The SearchLite recently set out to learn what university researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs consider to be the most critical elements in the formation of a vibrant Entrepreneurial Ecosystem within US based university settings. What we found was quite interesting and we are interested to hear from our readers regarding their experiences. Read on to discover what we learned.

Who Did We Talk To?

The SearchLite conducted over 40 interviews with licensing professionals and other commercial advisors from Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) and other commercialization functions at US based universities. Our goal was to understand their needs and identify what they did really well that translated into better technology commercialization.  Early on in our research, we found that each university is unique in the way it operated and that to get a holistic picture of the University Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, we would need to speak with individuals from varied university environments.

We talked to people from universities with (1) large and small student enrollments; (2) large and modest research budgets; (3) medical schools that have medical/life sciences research inventions and schools with a broader research focus primarily in the physical sciences and engineering discipline.  We also recognized that location of the Universities mattered, so we included universities from different locations (i.e., coastal economic hubs Vs central US regions).  Finally, we wanted to talk with universities with differing degrees of TTO resources (i.e., staff, budgets, etc.).

What is a “vibrant” entrepreneurial ecosystem

In the course of the research, The SearchLite left it up to our interviewees to define what it meant to be a “vibrant” entrepreneurial ecosystem.  During the course of the discussions, many interviewees cited traditional measures that you might find on resources such as the AUTM Web Site - e.g., licensing revenue, startups, conversion rates, etc.  Other individuals spoke more in terms of intangibles or broader societal goals such as economic development.  There are also many other definitions that can be read in articles from foundations and institutions such as Kauffman, Brookings, etc.

10 Critical Elements

While there were no unanimous definitions or recipes, we uncovered a ranked list of trends that appear to influence an ideal University Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. They are ranked below based on the frequency of mention and/or importance as conveyed by the interviewees

  1. More Research Expenditures - Clearly more dollars (Public and private sponsored research) coming in results in more commercialization opportunities and sets the stage for entrepreneurial activities and ecosystem commercialization capability.
  2. Better TTO Resources - There are clearly “haves” and “have nots”.  The amount of headcount and dollar budgets allocated to Tech Transfer Offices acts as a central hub from which other entrepreneurial activities develop in order to play supporting roles.
  3. Active Angel and Venture Investment - Clearly one of the key pillars of entrepreneurial development is the availability of angel and venture investment. Many university settings have most of the other elements in place, but fall short of having a sufficient local capital pool that enables technology development from the university labs into successful startups.
  4. On site Venture Development Teams - Often set up within TTOs, many universities with self-contained venture development functions that nurture, mentor and assist the university spin-out team are critical for sustainable and successful entrepreneurial activity. When not present within TTO,such teams are organized as part of a partnership with public or private local economic development organizations.
  5. “Location, location, location” -  The Northern California and Boston/Cambridge Regions certainly have an advantage over other US regions given the tight integration of industry specific pull, venture capital and university research specialties - all helping to develop entrepreneurial capabilities. The economic pull of these regions is a critical component for thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems.
  6. Entrepreneurship Curricula - Many universities are racing to install entrepreneurship curricula, from undergraduate classes to certificate programs to masters degreed programs.  The jury is still out on how effective these programs will be in developing a new generation of serial entrepreneurs.
  7. Cross disciplinary training – Universities are establishing Centers For Entrepreneurship (CFEs). CFEs are typically housed in the School of Engineering and usually designed for multi-disciplinary inputs from students and faculty. Such cross disciplinary training is essential in order to reflect the cross-functional nature of entrepreneurship as a practice.
  8. Entrepreneurial Services Offerings - Many universities are offering co-working spaces, incubation support and business accelerator programs to University led teams.  These are sometimes housed within the CFE, TTOs or sourced from a local public/private entity. Such service offerings begin to propagate the beginnings of a "Hyper - Local Innovation Ecosystem" (Hy-LIE) per Mike Cohen from UC Berkeley or a "Pentacle" as Fiona Murray from MIT frames the ecosystem.
  9. Student Leadership - Several universities are trying to lay the foundation for under-graduate and graduate level students to lead entrepreneurial programs, through business plan contests and other entrepreneurial activities. Some universities seem to be better at this than others and we believe that it is cultural in nature and cannot be implemented without serious effort.  .
  10. Active Alumni Network- Everything else equal, the more effective universities are able to consistently tap into successful alum that have serial startup experience and/or managerial success across multiple vertical markets in order to help vet and market emerging inventions and technologies.

Stay tuned ... for future blog posts in the entrepreneurial ecosystems series. Our blog posts will feature best practices, innovative methods and profiles of Universities and Entrepreneurial Ecosystems that are changing the game.

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