Universities have always been top-notch incubators of talent. Now they’re taking the lead in incubating entrepreneurial talent.

I’ve written about the tidal wave of university entrepreneurship at length--and, full disclosure, I’m on the faculty at Columbia University, so I may be a bit biased. But with the confluence of interdisciplinary potential and ample mentorship opportunities available in the university system, campus is one of the better launch pads for startups.

Here are seven factors I see further changing the landscape of university entrepreneurship and education:

1. Entrepreneur-specific programs spread: A multitude of schools are developing campus-wide entrepreneurship programs that provide space, mentorship, and education to their entrepreneurial community. Columbia Entrepreneurship, Harvard’s iLab, and Stanford’s dSchool are just a few examples. Soon schools without such programs will be in the minority.

2. The “lean startup" movement takes root: The lean startup philosophy proselytized by Steve Blank and Eric Ries has caught fire among student entrepreneurs. Similarly, those of us who teach entrepreneurship have for the most part adopted it wholeheartedly. Its principles are simple: Find out what your customers really want before building a product by speaking to them and “getting out of the building” first! This is great advice for entrepreneurs of any stripe and age.

3. Government grants get focused: Even some government SBIR programs, which traditionally have funded university research, have jumped on the bandwagon of a more “scientific” and lean approach to entrepreneurship. To qualify for a National Science Foundation grant, for instance, faculty now need to participate in a program called iCorps, which is a bootcamp based on lean startup principles. This way the government can make sure that their grants aren't wasted on building products with no customers. In other words, the government will only fund companies that have a real shot at growing instead of science projects posing as startups.

4. Investors come to campus: Venture capital firms have now designed miniature funds that sit alongside their main investment vehicles and are specifically geared towards attracting student talent that they can cultivate and support. Examples of this are the Xperiment Fund up at Harvard, the Dorm Room Fund (which is on multiple campuses and is operated by hand-picked students), as well as many others that have established deep ties with college campuses.

5. Festivals and hackathons take over: Universities and student entrepreneurship clubs are now more than ever hosting hackathons, administrating design labs, and putting on entrepreneurship festivals and venture competitions. They all help to stimulate the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus.

6. Administrations buy in: In many instances, the entrepreneurial energy of the student body has caught university administrations flat-footed. The whole concept of an educational institution taking on a new role as a launchpad of entrepreneurial ventures is culturally alien to many established universities. It's fascinating to observe institutions being slowly transformed to confront this new reality. But change they must, and change they are.

7. Silo-busting becomes commonplace: Entrepreneurship is, by its very nature, a silo-buster. Problem-solving often requires multidisciplinary teams to be effective and the natural silos that develop on college campuses don't encourage such cross-pollination. Entrepreneurship is changing all that, and the administrators of the typical engineering, business, law, journalism, and medical schools are realizing that there's a real necessity to facilitate cross-listing of courses and activities for their rapidly evolving entrepreneurship curriculums.

Published on: Apr 23, 2014
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