Entrepreneurial ecosystem as a concept has come into light quite recently and serves as a framework that allows to understand the environment and its opportune characteristics for entrepreneurial activities to thrive. According to Spiegel (2017) entrepreneurial ecosystems include social, political, economic and cultural elements of the region that, in their turn, spur the growth of start-ups and encourage risk-taking among newbie entrepreneurs. More recently, there has been a growing interest in the entrepreneurial mindset within research universities and universities of applied sciences. As suggested by Culkin (2016), entrepreneurial higher education institutions (HEIs) can act as ‘anchor institutions’, embedded within and committed to a region and regional development. Regional entrepreneurial ecosystems are emerging with highly motivated student entrepreneurs who are not just becoming future employees but alternatively setting up their own business during their study program or after graduation. The HEIs can provide support directly themselves or forward potential entrepreneurs to specialized start-up support services within the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. Different types of support emerge from or within strategic partnership networks. Hansen et al. (2000) and Roseira et al. (2014) refer to a so-called networked incubator model, a type of business incubator which is well suited to grow businesses. Networked incubators bring value through preferential network access to potential partners and advisers.
The Limburg region in Belgium is an exemplary case of the networked incubator model. The region is located in Flanders, in the heart of the ELAt knowledge triangle, connecting the dots between Eindhoven (Netherlands), Aachen (Germany), Leuven (Flanders, Belgium) and Liège (Wallonia, Belgium).
It is transitioning into an innovation driven economy and has a considerable potential for innovative entrepreneurial activities. One of the key goals of the region is to increase the number of new start-ups and scale-ups to revitalise local economy. In pursuit of this ambition, a number of high tech incubators were set up by the regional investment company with a dedicated focus on life sciences, clean-, green- and energytech and drone technology.
An important element of the emerging regional entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Limburg region is StudentStartUP, a joint venture of PXL University of Applied Sciences and Hasselt University, which focuses on student entrepreneurship. StudentStartUP follows a quadruple helix approach, in which regional government, business partners, two HEIs and the broader community (e.g. city councils, civilians) work towards a common goal of changing the regional mindset of risk adversity and building the roadmap towards a more entrepreneurial future.
Backed by a wide network of like-minded entrepreneurs and partners, StudentStartUP helps students with their entrepreneurial attempts. StudentStartUP provides startup support as a means to foster entrepreneurship among undergraduate and graduate students. Student entrepreneurs have access to a growing network of regional incubators where they can obtain dedicated workspaces for the time they need to accelerate and scale up. They can build partnerships with other start-ups and existing technology companies along with their (international) networks. At both HEIs, aspiring student entrepreneurs are granted a special status that secures a flexible study and exam schedule to make the best of their entrepreneurial venture.
Since StudentStartUP’s inception, a number of strategic partnerships have been formed. The venture itself is closely linked to a public-private partnership network including employers’ organisations (strategy and support), law firms (intellectual property issues), tax advisory firms, start-ups, human resources specialists, government organisations and business angels. More than 500 student entrepreneurs, coming from various study backgrounds and educational disciplines, were coached at StudentStartUP in 2013-2019.
Entrepreneurship has gradually become a horizontal theme within HEIs in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Limburg region. Through StudentStartUP and other initiatives, the the PXL University of Applied Sciences and Hasselt University have become dedicated towards becoming more engaged and entrepreneurial. They have embraced teaching strategies and learning environments which offer targeted support for student entrepreneurs that aim at setting up a business regardless of a discipline, department or faculty. The choice of public-private partnerships and the network incubator model is aligned with the conviction that student entrepreneurs need to learn by doing. This approach involves alternative forms of entrepreneurship education via pedagogical innovations and practice-based learning experience gained outside the classroom.
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In-line image Jean-Pierre Segers