Think Tank to Shark Tank: Universities and the Entrepreneur Economy

The EvoLLLution | Think Tank to Shark Tank: Universities and the Entrepreneur Economy
The incubation role is a new one for universities, but given the need to prepare students for a new kind of labor market and the value successful graduates bring to an institution, the promise of this model is significant.

Since the recession in 2008, the American labor market has shifted significantly. The era of the lifelong career is all but over as the gig economy takes hold. What’s more, entrepreneurialism is becoming an increasingly popular pathway to success. Shark Tank has brought entrepreneurialism to the mainstream, and institutions that invest in the incubator model stand to benefit. In this interview, Nick Ducoff shares his thoughts on the symbiotic benefits that entrepreneurs and institutions alike gain from the incubator model.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the unique benefits a higher education institution can bring to entrepreneurship incubators and innovation hubs?

Nick Ducoff (ND): I’d probably flip the question because I think higher education institutions can learn more from incubators. Entrepreneurship incubators are open, technology-biased, and integrated with industry. Northeastern’s experiential education mission and history having these characteristics makes it a natural place to cultivate innovation. Higher education institutions can bring value to incubators and innovation hubs in the form of idea density and diversity, research faculty and labs, gap funding, mentor networks, and importantly, a safe place to take risks.

Evo: How do innovators and entrepreneurs benefit from incubators housed in postsecondary institutions?

ND: Innovators and entrepreneurs need universities. Even though Mark Zuckerberg was immortalized in The Social Network, there is no correlation between dropping out of college and becoming a successful entrepreneur. In fact, the Thiel Fellowship—which famously paid students $100,000 to drop out—changed gears by increasing the average age of its recipients and embracing college graduates. Beyond startups, college education is key in corporate America: Nearly every Fortune 500 CEO has a college degree, and over 70 percent also have a graduate degree. The foundations and networks developed at university pay lifelong dividends.

Evo: Why is it beneficial for a college or university to invest in entrepreneurial activities?

ND: Today’s students can’t expect to have the same kind of career their parents might have with consistent W-2 income. With the rise of the gig economy and torrid pace of innovation, people need to be able to create their own jobs whether they are entrepreneurs starting new businesses, or intrapreneurs inside an organization. Universities can future-proof their students by “teaching them how to fish,” and those students will become tomorrow’s donors, employers and alumni advocates.

Evo: What are some of the most significant challenges to getting successful innovations off the ground in a postsecondary setting?

ND: New ventures require upfront risk in the form of capital and talent, which are hard to come by in non-profits that are often already stretched. New ventures often fail, and when they succeed, that success can take a long time and require patience and nurturing while the new venture contributes relatively little to the university’s bottom line. It is easy to prematurely dismiss what might be on its way to becoming a breakout success. It is also easy to let experiments become zombies that continue to draw resources long after they are certifiably dead. Innovation leaders should draw attention to early wins and use that success to lobby for more resources, but also eulogize the failures, which can be hard to do in the ivory tower.

Evo: What excites you the most about this work?

ND: There aren’t many places you can have a bigger or more immediate impact than at a university. Universities have vast networks, abundance of talent, innovative research, and are anchors of their local community. This mix creates an ideal environment for testing new ventures, and scaling those that work. That said, the ecosystem work is bigger than any single institution or even the non-profit sector writ large. What’s more, the best ideas are more likely to come from outside the ivory tower. We’re currently sponsoring an OpenIDEO Challenge to reimagine higher education, and at a recent White House event I encouraged those in attendance to return to our campuses and companies and inspire others to believe that they are not only stakeholders in education, but are also change agents.

Evo: How do you expect the institutional incubator trend to move over the next five to ten years?

ND: In five years, some of the universities that are making investments today will be able to point to some breakout successes that were the product of intrapreneurship and those success stories will become case studies that others will seek to emulate.

More universities are hiring people whose sole job is to wake up everyday to ideate, test and scale new models that challenge the status quo. Business model innovation isn’t just for companies like Google and Amazon. Northeastern University embraces institutional innovation and two programs incubated by New Ventures—Experiential Network and Level—are early on their journey, but on their way to becoming breakout successes.

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Key Takeaways

  • Entrepreneurs and institutions both benefit from incubators operating on campuses—both need one another to grow and remain viable.
  • Though the incubator model is new, there are a number of innovative start-ups early in their journeys that will be highlighted as case studies for success in a few years’ time.
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