There is a tightrope to walk for universities in how they let students know about entrepreneurialism and deal with the potential for conflicts of interest in how they fund or support any subsequent start-ups that might form.
This month, news provider Boston Globe laid out some of these dilemmas in a nice piece looking at local academic institution Harvard University’s decision to allow the $10m Experiment venture capital fund to work on campus.
By aligning with the Experiment Fund, the Globe said Harvard was able to “steer students to venture capitalists with ties to the school, with the expectation that the investors will not encourage them to drop out….
“But because of the potential for conflicts of interest, both school officials and the venture capitalists agreed Harvard would not be involved financially.”
By contrast, west coast US-based Stanford University has decided to use its balance sheet to provide unlimited financial support to start-ups affiliated with the institution and going through the StartX accelerator, which it is also helping to bankroll as a non-profit educator of the entrepreneurs.
This support is a step on from the commitments made by Stanford’s endowment to venture capital funds, or the faculty and school contributions to support companies and light years from the intense debates about taking any equity or even whether its research should be commercialised at all (for more on this please see last week’s analysis).
While Harvard has taken its own approach along this road, other institutions are also casting about for ways to deal with similar challenges that reflect their cultures and aspirations in higher education and research.
But set memes are under threat at even a core level. Universities are dealing with earlier issues in the education process. They are also questioning their role as educator and researcher – often under criticism from commentators – and increasing pressures on them to link more with the rest of the local economy and help their students create their own jobs if none others are available.
The traditional response has been looking to the technology transfer office (TTO) to act as a gatekeeper and mange and commercialise intellectual property (IP) created on campus. But, as next month’s guest columnist, Deborah Stokes, director of external research at China-based telecoms equipment maker Huawei, will argue: “Imagine when TTOs rather than entrepreneurs are having to negotiate for access to the IP owned by a guild of innovators!… This is a real opportunity for TTOs to lead the way for university start-ups in a virtual learning lab.”
The Stanford-StartX Fund and Harvard-endorsed Experiment Fund, therefore, become just two tactical approaches from leading incumbents to handling strategic questions. Looking beyond borders and across industries for responses to similar fundamental challenges can also be insightful to TTOs and universities – after all, innovation itself often comes from outsiders.
In this spirit, we are delighted to draw together some of the world’s leading universities – from MIT, Cetim and Hitotsubashi to Imperial, Cambridge and Oxford – with some of the world’s most successful chief executives, government officials, corporate venturing units, venture capitalists and venture philanthropists for our one-day Global University Venturing Summit, which is now being held in London, UK, on October 16 (see speakers and links here).
Our original venue in Brussels was changed after our partner, Reed Elsevier, postponed its subsequent two-day conference. My thanks to sponsor Baker Botts for acting as our new host from its unparalleled view overlooking the Bank of England, as well as to the other sponsors (SVB, Intramezzo, RWE’s Innogy Ventures and MRC Technology) and our speakers and delegates for adjusting to the change so smoothly.