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Universities Adapt To Startup Craze

Entrepreneurship took centre stage when Atlantic Canadian university educators gathered for their annual summit in January.

The speakers at the Atlantic Leaders’ Summit, organized by the Atlantic Association of Universities, were discussing trends in university education, but repeatedly the discussion honed in on ways to imbue students with entrepreneurial spirit and skills.

The speakers ranged from Dalhousie University Vice President of Research Martha Crago, to businessman, philanthropist and University of New Brunswick alumnus Gururaj Deshpande, to former head of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch. But there was a unity in their message: bring more entrepreneurial content into the curriculum of the region’s universities.

“Why don’t we make it a hallmark [of Atlantic Canadian universities] that everyone who comes here will have some entrepreneurial experience?” asked Crago.

No one would argue that the entrepreneurial experience is now the hallmark of four years at an Atlantic Canadian university. But what you could argue is that the region’s higher education institutions in the past couple of years have introduced a range of entrepreneurial programs. In fact we argue it strongly in our third Entrevestor Intelligence report, which we published today.

The report focuses on educational institutions, which are doing more than just teaching entrepreneurship. They’re launching business founders and startups that are exceeding the performance of other startups in the region. Entrevestor now follows about 300 startups in Atlantic Canada, and 115 of them have links to universities (They either grew out of university research or entrepreneurship courses, or have relied on university research or facilities to grow.)

Read our full Entrevestor Intelligence report

“There is a growing expectation among governments and political representatives about an increased role for universities in teaching and inspiring entrepreneurism among students,” Peter Halpin, Executive Director of the AAU, said in an interview. “Generating considerably more new business startups has become integral to regional and provincial economic development and talent retention strategies.”

St. Mary’s University Professor Dawn Jutla added: “Entrepreneurship education in Atlantic Canada is benefitting from its institutions’ years of experimentation in active learning techniques, which emphasize applied and professional learning experiences and the linking of theory and practice for its students.”

How hot is entrepreneurship right now? Consider that there are now lean methodology courses in at least four of the region’s universities. (Lean methodology is the process of assessing a business idea’s potential success before you spend money developing a product.) Two universities offered summer programs to support young businesses. Three years ago, there was no post-graduate program entrepreneurship in the region. As of the 2015-16 school year, there will be two—at Saint Mary’s and University of New Brunswick. And Atlantic Canada will likely soon be home to the country’s only program teaching international technology sales.  That doesn’t even include all the extra-curricular activity that has popped up to teach kids to earn a buck by starting a business. Many of these developments fell into place simply because young people are more entrepreneurial than their parents or grandparents.

“The wave of entrepreneurship did not change our teaching methods,” said Jutla, the head of SMU’s Masters of Technology, Entrepreneurship and Innovation program. “Instead we were ready to create a tsunami of new programs to support and further build out more entrepreneurship.”

So why all the focus on entrepreneurship? There are probably three reasons: fashion; economics and personal development.

The plain fact is that the generation born after 1990 is entrepreneurial and innovative. These young  people grew up with the internet and digital products, and feel comfortable with the concepts underlying modern entrepreneurship. Around the world, young people are choosing entrepreneurship as a career path. Startups are a craze today as surely as rock ‘n’ roll was in the 1960s.

But the reality of the market place – especially the market for jobs – is also pushing young people to start businesses. According to Statistics Canada, the Canadian unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24 was 12.9 percent in June; almost double the rate of 6.8 percent for the population as a whole. It’s obvious that large employers in both public and private sectors are not hiring graduates as vigorously as they did a generation ago.

“Look at the graduate labour market,” Colin Mason,  professor of entrepreneurship at the Adam Smith School of Business at the University of Glasgow, said during a visit to Nova Scotia this summer. “Look at the demand for graduates. It’s a plateauing if not a declining labour market. Meanwhile the supply of graduates continues to increase. If a student doesn’t want to work at McDonald’s all the time, they have to create their own employment opportunities.”

Entrepreneurial education is more than a route to income. It’s also part of the universities’ age-old mission to build the well-rounded graduate. Past generations taught Latin and the classics to create the complete individual. We still encourage sports and community service at universities for the same reason. Similarly, teaching entrepreneurship instills a mindset in which the individual can identify a problem, come up with a solution and test it in the market. It teaches people to be flexible in their thinking and resilient when they face a job loss.

And the region’s universities are doing more to grow entrepreneurial brains. For 28 years, UNB has had the Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship, or TME, program at the heart of its engineering school. Then three years ago, Mary Kilfoil and Ed Leach began the Starting Lean program at Dalhousie, which has evolved into the multi-faceted program Dal Launch.

Both UNB and Dal have made entrepreneurship a year-round initiative as the former has its Summer Institute and the latter its Launchpad accelerator throughout the summer.

UNB’s Summer Institute encourages passion and design. This year’s students ranged from a Briton making cardboard furniture to Trish Arcaro, who is developing her own clothing line based on Mi’kmaq designs. Launchpad ushered 10 companies through its curriculum. One was WorkLocal.jobs, whose CEO Leslie Gallagher will represent Nova Scotia at the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Summit in Istanbul this year.

“The [Summer Institute] program focuses on creative economy firms and we are simply amazed by the participants’ passion, drive and creativity, which will have a huge impact on our community,” said Dhirendra Shukla, the chair of the TME program.

This autumn, the university is launching a TME masters program, with the added bonus that international students completing the degree will have their application for permanent residency fast-tracked under the New Brunswick Provincial Nominee Program. St. Mary’s University in Halifax was the first in the region with a post-graduate degree in entrepreneurship when it launched its Masters of Technology, Entrepreneurship and Innovation course two years ago.

The result of all this activity is that startups are emerging from universities, and some of them are gaining notice quickly. We take a look at a few of the more exciting startups affiliated with universities on pages 12 and 14. And on pages 16 to 17, we analyse how companies with ties to universities perform. (Spoiler alert: they perform really well.)

As well as data on startups affiliated with universities, this report will tell some of the stories of the entrepreneurs coming out of these institutions, the companies they’re building and how universities are helping.

At the Atlantic Leaders’ Summit, Deshpande urged educators to pursue experiential learning because it shows students that they can apply their knowledge to solving problems, and that leads to entrepreneurship. He asked them to give their students knowledge that has an impact on the wider world.