Is this the golden age of university entrepreneurship?

There are three missions of the university: training, research and the dissemination and transfer of knowledge. And in the fulfillment of the last two is precisely the argument that best explains the considerable growth of university entrepreneurship over the last decade, thanks both to the support provided by the educational institutions themselves (in training, advice and mentoring) and to the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems. Many of the spin offs (business initiatives) promoted by members of the university community have, in effect, their origin in the results of their research activity, are strongly supported by new technologies and are concerned with developing new processes, products and services. “It is essential that part of all this R&D be valued by protecting it as intellectual property, and that it be made known to companies so that these results can be licensed and exploited,” explains Íñigo Artundo, CEO of VLC Photonics, a spinoff of the Polytechnic University of Valencia.

A transfer of knowledge that, in the case of university entrepreneurship, often has the objective of social transformation that also brings with it an improvement in the economic and productive fabric of the local environment: “Entrepreneurship is an ideal framework to try to improve our world, our societies, our economy or our environment”, says David Alonso, director of Compluemprende. “If you dare to change the world, dare to undertake, because it will also give you tools and methodology to do it. It is not going to remain exclusively in an erudite or brainy study”. A perspective shared by José Manuel Pingarrón, today Secretary General of Universities and previously an entrepreneur and Vice-Rector for Knowledge Transfer and Entrepreneurship at the Complutense University of Madrid. The spinoff they created, Inbea Biosensors, specialized in electrochemical biosensors that were used to measure certain quality parameters in food, such as the amount of alcohol in drinks 0.0 or glucose and fructose in grapes, which indicated the time ideal for collection.

“For some time, the company did reasonably well. But when the 2009 crisis hit, the problems began and, after a certain moment, it ceased to be profitable and ceased its activity”, says Pingarrón. What went wrong? “There were many things that were not done well (…). And it is that you can be a good researcher but a bad businessman, and that is why it is important to receive some training on what that implies. Today, this type of help is offered by offices such as Compluemprende, but almost 20 years ago there was hardly any support”. Entrepreneurship, he affirms, has finally permeated society and university activity, where professors and students already receive advice and help to turn their idea into reality. The data supports it: according to the Guess Report, 23% of Spanish university students plan to create a company within five years, a percentage slightly below the EU average (26%) and well below the US average (40%).

open innovation

The different experts consulted for this report agreed to point out the good health of a university enterprise that today enjoys numerous opportunities. “Thirty years ago, nobody talked about entrepreneurship or the creation of startup, but more and more public universities are committed to the creation of support services for entrepreneurship and generation of startup innovative and technology-based”, says María Esther Gómez, vice-rector for Students and Entrepreneurship at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV). And Alonso adds: “Universities are being recognized as an important part of entrepreneurship, both for students and for research groups, and work is beginning to be done from open innovation systems.”

But what does that mean? “Since the 1960s and 1970s and until not too long ago, innovation has gone through several stages. Before, it was done sequentially because, although it was already understood that it was necessary to collaborate within the world of innovation, each agent acted at a different stage: first, the university; second, an institution; and so. Now innovation leads us to an idea of ​​an ecosystem where we all flow and are somewhat correlated”, says Alonso. A context built around two essential axes: the connection between all the actors (universities, public institutions, corporations…) and the prevalence of collaboration over the idea of ​​competition.

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Labsland, one spinoff of the research group and Weblab of the University of Deusto, is one of the many companies created under the umbrella of university entrepreneurship. Its objective is to improve scientific and technical education through access to remote laboratories (mainly robotics, physics, chemistry and electronics) through the Internet, thanks to collaboration with 27 universities in 14 countries, which in turn are available to any educational institution that wants to subscribe: thus, Spanish students from a rural environment in emptied Spain, for example, can access equipment from the University of Washington, in the USA, and use more resources than their educational center could otherwise afford. VLC Photonics, born from the heart of the UPV, is dedicated to the design and development of photonic integrated circuits, which, according to Artundo, are used “as components in fiber optic communications equipment; in other applications such as laser radar sensors in autonomous vehicles; biosensors for health diagnostic applications; medical instrumentation or quantum applications of computing and cryptography”.

Comprehensive support for the entrepreneur

Investigating, as Pingarrón pointed out before, is not the same as undertaking. And that is why the entrepreneurship support services of the different universities work every day to offer comprehensive support that encompasses multiple facets, from training and mentoring to advice that, in some cases, helps them overcome the difficulties inherent in the first years of existence: “The resources that we have the powers to support entrepreneurship are limited and many times we cannot support them in aspects such as financing and investment, but we can help them in that difficult journey that they have to make the first years after the launch of the startup, in which they must validate the business model, consolidate a balanced, multidisciplinary work team with well-defined roles, and above all sell their product or service finding that competitive advantage or differential value”, says Gómez.

The support, in any case, covers much more, and necessarily includes the creation of an environment that facilitates the detection and use of the talent that already exists within the university. “We carry out, for example, awareness-raising activities such as hackathons, we give workshops in the faculties and now in July we will give a training changemaker. But we are also encouraging the creation of pre-incubators in the faculties that serve as a first talent detection unit, to give them a first training and so that they themselves, depending on the sector, can create alliances, and we can favor interdisciplinarity”, Alonso tells. And there are plenty of reasons: “The Complutense is also the largest face-to-face university, by number of students, in all of Spain. It has 26 faculties and a central office and it is difficult for us to reach students in order to raise awareness about entrepreneurial skills”: resilience, teamwork, creativity, ability to identify opportunities, perseverance…

Another of the possible tools are those of the prizes for the best entrepreneurial initiatives, as it happens in the Complutense: in the next month of July, they will publish a call for social entrepreneurship worth 200,000 euros, “where we intend to finance 10 projects, five with 15,000 euros (which have to be set up within six months or return the money) and another five with 25,000 (for those companies or companies that are already set up), in more advanced stages”, explains Alonso. And precisely one of the projects promoted by Compluemprende, HomeNetwork, was recently the winner of the Santander Xplorer award: “The project consists of the creation of a switchboard and a mobile application that allows the automation of all the intelligent elements that we have in our homes through the use of artificial intelligence and Big Data. Our houses have more and more intelligent systems for tasks such as turning on the lights or vacuuming; but the problem is that each system has its own application, settings and interface”, says Ricardo Cabrera, one of its founders.

Challenges

Contrary to what it might seem, financing is not, for Alonso, one of the great challenges faced by spinoff university, due to the presence of numerous national and international agents that can help make these projects a reality. But they do face a series of challenges in the short, medium or long term, such as the need for a certain change in mentality where they bet more on risk and that includes the families of the entrepreneurs themselves, who often continue to tell them that of: “Don’t get into this mess, because what you really have to do is become an official and have a job for life”, recalls the director of Compluemprende. And, on the other hand, “there are still few companies that are capable of internationalizing, scaling and growing successfully,” says Artundo, for whom the greatest challenges have to do with detecting and retaining talent, as well as the professionalization of the workforce. management.

From the Conference of Rectors (CRUE Spanish Universities) they also remind us of the benefits that entrepreneurship entails for the territories where each startup, with a high social and economic return. According to sources from said organization, the available studies confirm that, for every euro invested in universities, they return four to society. And yet, they recall that “a new regulatory framework is necessary to eliminate obstacles and promote the transfer of knowledge; change the regulation of R+D+i contracts between universities and companies and promote entrepreneurial talent among students and postgraduates”. Alonso, for his part, agrees in pointing out the need to simplify the procedures for the creation of entities or companies, a process that “in countries like the United States can be completed in 24 hours, but in Spain it is much more complicated.”

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