"Innovation, Entrepreneurship & the Role of the University"

Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, Beijing

20 October 2016


Good afternoon,

It's a great pleasure to be here, and to have this opportunity to talk on the role of the University in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

I thank the Schwarzman College for this invitation. As some of you are aware, my country, Ireland, has been chosen as 'country of honour' at this year's China Education Expo and Annual Conference for International Education. I'm here for the week, with other Presidents of Irish universities and with our Minister for Education and Skills, on a visit which includes participation at the Education Forum tomorrow and visits to Chinese universities.

My university, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, has strong links with Tsinghua University – indeed I've just come from a signing where we renewed the student exchange agreements between our universities.

In Trinity, we're also keen supporters of the Schwarzman Scholars programme – we've encouraged our students to apply and, this year, ran promotional activities to raise awareness of the programme.

Trinity also hosts the prestigious US campus entrepreneurship programme, Blackstone LaunchPad, which was launched in Trinity last academic year. Blackstone LaunchPad, which has enjoyed huge success in the United States, aims to equip students with an entrepreneurial mindset.

Here is a slide of the opening in Trinity College Dublin:

Image of Blackstone LaunchPad opening at Trinity College Dublin

I'll be talking further about this programme in the course of my speech.

*  *  *

My talk today focuses on the role of the University in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

In the 21st century, this is an essential sphere for universities. All universities would benefit from an innovation and entrepreneurship strategy, which enables them to put in place policies to:

  • Collaborate with industry;
  • Create campus companies, or spin-outs and attract spin-ins; and
  • Embed innovation and entrepreneurship training in their undergraduate and graduate programmes.

If universities don't strategize for this; if they're not proactive about finding ways to encourage and facilitate innovation and entrepreneurship across the university, then it won't happen. And this is an area where universities can't afford to fall behind. Innovation is intrinsic to the mission in research and education.

Let me explain why I'm confident about stating this:

First, I should clarify: of course university research has always contributed to innovation, but the link was not obvious. To give an example: in 2015 one of our graduates, William C Campbell won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. The wonderfully long gestation period of his research has also proved inspirational. He began studying parasitic worms as a Trinity student in 1950, then we forward twenty-five years to his great discovery of a drug to kill these worms, and another forty years to his Nobel Prize.

It has been a source of inspiration to learn of the human ingenuity and dedication which led to a scientific breakthrough, and that it takes time.

A few decades ago, this innovation process began to speed up. Change was spearheaded in the United States, where university research began feeding directly into the economy, and initiatives were put in place for academic researchers to collaborate with industry and to speed up the time to reach the market. The importance of "technology transfer" and "applied research" began to take hold – these are now household words.

Where the United States led, the rest of the world followed, and today innovation is often seen as one of the three pillars of university activity, together with research and education. Personally, I don't like the "three pillar" analogy because I don't see innovation as something separate: I see it as permeating both education and research.

The research that a university does determines how it will innovate, and the way that a university educates determines how entrepreneurial its graduates will be. Education, research, and innovation are inseparable.

From a university's point of view, it's energizing and inspiring to be doing the research and educating the graduates that drive social and economic development. It means that we are central, not only to job creation and technology invention, but to confronting complex global challenges like climate change, energy provision and inequality.

Universities can help to change and improve the world. That's a tremendous power and a tremendous responsibility.

*  *  *

Today, I'll be using the example of my university, Trinity College Dublin – because it's the one that I know best, and because we are global leaders in innovation and entrepreneurship.

This year, and for the second year running, Trinity emerged as the best university in Europe for educating entrepreneurs, according to the independent private equity and venture capital-focused research firm, PitchBook, which evaluates undergraduate alumni who go on to found companies that receive first-round venture capital backing.

Graphic titled Trinity- A European Innovation Leader

PitchBook found that Trinity has produced more entrepreneurs than any other university in Europe. Between 2010 and 2016 Trinity produced 114 entrepreneurs and 116 companies. Trinity graduates collectively raised $2.2 Bn in venture funding in the last 10 years. It needs to be said not all the Trinity entrepreneurs developed their companies in Dublin – this is a worldwide activity.

Trinity is the only European university in the global Top 50. So when it comes to educating for entrepreneurship, how is it done?

Before answering this in terms of specific initiatives which Trinity has put into place, I’d like to look at the broader context: What kind of environment fosters discovery, invention, and willingness to take risks? What circumstances produce the best campus innovation and entrepreneurship?

When I speak about innovation, by the way, I mean across the board. Often we tend to equate innovation with new technologies but that’s limiting. Innovation isn’t particular to technology – there’s cultural innovation, medical innovation, social innovation, policy innovation and I’m not here to say which one is more important. They’re all essential, and frequently societies which are good at one, get good at the others.

A university will innovate in those areas in which it researches and teaches. Trinity College Dublin, like Tsinghua University, is multidisciplinary. It follows that we innovate across all our faculties and schools.

For innovation and entrepreneurship to happen in a university, the environment has to be conducive. Let’s take a look at what’s needed:

First, universities have to operating within the right regulatory environment for innovation to happen. Innovation is both a public and a private sector activity and all the players involved - government, industry, individuals, enterprises, and universities - have to interact to create opportunities. When this is working well, we talk about a high-functioning innovation ecosystem.

Slide titled University Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Of course, universities only have limited control over the strength, or otherwise, of the innovation ecosystem. Putting in place the right regulatory environment is largely a matter for government. The most universities can do is to petition, and make the case for good regulation.

Second, because we're all now part of a global economy, universities have to be globally connected in terms of their staff and student bodies and their education and research programmes. In Trinity we say "Bringing the best of Ireland to the world, and the best of the world to Ireland".

This is a fast-growing area – already universities are embarking on joint degree programmes with peer institutes, some are establishing joint campuses, and I predict, we'll shortly see universities merging across national borders. Universities which don't put in place global academic networks and partnerships will lose competitiveness and their innovation will suffer.

Third, universities have to encourage interdisciplinarity. The most exciting research today often happens at the interface between disciplines, so interdisciplinarity is key to innovation. As an example: as a student Mark Zuckerberg studied computer science and psychology. He was in Harvard, where they are good at interdisciplinarity so he was making connections between those two fields, and the result was Facebook, the world's most popular social media site, which today has almost 2 billion active users.

Fourth, universities have to put in place strategies, incentives, policies and procedures which favour innovation and entrepreneurship. These don't just happen. Even if a university is situated in a high-functioning innovation ecosystem, and is strongly globally connected and focuses on interdisciplinarity – you can't assume that staff and students will automatically become innovative and entrepreneurial.

Even if the environment is favourable it's not enough – the right incentives and procedures have to be in place. Universities need to be proactive about facilitating industry link-ups and campus company formation, and they need to create opportunities for students to grow and demonstrate their entrepreneurship.

So, in my opinion, a university needs to pay attention to these four vital areas. If not it will fall down in innovation and entrepreneurship.

It will not surprise you to hear – if you’ve been following this far – that Trinity does very well in all these four areas! And that’s the secret of our success. Let me elaborate.

First, the right regulatory environment and a high-functioning innovation ecosystem:

Ireland currently enjoy the fastest growth rate in the European Union and the fastest employment growth rate in the OECD; and it is European headquarters to nine of the top ten global software companies, and nine of the top ten US technology companies. It’s also a base for many of the leading pharmaceutical companies, and local SMEs, start-ups and spin-outs are now contributing strongly to growth. The World Bank lists Dublin as one of the top 10 places in the world to do business.

So Irish universities are lucky: we have the industry we need for collaborations on our doorstep.

Among Irish universities, Trinity is particularly well-situated and we’ve done particularly well. We are a city-centre university and the innovation ecosystem flourishes around us.

Let me show you this slide which illustrates this well. Here, in red, is Trinity in the heart of Dublin city. Here [in grey areas and blue dots] are the headquarters of multinational companies clustered around us; here [orange circles] are the start-up clusters, many of them are in the newly-developed area, the Dublin Docklands, and here [yellow dots] are the creative industries, which include museums, galleries, and theatres.

Trinity - Dublin's Creative Incubator

Having multinationals, creative and tech industries located well within walking distance to our university means constant interaction and support. So over the past eight years, we’ve signed over 700 collaboration agreements with industry – as shown here:

Slide titled Trinity's Growing Industry Partnerships

Second, Global Relations.

This is an area in which we’ve been highly proactive. In 2012 we launched our Global Relations Strategy, which lays out specific actions to:

  • increase our numbers of international staff and students,
  • strengthen research collaborations and student exchanges,
  • launch strategic partnerships with peer universities, and
  • connect with our 110,000 alumni living in 130 countries globally.

We’ve had great success with all this: in just four years we increased our numbers of international students by 30 percent, so are now on track to meet our target of having 18 percent of students coming from outside the EU by 2019. This includes of course, Chinese students, whom we’re delighted to welcome to campus.

We’ve also greatly boosted our student exchange programmes and our international research collaborations, and this year we’re embarking on joint degree programmes with Singapore Institute of Technology, Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh, and were in advanced discussions with Columbia University in New York.

Third, Interdisciplinarity.

Trinity is well-positioned for interdisciplinarity because, like Tsinghua, we are a multidisciplinary university. We have 24 Schools across three faculties in arts, humanities and social sciences; Engineering, maths and science; and health sciences. Drawing on disciplinary strength, in the past decade we’ve opened interdisciplinary research institutes, and we’ve organised our research into nineteen interdisciplinary themes, including nanoscience, telecommunications, and creative technologies.

Ageing is one such theme – it brings together researchers from epidemiology, geriatric medicine, demography, social policy, psychology, economics, nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and technology-related sciences. We’re now recognised as world leaders in ageing research – and last year we received the largest philanthropic grant in Irish history, $140m, from Atlantic Philanthropies, to set up the Global Brain Health Institute, GBHI, in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco.

Fourth, strategizing and planning for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Our initiatives here have been so comprehensive that I don’t have time to go into all of them. Let me focus on two key areas: the creation of campus companies, or spin-outs, and educating for entrepreneurship.

I always point to our history with spin-outs as an example of why it’s essential to strategize.

Between 1986 and 2008, Trinity averaged just one campus company a year. We decided this wasn’t good enough and so our Technology Transfer Office revised the procedure for the approval of campus company formation. This had frankly staggering impact. We went from creating one campus company a year, to creating seven companies a year.

In 2013, to continue this growth pattern, we established a new Office of Corporate Partnership and Knowledge Exchange, which brings under one roof all the functions necessary to support research collaboration and commercialisation. The new Office ensures that all pathways enabling knowledge transfer to industry are open and supported.

This slide shows the great leap that happened after 2008 and the leap we expect to happen as of 2020, as a result of our new Office.

Slide titled Trinity's Growing New Company Formation

Now let me turn to educating for entrepreneurship. This is an area of traditional strength thanks to the Trinity Education, which has always been about developing independence of thought and critical thinking.

We've always stressed the importance of learning outside the classroom. We have the oldest surviving undergraduate student society in the world – the Hist debating society, established in 1770.

If you go to the Hist debates, it's clear the benefit our students get from participation in this society: they're learning to communicate, articulate their thoughts, think on their feet, and answer arguments. Our other student clubs and societies – be they in drama, music, politics, or sport – hone skills like leadership, discipline, and team-playing, which are absolutely essential for career-building, including entrepreneurship.

Our innovators and entrepreneurs are a product of the Trinity Education which developed their skills and encouraged them to explore freely "the search for truth, wherever it might lead", as it says in our College statutes.

However, we're not resting on our laurels. We're proud of our education but not complacent because nothing is static – if you're not constantly improving, then you're falling behind. So we've embarked on an ambitious university-wide project to renew the undergraduate curriculum.

The Trinity Education Project, as we're calling it, is about building on our traditional pedagogical strengths and ensuring that we're adapting appropriately to changes in the workplace and society.

Today's graduates have to be prepared to manage complex career challenges. The old idea of a profession and job for life is evolving into something more flexible and diverse. Being able to adapt to the digital workplace and acquiring entrepreneurial skills are increasingly important.

After consultations among faculty, students, and employers. And evaluations of existing programmes, and research into the best programmes internationally, the Trinity Education Project has agreed a set of graduate attributes which will shape the kind of education we offer.

They are given diagrammatically on the next slide.

These attributes are centred round four core pillars:

  • To think independently
  • To communicate effectively
  • To grow continuously
  • To act responsibly

An emergent attribute might be: "Willingness to take Risk" or "Willingness to fail". Coming from "to think independently" and "to grow continuously".

I'm very proud that Trinity students aren't afraid to fail. It was a Trinity graduate, Samuel Beckett, who coined the famous line:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

He understood this. He was 47 and had endured decades of failure before he found an audience for his highly experimental plays and novels and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There is no innovation and entrepreneurship without risk. Students who are afraid to fail won't go on to set up companies. We need to create an environment where students understand that nothing ventured, nothing gained. It's better to try and fail, than never to try at all.

We will embed these graduate attributes through academic and co- and extra-curricular activities, more diverse styles of assessment, and greater flexibility in combining subjects and changing pathways, with continued emphasis on depth in disciplinary knowledge.

We look forward to the successful delivery of the Project within the next two years.

In addition, we've put in place specific initiatives to directly develop entrepreneurship. These include our undergraduate accelerator LaunchBox, which provides students with seed funding, office space, and mentoring and is now a year-long programme.

Image showing Trinity College Dublin's LaunchBox

LaunchBox has been hugely successful. Within a year of its formation, it entered the prestigious University Business Incubator index as a 'Top Challenger', placed just outside the world's 'Top 25' from 800 incubator schemes assessed globally.

Now in its fourth year, LaunchBox has incubated over 150 student-entrepreneurs, created 40 jobs through start-ups, and raised over €3 million in investment. Some of the start-ups have been hugely successful and have received extensive media coverage, including the social enterprise FoodCloud, which helps businesses redistribute surplus food to those in need, and TouchTech, a payment processing venture and online authentication venture now working with VISA, and Artomatix which develops tools for digital media creation,

LaunchBox is for undergraduates. For our Ph.D. students, we've established the Innovation Academy This seeks "to develop a new kind of Ph.D. graduate, expert in their discipline, with a thorough understanding of how innovation can convert knowledge and ideas into products, services and policies for economic, social and cultural benefit". Ph.D. students are linked up across disciplines and across three Irish universities to collaborate, brainstorm and avail of advice from mentors and experts.

Image showing Trinity College Dublin's Innovation Academy

Complementing LaunchBox and the Innovation Academy, is Blackstone LaunchPad, which I mentioned earlier.

This slide shows the interaction between our different accelerators, and the two Knowledge Innovation Communities, or KICs, which are funded through the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and brought together under the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub.

Image showing Trinity College Dublin's Innovation & Entrepreneurship Hub

And finally, last week building commenced on our new Trinity Business School which is to be co-located with an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub. This hub will be the entity over all the innovation training activities given on the slide.

*  *  *

So these are some of the things we've been doing and I apologize for all this  information! It is a lot to take in. But I wanted to get across the kind of actions we've taken to enable Trinity to emerge as Europe's best university for producing entrepreneurs.

It's a matter of pride that we achieved so much over the past five years during an economic downturn. I'm hopeful that in the improved climate, we will go from strength to strength.

I hope that some of what I've been saying has proved useful to those interested in the role of universities in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Let me close with two points:

First, innovation is the art of the new – indeed it incorporates the Latin word "nova", which means new. Innovation is a moving target. While I can point to Trinity as proof that global connectivity, interdisciplinarity, and educating in critical and independent thinking produces innovation and entrepreneurship. I can't say categorically that other initiatives and ways of doing things won't work. This is a new, dynamic field – that's what's so exciting – and we shouldn't be afraid to try things out.

Second, the opportunities here are so large and so important, that we have to think big. Yes, it's important that our graduates are creating jobs, and that our researchers are developing useful products. But there are global challenges we cannot avoid.

The world today is facing fundamental challenges including water shortage, energy provision, climate change, poverty, migration, inequality, the ageing population, conflict resolution.

These are what I call "Global Research Questions". A Global Research Question addresses fundamental challenges to people's resources or security, and it's an issue that has emerged across the globe, at scale, and cannot be solved by a single discipline or within a single country.

I feel universities have a vital part to play: we have the global networks, and we have the research and expertise to make a decisive impact.

*  *  *

In conclusion, the work we’ve done in Trinity helps the economy of Ireland and of Europe; but more, it positions us – as a globally connected, entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary university - to play our part in solving problems that affect all humanity and that cannot be solved by a single discipline, a single institute, or a single country.

I look forward to working with you and with other peer universities – and to all of us fulfilling our potential and addressing the global challenges that shape humanity’s future.

Thank you.

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