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College And University Incubators Should Start Practicing What They Preach

More colleges and universities are finally getting the point: entrepreneurship is a vital part of our economic prosperity.I believe today’s high-risk, high-reward marketplace is attracting more people to develop (and cash in on) innovative ideas. And to remain relevant and enable emerging thinkers to pursue better pathways to success, post-secondary institutions in the United States and Canada are introducing business incubators and entrepreneurship centers on campus.

But not all university-based business incubators are the same. Some, like the NYU Startup Accelerator, are open only to teams that include students enrolled at the host institution. They help transition their early-stage entrepreneurs from discovery to innovation. Others, like DMZ at Ryerson University (where I’m executive director), are not just for student entrepreneurs. DMZ accelerates businesses at multiple stages. This is also the case with Stanford University’s StartX. There are also for-profit university-based models — such as University of California, Berkley’s SkyDeck — that invest capital into startups — and sector-agnostic models, like Yale University’s InnovateHealth, that support ventures in a variety of industries.

Despite the wide gamut of university-based entrepreneurial spaces and incubator-accelerator models, how effective have they been? Researchpublished in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal suggested that academic-affiliated incubators haven’t been the best when it comes to at least one metric of innovation — patents. The study shows “a strong negative association between the establishment of an incubator and the quality of patents produced subsequently by that university.” The researchers also go on to suggest how entrepreneurial spaces can drain the resources of post-secondary institutions that could be used for other “university efforts to generate innovations with commercial relevance.”

However, many university-based incubators have tilted their philosophy away from high-level research and are focused on creating new jobs and venture capital funding for startups.

Many of the top tech companies to watch, like Kik and Vidyard (Velocity at the University of Waterloo), to name a couple, have gone through university-based incubators, validating the idea that post-secondary institutions with concrete entrepreneurial support can help launch businesses with global potential.

The concept of incubator and accelerator programs has been around for some time, and I’ve hardly seen it change since the launch of Y Combinator in 2005. As new spaces for startups continue to emerge, it’s essential for incubators and accelerators — whether they’re university-based or not — to keep developing alternatives models. As organizations that typically teach startups to iterate fast, to listen to their customers and most importantly, not to stay complacent, we should start practicing what we preach.

A startup’s path isn’t linear, but we should understand the importance of creating a model that supports the full journey of an entrepreneur. As incubator-accelerator organizations, we should invest in people, not just their ideas. We can do this by using the post-secondary network and resources to provide programming, mentorship, connections to investors and more. This way, startup founders have the tools to grow their businesses rather than feeling like they’re just being left to their own devices in a co-working space located at a university or college.

When we invest time and resources in entrepreneurs, we’re helping them accelerate success or failure. It’s no secret that many startups fail. I believe it’s the job of an incubator-accelerator program to ensure that if there is no real market need or the team isn’t right, that the startup fails fast and move into its next endeavor.

As university-based incubators and accelerators, let’s get strategic on how to invest resources — because it’s time to ensure the most promising entrepreneurs get the support they need to build and grow global businesses. It’s time that North American incubators and accelerators follow suit with the rest of the tech community — including startups and venture capitalists — by adopting the principle “feed the winners, starve the losers.” We should allocate our resources to generate the highest return in order to ensure the most promising businesses become the next household names.

I believe maturity and openness to change are essential to better set up startups for success. And as we enter an era where there seem to be more entrepreneurial ideas than there are spaces to support them, our ecosystem can improve on existing models so that they support our target market — high-potential tech entrepreneurs creating social or economic impact.

Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives. Do I qualify?


Abdullah Snobar

Executive Director at the DMZ — a tech accelerator for high-potential startups to scale and grow into world-class businesses.

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