Entrepreneur Support at University: Risk & Reward
Guest post by Josh Flannery, Manager, Student Entrepreneur Development , University of NSW. Josh has a Master of Business & Technology (AGSM), a degree in Communications and has worked across Asia in both Startups and Commercialisation roles including 6 years in Japan, and 2 years in China & Hong Kong as Senior Regional Manager, China for Macquarie University. In 2005 Joshua Co-founded edtech company StudyLink株式会社, the Asia based sister company to Learning Information Systems Pty Ltd and also ran a boutique education consultancy in Japan, InterCreations, with fellow Japan guru Jeremy Breaden.
Josh has developed and launched the student enterprise program at UNSW which has helped launch early-stage start-up ventures for ~200 student entrepreneurs. If you want to get involved as a mentor, industry partner or a sponsor you can connect with Josh on Linkedin. The companies shown below are some of the startups launched in the last two years.
Too Early to tell
In 2014 one thing is certain when looking at the way universities in Australia are beginning to support their students in the area of entrepreneurship: no one REALLY knows if they are doing the right thing.
One of the reasons is that we are still too early in the game. No university in Australia has formally dedicated resources to supporting student owned start-ups (i.e. start-ups where the uni holds no equity stake) for long enough to know.
If the university is not asserting ownership over students Intellectual Property nor taking a percentage of equity in their start-ups, then how can the investment in providing people, services and other resources really be sustained or justified?
Here are three medium to long term reasons why this investment by universities makes sense.
Student recruitment and differentiating the student experience
International student recruitment has been the key source of revenue generation for universities in Australia for a long time. Having served on the front line of international student recruitment for both an Australian university and as a service provider to many Australian universities, I have worked closely with student recruitment agent partners, schools and foreign universities in marketing to and recruiting international students. It has been the case for at least the 14 years I’ve been around that beyond the various groups, alliances and unreliable rankings, Australian universities have a tough time differentiating from each other – let alone strong competition from other traditional destination countries (US, Canada, UK) not to mention increasing competition from Asian countries too.
“What kind of job and salary can my daughter get if we pay for her to study at your university?” or, “What internship and work experience options does your university offer?” were two of the most common questions asked by parents of students ready to hand over their savings to invest in their child’s education. The only more common questions were regarding scholarships. In 2014, a good internship and promise of starting salary is not enough to stay competitive. There is an opportunity now, leveraging student entrepreneur and start-up support, to offer something more to these potential students and their parents. Whether or not a student continues an entire career of entrepreneurship or tries, fails and learns from a start-up journey before going for a safer graduate job think about this: If you were the person hiring new graduates for a role in your company, would you choose the student who has experienced running his or her own business or a student that has not?
Engaging industry and alumni for the one cause: student entrepreneur success
Universities in Australia are struggling to engage both alumni and industry to the same extent it happens in the US. Whilst alumni and industry are very different challenges, for different reasons working with innovative students brings real benefits to all involved. Whether it be big companies working with universities in running competitions and hackathons, or a university nurturing a network of alumni and then matchmaking alumni mentors and new student entrepreneurs, the results can be win-win-win.
Innovation for big companies, unique experiences for students or pre-backed start-up companies for students, alumni and industry can all be bi-products of these activities.
Once a university has a track record in this area, could the perception of that university change to mean it has become “a place to collaborate” and “a place where innovation happens”. If yes, then this alone validates an investment in student entrepreneur support both financially and in value of reputation.
Building an army: 10 years = 10 cohorts of students with a reason to give back
Longer term, of course, is the same reason US powerhouses like Stanford and MIT do this.
Supporting hundreds of student start-ups year-on-year can only mean planting seeds for future “good will”. The hypothesis says that when a student entrepreneur “graduates” to become a billionaire global success story, she will remember also the little university back in Australia where it all started. She will naturally want to “give back” a donation to the new batch of budding student entrepreneurs who hope to be like her one day.
Encouragingly this is already starting to happen, if only anecdotally. For example, the generous Mr. Michael Crouch has recently gifted a large donation which has resulted in the soon to launch Michael Crouch Innovation Centre at UNSW.
So with these three examples alone, do the potential benefits in investing in free support for student entrepreneurs outweigh the risks for our universities?
Perhaps the greater risk greater is NOT making that investment. What do you think?