How Higher Education is a Primary Source of Innovation for Today’s Startups


July 28, 2020 5 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Although universities have always had a research function, they have increasingly become the primary source of innovation for many of today’s startups and organizations. Disproving the old cliché about delivering theory over practical solutions, today’s universities attract entrepreneurs who are working on challenging problems with real-world import. These institutions of higher learning are also nurturing more students to become founders themselves. 

Here are some of the ways higher education is taking on a bigger role within the entrepreneurial business environment. 

Related: How Remote Education Is Evolving During the Crisis

Academic incubators

Universities around the world are moving beyond classrooms and libraries to create these unique spaces where industry organizations and businesses work on-site with student founders to fuel new startups. 

According to research from the Review of Economics and Political Science, the growing number of university incubators leads entrepreneurs to develop greater understanding of business relationships, investing, employee mindset and more.

With the vibe of a combined think tank and collaborative workspace, these incubators also offer cafes, labs, mentoring services and conference facilities to emulate the feel of a real-world work environment. In many ways, they are just that. 

For example, UC Berkeley is the site of numerous incubators and accelerators, including LAUNCH, SkyDeck and the Method of Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. Such an extensive incubator presence on a single university campus includes significant funding for student projects. That encourages more students to transform their business ideas into companies while continuing to work on their degrees. 

One of their other incubator programs is The House Residency. As part of The House Fund, Berkeley students, faculty, and alumni can leverage numerous resources such as workspace, mentors, tools and up to $20,000 in funding towards building a company.

Related: Less Time, More Money, Mentoring at Accelerators, Incubators

Product breakthroughs and professor guidance

SRI at Stanford has been the source of many product breakthroughs, such as Apple’s Siri, the first mouse and Shakey, the first multi-purpose mobile robot. It also offers entrepreneur workshops and is addressing some issues related to the current global health crisis. 

In discussing higher education as an asset for today’s startups, Dr. Manish Kothari, president of SRI International, says, “The most important asset of a higher education institution or a research institute, such as SRI, is exactly the same as the most important asset in a startup – the IQ. A higher education institute also usually provides some unique intellectual property (IP). Without accompanying IQ, however, the IP is often of limited use.”

Kothari adds, “Think tanks can often understand business needs better, and private incubators can align the business use case with the venture investment model better. Business advisory groups can help solve scale issues. All of them play an important role, but none of them can reproducibly provide IQ.” 

Kothari also emphasizes the value of professors. At Stanford, professors serve as sounding boards for tackling complex technical problems, even in the years after a founder leaves the university. Also, SRI has been crucial for many founders who’ve identified a viable business opportunity but are struggling to innovate. 

“Many university licensing groups have databases you can query as well as regular email lists that are separated by thematic areas….The opportunity to do a paid project and ‘try-before-you-buy’ is very valuable. There are also opportunities for co-collaboration between your employees and the labs.” 

Related: How Remote Education Is Evolving During the Crisis

Business accelerators and entrepreneur workshops

According to research collected by VentureBeat, there are close to 250 startup accelerator programs at U.S. universities including MIT, UC Berkeley and Harvard. 

For example, Desai at the University of Michigan is an on-campus business accelerator helping companies move forward with innovative products. Working to build a local entrepreneurial ecosystem hub in Ann Arbor, this accelerator has been able to boost the launch and growth rate for dozens of startups. 

Designed for early-stage companies, the 10-month accelerator program combines funding, mentorship, collaborative workspace and access to Ann Arbor’s entrepreneurial community as well as the University of Michigan’s vast ecosystem. In this way, the university serves as a bridge to the local and global entrepreneurial community while supplying these startups with additional resources to develop. 

Various types of projects help a startup prepare for the future once it’s active in its industry. For example, universities can establish scenarios and cases that founders then act on in a controlled environment to better understand impacts and needs. For the Desai accelerator, that includes boot camps, tactical exercises and pitch events. 

Related: Pros and Cons of Incubator Funding

Development hubs that drive diversity

Opening the doors of opportunity to more bright students is another way that universities can help drive innovation for today’s startups. Organizations like VentureWell have identified significant barriers that prevent minority students from participating in innovation and entrepreneurship. By focusing on inclusion and diversity, higher education can help level the playing field early on for women and people of color. 

Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania have partnered with organizations in both the public and private sectors for the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, which offers training and placement assistance to area residents. Since 2011, the program has assisted nearly 800 adults and youths and delivered results. In 2019, 97 percent of graduates from the program found employment.

Homework assignment

These examples paint a bright picture of potential. However, more universities, investors and organizations need to do their homework and offer more opportunities that make it easy for today’s startups to innovate and launch. 

Related: Accelerator vs. Incubator: Which Is Right for You?


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