Vivek Wadhwa, a leading entrepreneurship researcher at Duke University, offers a piece explaining why so many well intentioned attempts to copy Silicon Valley fail. He focuses on connections between and among motivated people. In other words the culture and social institutions of the place. From Wadhwa’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
All of those are well-intentioned efforts to build Silicon Valley-style technology hubs, but they are based on the same flawed assumptions: that government planners can pick industries they want to develop and, by erecting buildings and providing money to entrepreneurs and university researchers, make innovation happen.
It simply doesn’t work that way. It takes people who are knowledgeable, motivated, and willing to take risks. Those people have to be connected to one another and to universities by information-sharing social networks.
Regional planners and some academics get very defensive when asked to produce evidence of cluster theory’s success. They commonly tout Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as examples of the success of government-supported clusters. Research Triangle Park is a 50-year-old project that achieved success decades ago but lost momentum in the Internet era. And the success of Silicon Valley was achieved without government involvement.
Later he offers some interesting policy proposals such as:
Reward university researchers and technology-transfer officers for the numbers of start-ups and jobs created by university research. Right now, researchers are often judged by the numbers of academic papers they publish, grants they get, and talks they give, while transfer officers are noted for the up-front license revenue they produce.
Changing/increasing incentives is a potential way to increase entrepreneurship. But, we must remember that entrepreneurship is incredibly difficult so that researcher or TTO officer must really want it — which Wadhwa describes as ‘knowledgeable, motivated, and willing to take risks’. This brings us again to culture. Incentives will help, but vision, drive, and passion for the future (an entrepreneurial culture) will sustain and grow a place, a university, and entire region over the long term.
We must, and Wadhwa recommends this in his piece, teach entrepreneurship more broadly. Wadhwa points to older workers. Absolutely. I believe we should also teach ‘short’ entrepreneurship courses to faculty across the university. (Our universities force faculty and staff to sit through countless ‘training’ sessions each year!)
These entrepreneurship bootcamps should focus on the power of entrepreneurship to unleash innovation and impact society as well as the basics of feasibility analysis and business planning. Obviously, each school would also educate faculty on TTO, incubators, and other institutional resources available to support their efforts. This then would provide a baseline understanding of entrepreneurship across the campus.
A campus awareness of the power and basic processes of entrepreneurship would allow faculty, students, and staff to more fully investigate the impact of their ideas and research. More clusters of people, units, and institutions would form around the idea of entrepreneurial impact and action. (This is already in place at a handful of the world’s leading universities, all with their own unique cultural imprint on the process and outcome — from Stanford to MIT).
The full piece is worth reading, especially faculty, administrators, and staffs worried about state budget woes. Entrepreneurship is the key mechanism for sustainably unleashing the power of the human capital assembled on campus.