entrepreneurs.
First, universities provide access to a large body of talented and skilled individuals gathered in one location, so building a team within the university ecosystem is much easier than anywhere else. Despite the romanticized view of the brilliant lone inventor, diversity of talent is very important for start-ups. Bringing new ideas to market requires a large number of skills, including a mix of business and technical expertise, so teams with members who possess a number of different skills are very valuable. Engineers who are wondering how to properly structure a business plan can always visit a management faculty member during office hours and ask for assistance. Entrepreneurship club meetings, classes, or lectures by well-known entrepreneurs offer a way of broadening knowledge about entrepreneurship—and connecting with others who are interested in the subject. Those who don’t yet have an idea for a venture can spend some time with engineering students or talk to faculty members about ideas that they think are worth commercializing—there are many students and faculty members who are looking for others to bring an idea to market. The key concept to bringing new ideas to market is collaboration. An excellent example of such cross-disciplinary collaboration is Akamai, an MIT start-up that was founded by a graduate student, a professor, and two Sloan school management students.
Under the Bayh-Dole Act, universities control the intellectual property (IP) that results from research funded by the federal government, so it is a good idea to talk to the university’s technology transfer or licensing office to clarify who has ownership rights to the idea before proceeding with commercialization. In addition, some universities have specific rules regarding IP ownership by faculty and graduate students. Many great companies have been built on licensed technologies, so even if the university owns the IP, there is still often an opportunity to start a new venture with the technology. For example, Google’s PageRank patent was licensed from Stanford University, and Akamai licensed its technology from MIT. In addition, many technology transfer offices have experts knowledgeable about entrepreneurship and can connect entrepreneurs to the outside community, including external technical and management experts, industry leaders, investors, and potential mentors.
University resources can also help with access to valuable information for market research. While the Internet is a good first stop, market predictions and trends usually require access to additional reports focused on a target market and specific industry. Students and faculty members usually have access to several market research resources, including a variety of databases that provide an overview of funding trends and opportunities (although these resources vary by university). Management school libraries, in particular, offer market research databases on a wealth of topics. These databases usually cost tens of thousands of dollars, and are often inaccessible by the general public. Apart from market research resources, many universities offer access to technical resources and labs, including rapid prototyping machines and information about recent developments in materials and advances in production techniques. Members of the university community can usually access some of these resources free of charge or for a small fee.
After building and testing the prototype, talking to the technology transfer office about IP, building a team of students and faculty members, and evaluating the market, entering a business plan competition can help to test the viability of the venture, raise some start-up cash, and get feedback from experts, including seasoned entrepreneurs, investors, and other service providers. Most universities have at least one competition. Some of these competitions focus on early-stage ideas, some on social entrepreneurship ventures, and others on mature companies ready to go to the market. The exercise of preparing a business plan will help to get the idea and venture organized by planning the process of bringing the technology to market. In addition, many business plan competitions offer additional resources to students or faculty preparing their business plans, so participation helps to expand professional networks and knowledge throughout the process. A number of successful start-up ventures, including Akamai and Seahorse Power, which was founded by a team of students from Babson and Olin Colleges, have benefitted from funding, advice, and publicity offered by business plan competitions.
From building a team to winning start-up capital, universities offer many unique and valuable resources to those within their community. One way to understand the power of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in universities is to read about start-up companies that have successfully leveraged the resources available to them within the community, such as Akamai and Seahorse Power. Since each university is different, it can be helpful to “map” the ecosystem by making a list of resources that are available, including clubs, people interested in entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship centers, and technology transfer offices. Knowing which resources are available can be empowering and can offer insight into the next steps to take when building a new venture within the university network. And even if the venture is not successful, mobilizing the resources within the community provides professional relationships, friendships, knowledge, and skills that will last a lifetime—well beyond the ivy-covered walls.