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Universities fight to attract future startup creators

01/18/2016 10:11
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US academic institutions are changing their curriculum and are launching themselves into an innovation race to meet students' entrepreneurial ambitions.



The original charter of Houston's Rice University, which is among the 30 top universities in the United States, written in 1891, states that the institute's principles are based on promoting literature, science and the arts. According to the New York Times, Rice now seems to be interested in engaging the next generations of the Facebook Founder.

It is not the only university that has launched itself into the innovation race. And they have not got it easy. Around 10 years ago it was enough to offer a few business courses, workshops and classes. But students, inspired by the success of billionaires in Silicon Valley, expect universities to teach them how to turn their ideas into entrepreneurial projects. In 1985, US university campuses only offered around 250 business courses, according to a report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (which funds education and business training). By 2013, more than 400,000 students received this type of course.

Rice, in particular, offers academic courses in business strategy and funding, extracurricular workshops on startups and a summer program for studies who wish to set up a business. In August, the Texan university announced a multi-million "business initiative" to develop more courses and programs in this field. The university managers also say that they hope to set up a business center that provides support to the students' projects Elite institutions have embarked on a race toward innovation. Harvard opened an Innovation Lab in 2011 that has helped more than 75 new companies.

Last year, New York University set up a campus-laboratory for entrepreneurs, and this year the Northwestern University opened the Garage, a center for startups for students. “Students of today have a thirst to make an impact and we need to respond to that”, Gordon Jones, Dean of the new Innovation and Design College at Boise State University, Idaho, and former manager of the Harvard Innovation Lab, explained to the NYT.


However, some academics are skeptical about this entrepreneurial spirit frenzy and claim that startup programs can lack rigor and values. Some professors even believe that some universities are simply repeating the “innovation and split” models of Silicon Valley, seeking out potential clients and possible investors, instead of encouraging students to tackle more complex problems. Because it is a question of developing rich business ecosystems, many institutions are following the script written years ago by Stanford and the MIT, which consists of academic courses, practical experience and a large network of former students. Princeton also offers a variety of business courses. The possibility of creating the new Instagram or Snapchat is appealing to students. However, in a complicated labor market, in which young people think that they are going to switch jobs in a few years, some students sign up for startup training in the hope that they will acquire self-employment skills.

Some of this spirit was evident at Rice in October. In a design laboratory in the engineering department, the students involved in the health technologies program were working on developing products for real clients -Malawi hospitals- like low-cost medical devices. On the other side of campus a tour by startups was being held, bringing executives from young companies together with students.

To back their programs, universities are collecting money and looking for mentors among their former studies who have been successful and among local business leaders. The New York University Laboratory was funded by Mark Lesbie, founder and executive director of Veritas Software, along with his wife Debra. 

However, the workshops at some university campuses can clash with the traditional premise of schools who aim to educate critical thinkers. “True innovation is based on knowledge and long-lasting concern and interest, not only on “I thought of something that had not occurred to anyone before”, says Jonathan Jacobs, Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at New York University. “Quite frankly, that is not educating the people”. And at least a couple of business professors say that some universities are not ensuring that students learn the basics of starting, running and maintaining a business.

We will have to wait a few years to see whether the upcoming generations continue to dream about creating startups and whether the changes to educational models help them to do so.

By BBVA Innovation Center