“Embedding Student Entrepreneurship in the University”: Address to students at Al Akhawayn University
Al Akhawayn University, Ifrane, Morocco
4th July 2019
Thank you for inviting me here today. I’m delighted to be here and to have this opportunity to talk to you about what I consider to be one of the three essential missions of the 21st century university: Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
My university, Trinity College Dublin, has put huge focus on innovation and Entrepreneurship over the past ten or twelve years and with great success: Trinity is now recognised as one of Europe’s leading universities for entrepreneurship.
I know that Al Akhawayn University is also putting great focus on innovation. Hence this class on Entrepreneurship.
In our time together this afternoon, I’d like to talk, first, about what I think are the best conditions for any university looking to develop innovation and entrepreneurship. And then I’ll focus on student entrepreneurship because I’m sure that’s what you’ll be most interested in.
But first, let me introduce myself.
As Professor Van Genderen has said, I’m the President of Trinity College Dublin, which is Ireland’s leading university and one of Europe’s leading universities. I was elected to this position eight years ago by the staff and student representatives.
I’m a mechanical engineer by training and previous to taking on the presidency I was Professor of Bioengineering in Trinity. Bioengineering is of course a ‘compound discipline’ joining engineers and medical scientists. I was fortunate that it really began to take off in the 1990s when I was a Assistant Professor. I was there from the beginning and was decisively involved with the development of bioengineering in Irish universities and the growth of a large medtech field in Ireland. It was great preparation for future policy-making around to be involved with such a forward-looking field so early on.
Trinity is a multidisciplinary university with three faculties – arts, humanities and social sciences; engineering, science and mathematics; and health sciences. I’m an engineer but I certainly don’t prioritise it above other subjects. Everything we achieve in the university, including innovation and entrepreneurship, comes from our dynamic multidisciplinarity.
My other great interest is engineering and the environment - nature and cities. I grew up in a rural area of Ireland – a small village, near the sea, surrounded by fields and hills. I’m particularly interested in man’s relationship with the environment and in how we could use our skills and technologies to live better in the planet.
Again, I think this interest worth mentioning because I think it’s increasingly the case that we should encourage both students and professors to go beyond disciplinary focus.
Immersion in your discipline is essential but for new perspectives and ideas – for genuinely innovative ideas – it helps to think beyond your discipline. Interests outside your core discipline may be the very things that trigger innovation.
Bringing together skills, learning and interests in new and different ways helps to develop the kind of creative and adaptive mindset that is best suited to address the great global issues of our age like climate change, clean energy and migration. This is something I’ll be talking about later in the context of the Student Experience.
Now let me turn to what I think are the best conditions for student entrepreneurship in a university.
***Best conditions for fostering Innovation and entrepreneurship***
First, Excellent Research: In-depth research is the basis for university innovation. Licenses and spin-outs are only as good as the research behind them.
Universities that excel at research have excellent staff who are well-funded to pursue their research interests.
The second condition is enabling Multi- and Interdisciplinarity: Today, the most exciting research happens at the interface of disciplines. Bioengineering, which I’ve just mentioned, is a case in point. And innovation happens in all disciplines - it’s certainly not confined to science or health sciences.
A university with a particular focus on just a few disciplines can do good innovation but the radicalism that happens when disciplines colide is certainly conducive to fresh and new ways of thinking. A classic example is Mark Zuckerburg who studied computer programming and psychology in Harvard - he drew on both to create Facebook.
The third condition is Global Engagement – we are living in an ever more globalised world so that the term ‘global village’ isn’t just a soundbite. In this world, a university that is inward-looking and doesn’t forging connections with customers and investors worldwide.
When I talk about a university developing Global relations I mean that a university should:
- Firstly, have a global staff and student body, who come from all countries in the world, bringing their diverse skills and mindsets to the campus;
- Secondly, do collaborative research with partner universities round the world, and partner for global student exchange programmes, and
- Thirdly, put focus on the internationalism in the curricula – whatever the discipline, the curriculum should focus on the global dimension, familiarising students with the importance of thinking beyond the local and domestic. I am sure in this class, you spend a lot of time looking at different examples of entrepreneurship around the world and thinking about how you can apply them here.
The fourth condition is that the university be supported by a strong regional innovation ecosystem. A good innovation ecosystem means: business-friendly government policies and university access to industries that are interested in partnering to commercialise research. Proximity to creative and cultural institutions and industries and indeed to restaurants and cafés also helps. The role that coffeeshops played in creating Silicon Valley is the subject of many an article1
The fifth condition is Technology-focus: technology keeps advancing all the time and universities have to advance in tandem. To be left behind technologically is to suffer relegation. Universities need dedicated departments and personnel to ensure that they are leveraging the opportunities of emerging technologies. All graduates, regardless of discipline’ must be ‘technology natives’.
The sixth condition concerns the Student Experience outside the classroom, also called extracurricular activities. In the university, learning to be an entrepreneur happens as much outside as inside the lab, lecture-room or tutorial. The most successful graduates are disruptive in the best way – they are creative about fundraising, networking, and presenting their ideas.
It would be arrogant and wrong to think that we can teach them the right kind of disruptive approach through tutorials and lectures alone. We can’t. We need to provide space for them to learn outside the classroom, from participation in non-academic activities. Universities that succeed best at innovation make space for extracurricular experiential learning.
The seventh and final condition is to Create the right Innovation processes and pathways. Innovation doesn’t just happen. It needs to be facilitated. Universities that are good at student entrepreneurship help students to license and commercialise, they set up pipelines with industry. They establish student accelerator programmes. They have support staff dedicated to enabling innovation.
If these processes and pathways aren’t put in place, students might still have great ideas – but they won’t be able to commercialise and innovate around them.
To recap: the seven conditions that I’ve identified as essential for a university hoping to excel at innovation are:
- Excellent Research
- Global relations
- A strong regional ecosystem
- Focus on the Student Experience, or Extracurricular, and
- Create the right innovation processes and pathways
Now let me turn to Trinity. How successful have we been at creating the right conditions in my university?
***Trinity: the Seven Conditions***
Let’s proceed through the seven conditions, one by one:
Research is the bedrock of everything we do in Trinity. Last year Trinity won €100.6 million in research funding. The significance of this figure isn’t just its size but the increase that it represents. In 2013 we won €74 million so we increased our research funding by a third, in five years.
The foundation of our success in innovation is our remarkable research staff and excellent support staff who provide expertise when it comes to applying for and winning, EU research grants.
And we have started embedding interdisciplinarity into the undergraduate curricula. Starting this September, all undergraduates will take an elective module outside their core course of study. We’re encouraging them to take a course outside their faculty – so science students might take, for instance ‘Cultures and Societies of the Middle East and North Africa’ – and humanities students might take ‘Cancer, the Patient Journey’ or ‘Vaccines, Friend or Foe’.
Third, Global Relations:
This is an area which Trinity has put a huge amount of work in over the past decade and I’m very proud of our results.
When I became President of Trinity I could see the opportunity afforded by globalisation for our students to go very far afield, further than Europe, and to spend meaningful periods abroad, not just a semester. And in turn, for Trinity to get global students whose experience would enrich the campus. And for our staff to develop international collaborations all around the world.
Our number of non-EU students coming to campus has almost trebled in eight years; we now have 24% international students. Regarding exchanges: to EU 398 under the Erasmus exchange programme, and 156 Non-EU University-wide exchanges, mainly US but also Asia. Overarching figure is 931 students outbound when all exchange types are included.
Our student outlook is absolutely global.
The fourth condition is a strong regional ecosystem.
We are lucky in Trinity. Successive governments have been highly business-focused and our country is an important ‘gateway’ state for multinational companies wishing to trade with the European Union.
Today Ireland is European headquarters to nine of the top ten global software companies, and nine of the top ten US technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google. And also headquarters to Medcare giants, Pfizer and Merck. The World Bank lists Dublin as one of the top 10 places in the world to do business.
Ireland’s innovation ecosystem and our unbeatable location within it has certainly been instrumental in our success with innovation.
Fifth, Technology focus
We’ve made a commitment to all students that they will graduate as ‘effective communicators’ – that includes not just the traditional sense of communication, face-to-face and through meetings, speeches and presentations - but communicating online and through social media and technology,
In Trinity, all our students do a piece of original research – they produce a thesis on something that no-one else has ever examined in quite that way. Traditionally this original research was handed in as a written dissertation, but we’re changing this - it may now take the form of a performance, a composition, a film, a piece of software or a product.
We cannot tie our students to old ways of doing things when new, exciting ways have opened up.
Students are early adopters and drivers of technology – so it can be a question of us trying to keep up with them, rather than teaching them!
Sixth is the Student Experience or Extracurricular.
This is another area where Trinity enjoys an historic advantage. We have always put focus on the student experience. The oldest student debating club in the world was founded in Trinity in 1770.
Today we have over 150 student societies and sports clubs – including every type of sport imaginable, and political, religious, language, cultural, recreactional, charitable societies - you name it! If their interests aren’t represented by an existing society, students go ahead and create a new one.
Participation in clubs and societies involves students in fundraising, volunteering, leadership, strategizing team management – all skills which are essential for entrepreneurship.
The biggest growing field of student extracurricular is around innovation. This is because of the student accelerators we’ve put in place, which I will talk about now.
Now let’s turn to the seventh and final condition, Create Innovation processes and pathways.
I’m extremely conscious of the importance of having the right
processes and pathways to facilitate innovation because the situation in Trinity ‘before’ and ‘after’ we did this was dramatic for student entrepreneurship.
About six years ago we started thinking about undergraduates. How could we release the innovation and entrepreneurial capacity of our students? How could we get them to start thinking about scaling up and funding and marketing their business ideas? We were sure they had wonderful ideas – we had to find a framework for them to work in.
And so LaunchBox was born. LaunchBox is an initiative to encourage student innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s open to all students in every discipline. LaunchBox is now part of Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workspace2 .
Here are some images of Tangent. This takes up a whole floor of our brand-new Trinity Business School, as you can see.
It’s a brilliant space.
Let me go into some depth on Tangent and LaunchBox and the student companies that we have incubated.
Just like with our revised campus formation procedure, LaunchBox has been a remarkable success. Putting in place the right processes and pathways to support innovation has proved as transformative with students as with staff.
Within a year of being rolled out in 2014, LaunchBox was assessed by the international University Business Incubator Index as a ‘Top Challenger’ and placed just outside the world’s ‘Top 25’, from 800 student incubators assessed.
In its first four years, LaunchBox supported 38 student companies which went on to raise a total of €3.7 million in venture capital. Remember, these are purely student-run companies.
Typically, these companies represent a mix of disciplines and a mix between hardware, software, and physical products.
The college supports the student teams with office, or rather ideas space, with mentoring, access to investors.
Every year more than 50 student teams vie for a place on the programme at an annual pitch event. The process is highly competitive – this year the highest ever number – 12 – got through to the judging panel. Here are some of them3 .
These teams will have a hard act to follow because some previous LaunchBox teams have been hugely successful.
Let me just expand on some of these companies, given in this booklet – there is a copy for everyone in the audience.
FoodCloud is among the most famous student start-ups in the world. It featured in Time magazine. It was established with the aim of using technology to bridge the gap between food want and food waste. It links up retailers and restaurants to charities.
Established in 2013, today it employs over 30 people and works with over 9000 charitable organisations in Ireland and the UK. It has supplied over 50 million meals with food that would otherwise have been wasted.
Supermarkets and restaurants love the FoodCloud app! They get the marketing upside of not getting a reputation for destroying otherwise edible food AND Foodcloud’s price to take it away is cheaper than conventional disposal, so there is also a financial benefit.
Artomatix is taking digital art creation to the next level. It’s a "deep tech" company in the AI space, at the forefront of complex computing. Founded in 2013, it received over €3m in innovation funding in 2018, and recently closed a €2.7m funding round. It employs 10 people in Dublin.
Equine MediRecord is an app and website that allows proper recording of medicines administered to racehorses and other bloodstock. Horse racing is a big deal in Ireland and the founder comes from a family that has raised horses for generations. This app has won a number of awards including the ‘Number One Draft Pick Startup Competition’ at the One Zero Conference (which is the largest sport technology conference in Europe). They are now planning on moving into the US market.
As you can gather, I’m very proud of the success of our student entrepreneurs.
Many of our students companies, including FoodCloud, the most famous, are social enterprises. Other social enterprises, incubated by LaunchBox, include Nu – an ethical clothing company and writing for Tiny, which is about creating stories for hospitalised children.
In this year’s cohort there are four social enterprises – Ethicart, FloWaste, KeepAppy and the Homeless Wallet.
I’m delighted to have that diversity – to be fostering all kinds of innovation on campus.
LaunchBox is only six years old. Tangent only opened in the new Trinity Business School this year. We only revised our campus company formation ten years ago, opening the floodgates for more spin-outs.
We are only at the start of our innovation story. The potential of our staff and students seem unlimited. It is tremendously exciting.
Undoubtedly student entrepreneurship is among the most exciting developments for universities for a century or more. It is a game-changer.
Our job as educators is to give you the opportunities to develop your ideas. If I have any take-home advice it’s to reprise what I’ve been saying already: draw on your interests, your use of technology, your friendships. Build up all of these. Like all creativity, innovation is personal. Your idea will come out of your particular circumstances, experience and perspective. It will be something that no-one else has thought of doing in quite that way. It will be something you own.
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