Accelerating Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Universities

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Linus Pauling

When dreams take flight | Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Pursuits in innovation and entrepreneurship are always worthwhile, especially more so when one gets exposure to them at the earliest possible stages of their life.

I was recently hosted by the wonderful leadership at the University of Sterling, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE where I had been invited for a interactive session with the management team, faculty members, and students.

I have shared ideas on accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship in universities via first creating and nurturing an entrepreneurial mindset, and then creating an enabling support ecosystem to help support that mindset in innovation and entrepreneurial pursuits.

The recorded session is shared below, as also some of the ideas shared there, right after.

Towards accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship in universities, the following would be helpful :

I. Creating and nurturing an Entrepreneurial Mindset

– Components of an Entrepreneurial Mindset

The components of an entrepreneurial mindset include : (a) Dreaming big, (b) Thinking and executing in detail and (c) Taking risks, working outside the comfort zone and persevering

– Enabling exposure to, and experience with, ideas around Innovation and Entrepreneurship

(a) Curriculum and / or Content : A structured curriculum and / or content structure enabling access to books, entrepreneurial activities, videos, biographies and interactions with entrepreneurs and business leaders around aspects of idea, execution, attention to detail, creating value for and taking care of the customer amongst other important entrepreneurial traits, are helpful when considering creating and nurturing an entrepreneurial mindset.

(b) Partnerships with like-minded organizations : Partnerships with like-minded entrepreneurial organizations which are already in the business and with a credible track record to show results, help give exposure and guidance to the students in a structured and efficient way.

(c) Apprenticeship / Internships : Apprenticeship / Internships at firms and startups are a good learning ground for youngsters to get to work on things whilst they are still in institutions of learning. For those starting on their first jobs, one way to go about the same is to choose good companies with incredible team members where you see growth and enough funds (via bootstrapping, revenues or investor funding) for the ventures to sustain in their initial years. Usually the team sizes are small here, and one will not only get to work on a lot of things and learn a lot, but will also be given responsibilities much earlier should they prove their capabilities, than when one would be working at a 5000+ team size firm. The same also applies for promising startups in the university incubators and accelerators too.

II. Creating an Enabling Support Ecosystem (From idea to product to company building)

Once the institutions have worked towards creating an entrepreneurial mindset, the next course is to ensure that the entrepreneurial mindset can be nurtured and supported to build the companies progressively over the next steps. This can be done via the following ways.

(a) Makerspaces : Makerspaces are dedicated spaces where, should a team of students have an idea, they would be able to go and tinker, experiment and try and build the solution to a problem in their mind. This could be hardware, software, automobiles, biotech, etc. Getting together a multi-disciplinary team coming in from various disciplines and courses, as also adding in for diversity and inclusion is also an important and helpful factor. Complimentary skill sets and diversity and inclusion add to refining of ideas, as also help with the execution part of all that is required to be done when building a venture.

(b) Incubators and Accelerators : Incubators are spaces where we can help a team take a solution from idea to product to company building stage. Accelerators on the other hand primarily focus on MVP or the ‘Minimum Viable Product’ stage onwards, where they accelerate the startup with an MVP to the next stages in a short span of time.

(c) Avenues for idea to product to company building : When there is considerable progress on a product or solution, and the team wishes to pursue this further towards creating a formal company structure, it would help the institutions to have avenues to facilitate the next stages of company building including but not limited to company registration, legal help, accounts and book-keeping, assisting with patents etc.

(d) Access to an active innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem : Along with the above considerations, it also helps to create access to an innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem consisting of other startups and ventures, student community, faculty, entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, industry leaders, startup opportunities and events, university angel group, university venture capital fund, or, fund of funds (investing in other venture funds etc) amongst other important components which create value for all stakeholders in the long term.

(e) Collaboration with Industry, Private as also Government Entities : When thinking around partnerships, support, R&D, pilots / short term projects with businesses, B2B (business to business) possibilities, campus hiring as also potential acquisitions; it helps to take forward multi-faceted collaboration possibilities with the industry, private and government entities.

(f) Avenues for ventures to present their ideas and traction to potential investors : For the ventures which show promise and wish to be further scaled up, it helps to create access to opportunities where they can meet, learn from, and pitch to potential investors. Creating avenues such as interactive sessions, bootcamps, demo days etc would be helpful.

(g) Building on case studies, role model alums and the overall legacy of the institution : As time progresses and there are more and more wins to showcase; creating more success stories, role models and setting standards in the days, months and years ahead will be crucial towards creating a culture of excellence, innovation and entrepreneurship for the institutions. Personal example: My formative years included schooling at St. Columba’s School, New Delhi, India. Some of the incredible alumni from St. Columba’s School include Shah Rukh Khan, Rajeev Motwani, Deepak Chopra, Justice DY Chandrachud, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Nitin Nohria amongst many other prominent leaders who have excelled in their respective fields; and even though it was not spoken out loud, there was an imbibed culture of striving for excellence and it was expected the students would have high expectations from self and push themselves to do well in whatever we chose to take up.


Some of the examples and case studies benchmarked when thinking of innovation and entrepreneurship at Universities:

(1) Stanford University : As of the year 2022, Stanford is ranked as the largest producer of unicorn startups in the entire world. Harvard comes 2nd and University of California comes 3rd. Taking a year off to work on startups is common, as also common for students to take a light course load so they can spend more time on their ventures. Under Startup Garage at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), there have been more than 130 successful companies founded by alumni through Startup Garage, with over 2.5 billion dollars in funding raised by alums as of the year 2022.

(2) IIT Delhi : Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) have been ranked as the 4th largest producer of unicorn startups in the entire world. Of all the IITs, as of the year 2022, IIT – Delhi is credited with producing maximum unicorn founders. Companies founded by IIT – Delhi alumni include Flipkart, Meesho, Zomato, BharatPe amongst many others.

(3) MIT Media Lab : Produces approximately 20 new patents per year. Modelled on a strong industry facing interface and has corporate sponsorships.

(4) Y Combinator : Since 2005, Y Combinator has funded over 3,000 companies and worked with over 6,000 founders. Every 6 months over 10,000 companies apply to participate in their accelerator and they typically have a 1.5% – 2% acceptance rate. As of year 2022, Y Combinator has more than 110 companies valued over $100M and more than 25 companies valued over $1B. Some of the ventures from Y Combinator include Airbnb, Stripe, Reddit, Twitch, Instacart, amongst others.

(5) Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum (EMC) and Business Blasters TV Show by Delhi Government, India : The Framework for EMC was released in February 2019. The curriculum was piloted in 300 classrooms across 24 schools in April-May 2019 and thereafter launched for around 7.5 lakh students of classes 9-12 in 1,000+ schools in July 2019.

(6) Atal Incubation Centres (AICs) and Established Incubation Centres (EICs) by the Government of India : Greenfield and Brownfield initiatives by the Government of India under the aegis of Atal Innovation Mission (AIM). As of the year 2022, AIM has successfully operationalized 69 Atal Incubation Centres in 18 states and 3 UTs of India. More than 2900 startups have been supported by these AICs of which 900+ startups are led by women and have created 30,000+ jobs in the ecosystem.

(7) UAE’s vision for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and the World : UAE Centennial 2071 is amongst other leading projects launched by the Cabinet of UAE, and which aims to place the UAE as the best country in the world by 2071. The UAE has always thought and executed big, and has plans to launch initiatives whose impact extends over the next five decades to support its new, futuristic economic model in line with emerging global economic trends, securing sustainable growth for the UAE’s national economy and creating new jobs, especially in sectors pertaining to the new economic fields, such as space, renewable energy, fintech, and AI.