University research is a big business for many schools. It certainly worked out pretty well when Stanford licensed the search technology that Larry and Sergei had been working on back to them at Google. They netted more on that deal than Fordham has in it's whole endowment (but still, go Rams!).
On top of that, most of a school's major donors are likely to be entrepreneurs in some way. You just don't wind up with $25 million to name a dorm unless you've gotten equity upside in something.
Throw in the Zuckerberg at Harvard story--or rather Harvard "losing" Facebook and you wind up with a lot of schools wanting to figure out how the next big business can wind up on campus.
I've been thinking a lot about what an innovation-friendly school looks like and have a few thoughts--and it doesn't just mean building labs or creating more flexible IP licensing schemes. More and more startups are getting built without relying on University research--because hard technology is rarely the barrier to innovation these days. The challenges are more business challenges and design challenges--so schools need to rethink how they interact with innovation communities if it's not going to only be through commercialization:
- Recognize that creating a founder should be a secondary goal. I think it's actually easier to create founders by increasing the number of people a) exposed to the startup scene, b) teaching the right skills like sales, marketing, software development, etc that enable people to get things off the ground and c) getting people motivated to really understand their industries of choice, and to be leaders in those fields. Give them that and they'll decide on their own to be a founder.
- Support the student club ecosystem. Student clubs can be very powerful connections into the startup and innovation world. They have flexibility on programming, access to space, and can supplement curicculum in a world where official curicculum change takes years. If you had a computer science club, they could be all working on Codeyear together well before any teacher could weave it into their classroom. Unfortunately, most schools make it ridiculously hard for students to start official clubs, making it take, on average, almost a year, maybe more. They don't have great marketing channels to those clubs and the faculty don't advocate for participation as part of your education.
- Entrepreneurship education needs hard skills training. Part of me wants to just say that entrepreneurship education needs to be moved out of the business school altogether, but I know that's probably too jarring for most schools to think about. Still, B-school business plan competitions remain the air guitar championships of the startup world--people thinking about and writing about companies they'd like to start instead of actually starting businesses because they have the skills to do so. If you're not matching the students that want to create an online business with computer science students or kids from your design school, you're wasting their time. If anything, the business school students need to figure out what their value add is to a design or software development student. Sales and marketing skills and a huge network of customers, capital, and talent are huge value adds--but I know very few students honing that. Instead, they're focused on "strategy", which lots of makers already have a good starting sense of.
- Open your doors. If innovative people can't figure out how to get into the building, you're not going to learn from practicioners how to build successful companies. That means making it easier for meetups and innovation conferences to use your spaces. Schools are in the business of selling their conference space--but I'd argue that giving your space away to the best designers in your city, and encouraging your students to interact with them and attend that event will net you more in the long term than the $5000 someone is paying you to rent the room for the day when they have no synergies to what you want your kids to learn. The conference rental team should quickly switch from trying to "sell" space to trying to offer space to the kinds of people you want to put in front of your students.
- Be a community center. The other day, I was at a local school meeting with an academic. The school had plenty of lounges around, so after the meeting, I thought I might hangout to get some work done. The only problem is, the guest wifi needed a password. I actually went through the 20 minute hassel of tracking down the school's IT team to get me one. It was doable, but I'm sure I'm the only person that would have bothered. Does the school really want active investors leaving so soon, or would they rather us be visible in the hallways and lounges. Schools should create co-working areas where startups and other innovative folks from the community can come in and take meetings or work a few hours. They don't have to be big, contrived incubators--just a few couches and maybe a plug or two--and open wifi. This way, instead of sending the next big startup across the street to Starbucks to meet, you invite them in campus, increasing the serendipity factor that a student might run into an entrepreneur or a VC, get funded, or get an internship.
- Kick the students out. I don't mean literally, but I do think students need to mix with their professional communities a lot more. It should absolutely be a requirement for any student interested in entrepreneurship to attend local meetups and conferences. If that isn't a requirement of a class, they're simply not going to do it--but they need to in order to build the network that will drive their success.
- Kick the faculty out. A lot of schools talk about "access to faculty" as a driver of why startups should involve themselves in school programs, incubators, and competitions. That implies that faculty have something the startups can't get on their own--and it's a power dynamic that I think is changing. Yes, if I'm creating an optical laser, I might need to talk to a PhD, but if I'm doing a data mining startup, a lot of these grad students are hanging out at the Machine Learning Meetup. The faculty should be, too. In fact, outside of Evan Korth and Chris Wiggins, I don't think I've ever run into a faculty member from a local university at any innovation event--that is, other than professionals who come on campus to teach as an adjunct. If you're teaching entrepreneurship, online marketing, design, etc.--anything that will result in innovation--you absolutely need to see and participate in what's going on outside your classroom so that you can bring it back in to your teaching.
- Teach students how to fish in their careers. Most small companies will never be big enough to show up at your job fair--and their hiring is mostly opportunistic anyway. Yet, that's where the job growth comes from--small companies. You need to teach your students how to pick an industry, find the 25 most interesting an innovative companies, and create a plan to reach out to make inroads. This doesn't involve resume template training--it involves helping the student become more recruitable through their network and skills. It needs to start earlier and put a much heavier focus on *creating* the right opportunity, not just getting recruited by big companies.
- Connect with your alumni better. You undoubtedly have alumni entrepreneurs who are motivated to come back and assist you. It's really meaningful for students to know that they can wind up starting companies or playing leading roles at innovative startups at places that aren't MIT and Stanford. You just need to take the time to find and celebrate the successes of the most innovative alumni you have.