Putting the uni in unicorn

The role of universities in supporting high-growth startups.

Putting the uni in unicorn

The Centre for Entrepreneurs in the UK published an interesting article earlier this year called: "Putting the uni in unicorn". Beyond being a fantastic name, it also has some great content.There is a link to the full article itself at the bottom of this blog and I recommend a read for those of you who are interested in the topic and have the time to read the 45 pages.

For those who do not have the time (or want to get an overview first), here is our summary (plus own thoughts) on what the article is about. Note: although it is UK-focused, there are plenty of lessons for educators in other regions too

Research (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and others) shows that many young people aspire to be entrepreneurs, but many do not act on this aspiration. Although this may not be totally surprising, the gap between aspiration and action is far too wide.

Universities are increasingly undertaking activities to stimulate entrepreneurship, but could and should certainly be doing more - and by doing so could close the gap mentioned above. The main problem (states the article) is that universities are engaging with students to increase the level of "enterprise thinking" and pre-startup activities rather than actually helping entrepreneurs startup businesses. Furthermore, the majority of the effort is aimed at undergraduates, while graduates do not get enough support - and this is the group that really have the time to launch a new venture. 

To digress from the article slightly and use some information from the"Enterprise Effectiveness Guidance" (released by the QAA for Higher Education), where they say the ultimate goal of enterprise and entrepreneurship education is to develop entrepreneurial effectiveness which arises from three areas: enterprise awareness, entrepreneurial mindset and entrepreneurial capability and is best shown in the diagram that follows (taken from that paper):

Developing entrepreneurial effectiveness

At Mashauri, we agree with the QAA that students should be given the opportunity to develop this entrepreneurial effectiveness by receiving practice, training and support in the areas of awareness, mindset and capability.

Returning to the "uni in unicorn" article, they go on to describe the need for universities to supply incubators with a specific focus on, or at least track for, graduates of the university. There is a recognition that a large number (78% in the UK) of universities do provide incubation, but only 37% of those have any targeting at graduates. They are mainly aimed at spin-outs and external SME's; furthermore the definition of incubator had huge disparities from supplying a few hot desks through to proper office and lab facilities with business support.

A few other interesting points made were:

  • * In comparison to our US peers, we are far behind on tapping into the alumni network
  • * The American universities also have a far greater focus on incubators for graduates - sometimes combined with acceleration programs.
  • * UK universities are facing uncertainty re funding with the proposed abolition of the Higher Education Funding Council and the impact of Brexit on EU funds
  • * Student debt is also having an impact on the propensity of graduates to start a business versus the less-riskier full-time employment role.

A useful output is a summary of a research survey conducted among some incubator managers and the conclusions are a useful guide for anyone launching or upgrading their incubator. They cover topics including: who uses (should use) university incubators; what sort of businesses are started; how do incubators raise awareness and how do incubators define success.

The article concludes that supporting graduates in university incubators is necessary to close the gap between intention and action within a group of people who have the wherewithal (time and motivation) to do so. They offer some practical recommendations for universities and policy makers; and also comment on the type of metrics that are required, but seldom measured at the moment.

Mashauri supplies cost-effective online acceleration programs to universities to support them in developing "entrepreneurial effectiveness" among students and graduates. Please contact me at simon.gifford@mashauri.org for more information - or simply have a look around our website.

The original article can be seen below (there is a download button as well). 
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