I was part of a panel at Invest Atlantic on the role of universities and colleges in the Atlantic Canada startup community. We addressed the question below:

Many of our post-secondary institutions have been successful in fostering many new startups, but how are they finding it once they leave the educational nest and try flying on their own? Hear from some of the advanced programs on what they think is needed to support the next generation of post secondary startups.

I can’t really speak to the question from the perspective of supporting alumni since Cape Breton University’s UIT Startup Immersion has only had alumni for a few weeks now; we just graduated our first cohort, 6 women and 6 men, in August.

Instead I offered some thoughts on how universities can support startups upstream, i.e., at the education part of the pipeline (to mix metaphors). After all, if startups are going to be sustainable, they need to be able to hire. And we know that the Ivany Report calls for a zillion new startups, like now or never. Universities can do a lot to contribute to that talent pool (to return to the original metaphor).

If universities are going to develop “opportunity creators”, to use Karina LeBlanc’s broad term for entrepreneurial-minded students, universities themselves need to be always scanning for opportunity. Here are three ways:

Responsible Encouragement

Universities should identify and encourage students who have the desire to pursue entrepreneurship (both as founders and as team members) and make sure those students get the skills/education/etc they need to succeed. This is obvious and simple.

But let me emphasize this: universities must be honest about entrepreneurship, which is that it can be really, really hard! I’m an entrepreneur — I ran my own web design company for 5 years; and now I run UIT which is itself a startup — and I’m sure that many if not most entrepreneurs reading this would agree. Entrepreneurship is friggin’ hard. Yes, it’s also hugely rewarding. But we can’t empower people if we don’t tell them the truth. Identify, encourage, and develop “opportunity creators”, but be responsible about it.

Accredit Experiential Learning

Don’t make students choose between academia and startups. Universities are already accrediting experiential learning… but do it more. The traditional undergraduate degree — a fixed 4-year unit — is an anachronism. It’s a centuries-old currency that comes out of a centuries-old economic model.

The future is about the science of learning, plus big data, plus personalisation, plus collaborative technology. And the goal is 100% proficiency for all students.

Instead of one-size-fits-all, have students hit personalized milestones — the same way startups do in incubators. A PhD student might start with research, move on to designing a business model canvas, pitching to investors, building a team, gaining market traction, revenue, growth, and so on. In other words, the practical application and commercialization of a student’s research should be encouraged and incentivized through university accreditation.

Embrace Innovation

We can’t make the mistake of assuming that universities themselves are immune to disruption. When we talk about universities supporting startups, we need to do so within the broader context where universities might be Blockbuster Video and here comes Netflix.

LinkedIn recently acquired Lynda.com, and the subtitle of the release says it all: “lynda.com’s high-quality content provides opportunity for [LinkedIn] members to easily gain the professional skills they need to get hired and advance their careers.”

Imagine receiving the following message:

Hi Mike, a recruiter who was looking to hire a web developer checked out your profile — and ten other profiles just like yours. All ten had a lot in common: all ten listed HTML, CSS, and PHP as skills. Except for one who also listed Javascript. And she got hired! [LinkedIn knows this because when she changed her profile to list her new employer, LinkedIn made the connection.] And so hey Mike! Here’s a great Javascript tutorial from lynda.com to improve your skills and update your resume….

Once I complete the tutorial LinkedIn could even notify that recruiter and others like her.

This is a simple example; about easily codified knowledge. The skills required to launch or lead a business — so-called “soft skills”, even though they are the hardest to learn, like critical thinking, communication, problem solving, etc — are still best gained from a liberal arts education. But it’s surprisingly early days for online learning, MOOCs, etc.

Thanks to my fellow panelists:

  • Dawn Jutla @DawnNJutla — MTEI Program, Sobey School of Business, SMU
  • Mary Kilfoil @Mary_Kilfoil — Starting Lean, Dalhousie
  • Karina LeBlanc @KarinaMLeBlanc — Executive Director, Pond-Deshpande Centre
  • Chris Mathis @SBAtlantic — President & CEO, Springboard Atlantic

Leave a Reply