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Entrepreneurs in the Academy: the Role of Entrepreneurship in Engineering Education at Research Universities

July 23, 2014

Nearly twenty years ago, Dr. Tom Byers came to Stanford University with an audacious idea.  He believed that entrepreneurship education ought to be a fundamental part of the curriculum for every student in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  Moreover, he argued that rigorous scholarly research on the entrepreneurial process should be a fundamental part of the broader academic mission of a research university.  To drive these ideas, he founded the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), and was joined a few years later by STVP Executive Director Tina Seelig.

I was fortunate to work closely with Byers as an early member of the team that built STVP, back when the idea of integrating entrepreneurship into an engineering and science education was somewhat heretical.  Since then, I went on to serve as a top executive in two startup companies and launched the venture capital firm that I still lead today, Flywheel Ventures.  (Disclaimer: Byers also serves as the Chairman of the LP and Strategic Advisory Boards for Flywheel Ventures, and is an investor in Flywheel).  In parallel, the mainstream academic world began to accept entrepreneurship education as a fundamental part of a modern engineering curriculum, and I’ve kept a foothold in that world.  In addition to guest lecturing at institutions ranging from Pasadena to Edinburgh and London to Beijing, I remain a Lecturer (adjunct faculty) in the STVP today.

Recently, I spent a few days at the Stanford Faculty Fellows Program, a new global initiative aimed at assisting research professors and university administrators who are seeking to create or expand their own entrepreneurship education programs.  Twenty-four such professionals each spent a total of two weeks on campus in Palo Alto, immersed in a “boot camp” like environment with the goal of designing new entrepreneurship programs for their home communities and institutions.  Coming together from locations ranging from Chile to Finland and Lithuania to Uruguay, these academic “intrapreneurs” discussed with experts at STVP and elsewhere a variety of topics and questions about how best to design and nurture the growth of entrepreneurial programs inside of their universities.  I was pleased to both learn from and contribute to the discussion, and I thought that some of the key takeaways might be of interest to a broader audience.  In no particular order, here are some of my key “lessons learned:”

  • Entrepreneurial universities are always and everywhere driven by a core of entrepreneurs both inside and outside of the institution.  This parallels a key lesson with respect to geographic regions from the excellent book Startup Communities by venture capitalist Brad Feld.  In a university context, a sustainable and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem must include a variety of stakeholders, including tenured and adjunct faculty, successful alumni in the private sector, university administrators, local service providers, industry-leading companies of all sizes, angel and venture capital investors with ties to the institution, and students.  Each of these players is essential, but only the entrepreneurial students and alumni can sustainably drive robust interaction among the other stakeholders, with the support of key entrepreneurial faculty.  Not surprisingly, this is often because these students and alumni have the most to gain from a successful ecosystem – and they also have the least incumbent interest to politically protect.
  • Successful ecosystems foster the development of a dynamic human relationship network among the various stakeholders in and around a university entrepreneurship program.  Students are often the best-positioned players within the network to cross silos and drive cross-functional conversation and relationship building.  One or more entrepreneurial faculty members typically use their institutional credibility to provide – overtly or covertly – resources, support and protection of experimental initiatives.  Entrepreneurship programs therefore provide support for a variety of student initiatives and contexts to pursue formal and informal collaborative opportunities.  Once established, it is often easier for faculty, administration, and other stakeholders to then “join in” the already-proven existing student activities as the relationship network becomes more widely inclusive.
  • Entrepreneurship programs at research universities must recognize, incorporate, and promote the importance of scholarly rigor in research and professional pedagogy in teaching.  Other academic departments and programs necessarily focus on pursuing the leading edge of knowledge in their field, and in the classroom, they provide a foundational basis for students to be successful over their professional and personal lifetimes.  Similarly, entrepreneurship programs cannot solely – or even primarily – focus on the creation of startup businesses as evidence of success.  Support must be provided for tenured faculty who research and publish in academic areas of relevance to entrepreneurs.  Adjunct faculty should include professional practitioners, but only the subset of such experts who are also talented teachers capable of implementing best practices in the classroom.  Domain expertise and/or industry success are necessary but not sufficient for such roles.
  • Funding for successful entrepreneurship programs should always include sources external to the university, and sometimes comes entirely from such sources.  The willingness of funders outside of the university to provide resources for programs inside the university is a key test of the real world “customer value” of such programs.  That said, external funders will necessarily have their own agendas, and are likely to direct funding toward programs that narrowly match their own self-interest or align with their particular worldviews or market perspectives.  This is not inappropriate, but a portion of all funds raised from external donors should be set aside and/or “re-routed” to also support the broader academic priorities (including scholarly research, funding for Ph.D. students, etc.) that are essential to the longer-term mission and credibility of a successful entrepreneurship program inside a research university.
  • The focus of entrepreneurship education should be on the development of an entrepreneurial “mindset,” not on a set of vocational skills, nor on outcomes associated with the formation of for-profit businesses.  To be successful in the 21st century, graduates of STEM programs obviously need to develop technical and analytical skills, but a technical education is no longer sufficient.  In addition, they must also be able to lead and collaborate with colleagues and peers in diverse, geographically dispersed teams both within and across organizational boundaries.  They must be flexible, resilient, creative, and empathetic.  Finally, they must be able to recognize and pursue opportunities.  These core aspects of entrepreneurship education are relevant not just to startups, but to organizations of any size that value and pursue product development, “design thinking,” prototyping, market testing, etc.

The importance of formal entrepreneurship education as a core component of STEM research and teaching at research universities is growing rapidly.  Over the past twenty years, STVP has proceeded to revolutionize research on and teaching of entrepreneurship in the context of engineering and the sciences.  On the commercial side, alumni who studied in the STVP program have launched a variety of successful startups, ranging from Instagram to Skybox Imaging.  The academic establishment has also endorsed the role of entrepreneurship education in STEM; in 2009, the prestigious National Academy of Engineering awarded Byers and Seelig the Bernard M. Gordon Prize, which recognizes leaders for their contribution to new educational approaches to engineering.  In 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $10 million – one of its largest single grants in history – to STVP to support the development and launch of Epicenter, a national center to support teaching and innovation, and entrepreneurship in engineering across the country.  NSF has also funded the development of the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which is based on the “Lean LaunchPad” curriculum developed by my Stanford colleague Steve Blank.  Just a month ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced their adoption of Blank’s Lean LaunchPad as the basis for a new life sciences entrepreneurship program, I-Corps @ NIH.  Clearly, we’ve come a long way since the days of viewing entrepreneurship education as a few courses in a business school curriculum, and possibly a student business plan contest.  I’m proud to have played a small part in advancing the cause – and I’m confident the result will be successful solutions to the “grand challenges” facing the world.
–copyright 2014

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