The world is changing and, with it, the world of work and the skills required for future career success. Entrepreneurial thinking and action emerge high on the list of skills critical, alongside interpersonal, creative and problem-solving skills (Australia 2030 Plan, 2017). This understanding has led to a significant increase in relevant education offerings, ranging from brief entrepreneurship workshops and seminars, start-up weekends, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and mentor programs to formal university degree options.
For universities, embedding entrepreneurial thinking within their education programs is only one part of their engagement with entrepreneurship. Increasing environmental pressures motivate universities to be more pertinent, have greater impact, and better engage with industry/communities. Indeed, at a strategic level, environmental change is driving universities towards enhancing their social, economic, intellectual, and cultural value to the communities in which they operate, while looking to grow or maintain student load, encourage world-leading research, attract increased research funding and do so in an increasingly global manner. Hence, universities place great emphasis on identifying, evaluating and seizing opportunities, utilising their resources in new combinations to respond to these opportunities, as well as becoming more open to uncertainty and risk. Hence, universities themselves have to be more entrepreneurial.
Yet, most universities that engage in entrepreneurship and/or commercialisation activities, including education, wittingly or unwittingly develop silos in the university whereby the academic-related entrepreneurship teaching and research components do not communicate well with the non-academic commercialisation, business incubation, and/or entrepreneurial engagement components. As a result, the full potential of entrepreneurship education and achievement is unrealised within the university and communities miss out on the entrepreneurial potential value that could have been created. Reduced student and/or staff commercialisation activities and reduced university community engagement and impact are the consequences.
The University of Adelaide has thus taken a different approach. It adopts a holistic 3-dimensional approach to entrepreneurship that integrates the two-dimensional academic and incubation components with a third global network dimension. The ThincLab comprises three dimensions:
- Academic engagement, comprising education alongside research in and about entrepreneurship and innovation. The University of Adelaide offers a portfolio of learning options. In addition to undergraduate and postgraduate programs and courses, all of which fuse students from across the university’s wide-ranging degree programs, the university offers MOOCS, workshops, and non-award courses. What characterises these options is that the education does not stand alone but that they are built and maintained through a strong research-teaching nexus. Ensuring that leading research informs education and vice versa is critical to maintaining best practice education over time.
- Incubation engagement, which happens through creating meeting places for those inside and outside the University who are interested in entrepreneurship, innovation, and commercialisation specifically, and productivity and job creation more generally. It is where creativity, innovation, and design thinking is encouraged; and where ideas and venture growth is accelerated.
- Global Network engagement, an internationally connected network of ThincLab hubs, providing portals into the University creating pathways among Asia, Australia and Europe to help commercialise student, staff, and alumni research in global markets and attract international students and staff to the University. It facilitates collaborating with international organisations to attract research linkage funding, sponsorships, and scholarships
Aligned with the quote “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action” (Herbert Spencer), educational offerings are built so that students wishing to start or develop their own ventures not only learn about entrepreneurship but also practice it within the University’s ThincLab incubators and their extensive networks. By occupying space in a ThincLab, domestically or overseas, any learner interested in developing their businesses while studying can do so in a supported manner, so that they graduate not only with a degree but also with functioning businesses. Even for those students not ready to start their own venture, the global network of ThincLab hubs offers an international experiential platform. It is here that they can gain entrepreneurial work and cultural experiences in global markets, in a supportive environment.
A success story on the interface of education/research, incubation and global is the Australian eChallenge, one of the longest-running Australian entrepreneurial challenge programs. With over 6,000 alumni, the eChallenge has enabled close to 1,000 start-ups to date. As part of a three-month experiential pre-incubation program, participants
(1) develop and refine their concept ideas in response to identified opportunities through an integrated program of facilitated educational workshops and industry mentoring
(2) develop actionable commercialisation strategies that form the basis of executable plans for creating new innovative ventures, and
(3) submit their innovations and associated strategies to an intense competitive evaluative process involving presentations to a panel of experienced industry assessors.
In addition to local customisations of the program to meet industry demand, the eChallenge has also grown internationally. It is licenced to select universities and/or partners with suitable organisations in other countries. The extensive online learning opportunities developed for this program, involving quality teaching materials and online discussion forums, allow for a blended learning, flipped classroom approach. This means that the eChallenge can be delivered anywhere in the world with minimal effort, based on a proven pedagogically sound participant-focused learning model.
The eChallenge and ThincLabs work hand-in-hand to assist students and other entrepreneurs adopt a global perspective and identify, assess, and develop opportunities where new ventures are created with training and mentoring support. In this regard, eChallenge participants and students studying entrepreneurship at the University of Adelaide in Australia have established businesses in ThincLab Chalons (TLC) (the University’s French business incubator) just outside of Paris. The concierge service provided by TLC facilitates a smooth transitioning of overseas ventures establishing in France using TLC as a Launchpad into Europe. In addition, participants of the eChallenge program delivered in France with a number of key institutional partners have the opportunity to establish their businesses in ThincLab Adelaide (South Australia) and ThincLab Singapore. Breaking down the entrepreneurship silos and capitalising on the various ThincLab and eChallenge dimensions results in a collage of successful cross-border new ventures being created and developed.
Where you can demonstrate to students the relevance of their learning, they will be more motivated to do so. Incorporating teaching and learning with research and incubation, and offering this on a global scale is rewarding for students.
Thus, in this regard, ThincLab is more than four walls with hot desks, co-shared working spaces, and offices for budding entrepreneurs. ThincLab is about developing relationships. It provides an innovative and unique platform to engage with communities through creating value and impact … locally, regionally, and internationally. It does this through providing a portal into the University for communities, as well as being a focal point in the University community for students, staff, and alumni, in the areas of entrepreneurship, innovation, and commercialisation. It is not the only way to engage but it provides a unique approach to engagement through entrepreneurship. As a basis for facilitating local, regional, and international academic and business incubation exchanges it leads to:
- Cross-border and cross-cultural economic, social, cultural, and/or intellectual value being created and export sales being generated
- Improved understandings of the dynamics of entrepreneurship in a global context by students and entrepreneurs within the university’s entrepreneurship system resulting in more productive and/or employable University graduates as well as more successful entrepreneurial ventures underpinned by enhanced job creation and productivity improvements, and
- The opportunity to observe and better understand the factors associated with more sustainable entrepreneurial ventures and vibrant communities thereby contributing toward theory building and enhanced entrepreneurial practice and policy-making.
This article has been previously published in the UIIN Magazine, 2017, Special Issue – Entrepreneurship.