Entrepreneurial universities: marrying scholarly research with business acumen

Young entrepreneurs from Egypt, Rwanda and Peru discuss their experiences with US former President Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at an entrepreneurship summit at Stanford University last year. Photo: Stanford University/Aaron Kehoe

What would you think of a university that provides you with world-class education, pays for your internship abroad and, when you graduate, gives you a cool $100,000 to start your own business?

Welcome to the world of entrepreneurial universities, a new trend among institutions of higher learning worldwide of going beyond their traditional role of providing education to incorporate research, innovation, commercialization of knowledge and entrepreneurship.

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of the entrepreneurial university, but rather a plurality of approaches, inventive, creative and yet practical, that distinguishes the entrepreneurial style.

Tired of churning out thousands of graduates each year who cannot find jobs, universities are gravitating towards innovation and entrepreneurship. These universities go by different names: some call them entrepreneurial universities, others innovation universities, and others refer to the business “incubators” that take students through the rigours of running a business. The common thread is the emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Ronnie Washington, a 28-year-old American graduate, understands well the benefits of attending entrepreneurial universities. In 2014 he joined Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business for a two-year master of business administration (MBA) degree. Near the end of his course, he travelled to Ghana for a five-week internship, sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, otherwise known as Seed. It paid for his ticket and accommodation.

While in Ghana, Mr. Washington worked under Michael Amankwa, the founder and chief executive officer of CoreNett, a tech company that creates electronic payment processing programmes for financial institutions, retailers and governments. Here he learned the ropes of running a business. No challenge he faced during his time in Ghana, from infrastructure problems to power outages, could stop the young graduate from seeing the bigger picture—what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

Intellectual and financial resources can confront global challenges such as climate change, extreme poverty, childhood diseases, and an impending worldwide water shortage.

On his return to the United States, Mr. Washington created Onward, a computer application that makes it easier for low-income workers to save and also to borrow money from a revolving credit line for small family emergencies. In late 2016 he was named the Stanford Social Innovation Fellow and was given a $110,000 grant to start his own business. Mr. Washington is now the CEO of Onward, based in Washington, DC.

In traditional universities a student attends lectures, writes exams and submits a thesis before graduating. But at entrepreneurial universities, students are trained to go a step further and turn their research papers into business ventures. Some universities also liaise with industries interested in using their type of research.

In their book Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, American authors Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein say universities should use their vast “intellectual and financial resources to confront global challenges such as climate change, extreme poverty, childhood diseases, and an impending worldwide shortage of clean water.”

Hastened by globalization and increased competition, the industrial mode of production has run out of steam in many countries. And so has the traditional scheme for post-secondary education, with its emphasis on theory over practice. Far more emphasis is needed in practical experience, academics are starting to say, in a real working environment.

This entrepreneurial phenomenon is not limited to business schools, but also occurs in universities specializing in such fields as agriculture, science, medicine and information technology.

Some of the many US universities that have been quick to embrace the innovation and entrepreneurship model include Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, the University of California and the University of Wisconsin. Stanford University in 2015 opened two centres in Africa (in Ghana and Kenya) to offer internship programmes to young entrepreneurs.

Brazil, China, Europe and North and Latin America, as well as some newly industrialized or industrializing countries, have embraced it.

Calestous Juma, professor of practice of international development at Harvard Kennedy School, says African universities should embrace innovations to be able to “respond to local needs.”

In February 2016, African leaders invited Professor Juma to the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to present a paper on how universities can integrate education, research and innovation.

One of the objectives of AU’s Agenda 2063, Africa’s development blueprint for the next 50 years, is to reposition the continent as a strategic player in the global economy through improved education and the application of science and technology in development. Achieving these objectives will require aligning education, research and innovation with long-term socioeconomic objectives.

So far only a couple of universities in Africa have embraced innovation and entrepreneurship. Professor Juma gives an example of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, which built and launched a satellite as one of its innovations.

Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Professor Juma says, “pioneered in commercializing tissue culture bananas, hence bringing together teaching, research and product commercialization.” Tissue culture is a method whereby plants are produced from roots, leaves or stems in a lab in great numbers to increase yields. The university also recently created the Nairobi Industrial and Technology Park in a public-private partnership with the Kenya’s Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development to facilitate uptake of university research results by industry players. It will also provide a shopping mall space to incubated firms started by the students.

In West Africa, the University of Ghana is implementing the same innovation and entrepreneurship model. While acknowledging the need to “[change] the orientation of universities in Africa to be able to put research and knowledge into actual use,” the university’s Professor James Dzisah told Africa Renewal that some of the challenges of implementing this model include the high costs of reorienting students and integrating the new thinking into traditional universities.

“Whatever the cost, it is time Africa invested in these universities,” says Professor Dzisah.

These universities benefit not just the students but themselves. “Creating such universities will have two important budgetary implications. First, it will broaden the base for funding innovation by enabling specialized actors and industry to design and operate new universities using their own budgets,” Professor Juma told AU leaders. “Second, this will reduce the need to rely on funding from ministries of education.”

Thandwa Mthembu, the vice-chancellor and principal of the Durban Institute of Technology in South Africa, told the University World News of his plans for embedding entrepreneurship into the curricula and internal systems of universities.

After touring 10 institutions in seven countries that have successful entrepreneurship education programmes, including Finland, Germany, Mexico and Spain, Professor Mthembu liked the idea of embedding entrepreneurship education into the curriculum from the first year of study, and the idea of emphasizing practical skills, real-life challenges and group work. He believes these things can make students ready to start viable businesses by the time they graduate.

“We need to shift the emphasis from theory to practice from day one, asking ourselves: ‘How can we add value to society rather than to our brains only?’” says Professor Mthembu.

While traditional universities have climbed onto the entrepreneurship bandwagon, such programmes often focus on postgraduate MBAs that produce “intrapreneurs”—people who drive innovations within their current companies—rather than “entrepreneurs” who come from outside the system to create something new, he said.

“We need to get beyond the point of simply identifying a few students with good ideas and working with them, to the point at which every student is taken through a well-designed methodology in a fully-fledged programme.”

At Harvard University, economic and social entrepreneurship in Africa is one of the most robust and fastest-growing areas of interest. In the 2014–15 academic year, the Center for African Studies consolidated multiple initiatives along with some new ones into its African Entrepreneurship Program.

This programme creates and facilitates a range of activities at Harvard and in Africa, incubating innovative ideas, introducing entrepreneurship into classrooms and study-abroad programmes, offering direct mentorship and internship opportunities for undergraduate and professional school students, and cultivating collaborative opportunities for the production and execution of game-changing ideas.

The origin

Professor Henry Etzkowitz of State University of New York’s Purchase College, the man credited with coining the term entrepreneurial universities in the 1980s, told Africa Renewal that he first noticed at the time that some universities in the United States, such as MIT, were gravitating towards the entrepreneurial model. He decided to do further research on this model while at MIT.

“These universities aim to put their knowledge to teaching students, conducting research and taking a more active role in society with different actors and companies,” said Professor Etzkowitz.

Terming it a second academic revolution, Professor Etzkowitz notes that entrepreneurial universities are transforming the traditional teaching and research university by encouraging interaction among university, industry, government, which is the key to improving the conditions for innovation in a knowledge-based society.

Of the major changes that have occurred in the scientific world, a scholar at the Royal Society of London observed: “Many top academics are now also top entrepreneurs, forming their own companies, collaborating with big business, exploiting their inventions and contributing to the wealth of the nation.” – Africa Renewal

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