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How to Design a University Entrepreneurship Eco-System

Professors have wide discretion over the purpose, pedagogy and learning outcomes of their individual courses. Designing and implementing an entrepreneurship degree program involves a wider stakeholder group and longer timelines, but those driving the process also have a high degree of control and authority over the outcomes of the ADDIE process. But how do you motivate and influence a complex university-wide eco-system of virtually autonomous stakeholders with potentially competing interests over scarce resources? 

Gedeon (2020) “Theory-Based Design of an Entrepreneurship Micro-Credentialing and Modularisation System within a Large University Eco-System” addresses this challenge, describes the influence of the Entrepreneurship Department Faculty and Ryerson Entrepreneur Institute (REI) on creating Ryerson’s eco-system, and provides six lessons learned. The paper addresses several universal challenges faced by entrepreneurship educators:

  • How does one go about providing a spark to ignite an entrepreneurial culture in your university that will hopefully grow outside of your control?
  • Are there any ways to influence, harmonize or integrate the disorder that follows?

“The theoretical design framework and implementation of the Entrepreneurship Micro-Credentialing and Modularisation System at Toronto Metropolitan University in Toronto, Canada is described, one of the largest programs in the world with 75 different entrepreneurship courses, ten on-campus incubators, several masters degrees, undergraduate degrees, majors, minors and co-curricular levels of credentialing. Over 6,500 students per year receive an entrepreneurship course credit and over 2,000 of these accumulate micro-credentials to achieve this course credit. In order to reduce the likelihood that students merely accumulate random modules and micro-credentials, it is critical to use an integrating framework so that these modules build toward a greater integrated whole (i.e. a curriculum).

This paper describes how a Micro-Credentialing and Modularisation System is currently used in six courses which build toward different credentials and program learning outcome measurements for accreditation purposes. University resources and integrating mechanisms are described as well as lessons learned during implementation. The primary theoretical contribution of this article is to extend the theoretical framework used for accredited program-level design for small cohorts of entrepreneurship students [the CFEE] into a university-level eco-system design. The primary practical contribution of this article is a detailed case study description of one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive university entrepreneurship eco-systems.” (Gedeon, 2020 pp. 107)

The detailed case study describes how grassroots efforts by Ryerson faculty and students sparked and supported the growth of Ryerson’s entrepreneurial eco-system which now includes:

Gedeon (2009) “Instilling an Entrepreneurial Culture” documents some of the specific early-stage grassroots efforts that REI played in igniting the entrepreneurial spark at Toronto Metropolitan University. However, if igniting the spark takes off, each university eco-system will grow to have its own unique array of stakeholders and resources available for aspiring student entrepreneurs. Incubators may be “owned” by different academic departments, president’s office, provost’s office, technology transfer office, student clubs or independent non-profit entrepreneurship centres. Degree programs in entrepreneurship or innovation may be granted by different faculties (e.g. engineering, creative industries, business or community service) as well as undergraduate and graduate schools. Award programs, funding opportunities, mentorship, events and entrepreneurial enthusiasm may be widely distributed across a large university. One of the most important developments in the Toronto Metropolitan University eco-system was the harmonization of our various incubators under a Director of Zone Education reporting into the Office of the Provost.

“A new model of immersive experiential learning to support entrepreneurship across campus is described based on the development of on-campus incubator/accelerators, called Zone Education at Toronto Metropolitan University, now consisting of ten faculty or discipline-specific incubators housing more than 300 student teams, including the #1 rated university-based incubator in the world (UBI Global, 2018). The difference between business incubator service goals and Zone Education goals to issue course credit credentials based on micro-credentials is described.” (Gedeon, 2020 pp.120)

The following is a condensed version of six lessons learned at Ryerson (Gedeon, 2020):

  1.  Start all planning with a consistent and validated theoretical framework. Integrating scholarly research with any teaching proposals gives administrators and fellow professors confidence that they are making the right decisions.
  2. Use a holistic definition of entrepreneurship (ConeeectU Philosophy of Entrepreneurship, 2019). Expanding entrepreneurship beyond merely starting a business, allows other disciplines to embrace this positive force for social innovation and personal transformation (Turgot-Dao, et al., 2015). This means that the ENT Department had to let go of control and trust others to make reasonable decisions, or no decisions at all.
  3. Encourage grass-roots innovation, but then institutionalize. Many of the incubators were started by faculty members and/or run by students for some time before later becoming fully funded and institutionalized under a Director of Zone Education. Unleashing this ground-up innovation is important, but so is the top-down institutionalization, funding, and professional management to make the initiative sustainable. The transition of ownership can result in hard feelings if not done properly – nobody wants their baby stolen from them.
  4. Take the long view. Administration and staff change frequently. So if you don’t get your way, be patient, be polite, be supportive and bide your time. Focus on long-term positive supporting relationships with other professors… and eventually many of the stakeholders will change and new decisions will be made.
  5. Create cross-disciplinary integrating mechanisms. Programs like the Ashoka Changemaker Campus (Ashoka, 2019) and HEInnovate (2019) provide an excellent opportunity for new ideas and actions to arise from collective action not initiated solely by the ENT Department or grassroots organizations like Enactus. Becoming an Ashoka Changemaker Campus also helps provide legitimacy, formalize sharing across faculties and solidify key stakeholder groups across the university.
  6. Use micro-credentials to transfer knowledge and augment experiential learning programs. It is the author’s opinion that micro-credentials should not be used as ends in themselves, but rather as part of a larger credential, like a course, that is administered by a professor or facilitator who ensures the relevancy and integration of the micro-credential into a greater holistic understanding. In particular, micro-credentials appear to be good for transferring knowledge, but weaker at learning skills.” (Gedeon, 2020)

Nicholls-Nixon, Valliere, Gedeon, and Wise (2020) “Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and the Lifecycle of University Business Incubators: An Integrative Case Study” describe the birth and growth of the DMZ at Toronto Metropolitan University – ranked the World’s #1 University Business Incubator by UBI in 2018. The Identity-Legitimacy-Life Cycle Model is used to explain how the pursuit of resources and organizational legitimacy shaped the development of the DMZ along key strategic and operational dimensions. Three stages of the incubator lifecycle is described from conceptualization to professionalization to growth and the different audiences, goals, norms and values at each stage are compared. Of particular relevance to readers may be the section that describes the natural difficulties and tensions that occur during the transitions between stages in an incubator’s lifecycle and how to overcome them.

Ryerson faculty have been active in researching the role of university business incubators (UBIs) including Nicholls-Nixon, Valliere, & Hassannezhad (2018) “A Typology of University Business Incubators: Implications for Research and Practice”Nicholls-Nixon & Valliere (2019) “A Framework for Exploring Heterogeneity in University Business Incubators” and Nicholls-Nixon & Valliere (2018) “Strategic Orientation and Business Incubator Performance: An Effectuation Perspective”.