Eduvation Blog

Incubators & Accelerators

Governments invest in higher education hoping to see short-term economic benefits in the form of job creation, knowledge mobilization, and increasingly, the launch of entrepreneurial new start-up businesses. In this week’s episode, Ken Steele provides a quick overview of college and university research commercialization, from the first research parks to the latest business incubators and accelerators.

In many ways, academic culture is antithetical to entrepreneurship. Scholars and scientists are often perfectionists, conducting exhaustive research, consulting their peers for input and consensus, and avoiding career-limiting risks. Academic culture is centred around credibility, caution, and certainty. Successful entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are often shameless self-promoters, confident or even arrogant, first to market regardless of quality control, and frequently keeping trade secrets from their competitors.

Many question whether modern schools are the right environment in which to nurture entrepreneurs or innovators.
Typically, higher ed researchers transfer intellectual property to the private sector for commercialization. Last year, UBC licensed a potential treatment for drug-resistant prostate cancer to Roche Pharmaceuticals for more than $120 million.

Corporations have been partnering with research universities since the 1950s, in research parks like the Stanford Research Park, established in 1951. By the 1970s, it was home to some leading high-tech research facilities, like Xerox PARC, and it is often credited with being the spark that created Silicon Valley. Google itself was a spinoff of the research of 2 Stanford grad students, and Stanford still holds some lucrative Google patents today.

The largest university research park today is the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, collocated to serve Duke University, UNC, and NC State. 50,000 employees and 10,000 contractors work at RTP for major corporations including IBM, Cisco, and GlaxoSmithKline.

But today, R&D is no longer the exclusive domain of major multinationals. A student or two with a good idea can take their business global in mere months, as Mark Zuckerberg did in 2004 when he launched Facebook from a Harvard dorm room. That’s probably what inspired the University of Waterloo to establish a “dormcubator,” the Velocity Residence, and 5 other branches of the incubator program including the Velocity Garage, the Foundry, Velocity Science, and more.  uWaterloo Velocity video

As North American employment is increasingly shifting towards startups and freelancing, business incubators have been multiplying. In the US alone, there are more than a thousand. California’s Y Combinator has funded more than 1,000 companies now worth $65 billion, and admission to their program is more competitive than Harvard or Yale.

UBI Global, headquartered in Sweden, looked at more than 1,200 university accelerators and incubators to arrive at its ranking of the top incubators of 2015. First place went to England’s SetSquared Partnership, a collaboration between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey. With 6 sites at the 5 research-intensive universities, SetSquared has helped more than a thousand companies raise over £1 billion, and create 9,000 jobs. The #2 incubator in the world is the Innovation Incubation Center at Chaoyang University of Technology in Taiwan.

The top university incubator in North America, #3 in the world, is the DMZ at Ryerson University. The DMZ has launched more than 180 companies, creating more than 1,000 jobs, and attracting $70 million in seed funding. Politicians and the business community praise the DMZ for creating better quality jobs, and harnessing the innovative capacity of the nation. Ryerson has launched other incubation zones, including the Fashion Zone, Design Fabrication Zone, ZoneStartups India, the Transmedia Zone, the Legal Innovation Zone, and the Social Ventures Zone.  Ryerson DMZ video

As we mentioned previously, colleges and universities are emphasizing experiential learning opportunities, and incubators are just one high-profile approach. Some academics question whether higher education should really be in the business of incubating businesses, but as more and more students graduate into a freelance and innovation economy, business incubators make sense as an extension of campus career services and research commercialization. If we want to prepare our students for successful futures and meaningful citizenship, they are going to require an entrepreneurial mindset.

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