The Entrepreneurial Campus — The Rise of the Rest

Ecosystem investment rises, but not where it is needed most

By: Robert Adelson

Columbia University, an academic institutional partner of OUP.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem on campuses across the country is being transformed at a rapid clip. The impetus for this change is both technologic and economic. We are witnessing a Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has elevated the perceived role technology will play in our lives, and universities want to share in the wealth created by faculty and student inventors and innovators. This is a cycle we have seen before, although not on this scale. On the economic front, the Great Recession of 2008–9 provided a budgetary shock to universities and colleges that may last for a generation; the political resolve to invest in higher education has given way, and universities believe they must find meaningful alternative revenue flows if they are to meet their historic missions. We have certainly benefited from this realization, as demand to join our first fund, Osage University Partners I, spiked during and immediately after the Great Recession.

The rapid transformation of the entrepreneurial ecosystem has manifested itself in several ways. Undergraduate incubators, campus accelerators, hack-a-thons, intra-mural shark tank competitions, on-campus funds, off-campus funds, educational programs, tenure credit for start-up activities — all these initiatives and more have bloomed on campuses, creating opportunities for new ideas to flourish but also upsetting traditional reporting patterns and metrics. The various programs, in addition to creating additional shots on goal for the university, are also magnets for alumni enthu$ia$m, tools for recruitment and, hopefully, the foundation for gifts back to the campus when current students become loyal donors.

All this is good news, although I have some reservations about the quality of training being offered to students who are committing themselves to the entrepreneurial track. We should not, however, lose sight of a fundamental truth — for most campuses, the real money is still in traditional tech transfer. And I fear that, as these other exciting programs take wing, they are being funded at the expense of the core tech transfer offices. This may be a good short term play, but it is a terrible long term bet.

Future blogs will address myths vs reality in the tech transfer world.

Robert is a managing partner at Osage University Partners, a venture capital firm that specializes in investing in startups commercializing university research.