Growing Entrepreneurial Ecosystems : A Handbook for HEIs

Levie, Jonathan and Wurth, Bernd (2018) Growing Entrepreneurial Ecosystems : A Handbook for HEIs. Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Glasgow.

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Scotland has an ambitious goal to become a world-leading entrepreneurial and innovative country. As part of these efforts, Scotland participated in the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) from 2012 to 2014. A key issue identified by REAP was the role of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Scotland’s innovation-driven entrepreneurial ecosystem. While HEIs have accelerated their engagement with industrial and other external partners and promotion and support of entrepreneurial behaviour among students and staff, particularly in recent years (Universities Scotland, 2018a), the REAP Scotland report identified that there was scope to share best practice. Funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and led by REAP core team member Prof Jonathan Levie (University of Strathclyde) and the REAP Universities High Level Task Group (UHLTG), four interactive and practice-oriented best practice workshops were conducted to address this issue: ‘Mapping University Ecosystems’ (2015, University of Dundee), ‘Incubators and Accelerators’ (2015, Elevator, Aberdeen), ‘Enterprise Education’ (2016) and an ‘Ecosystem Exchange Activity’ (2018), both at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow). On the basis of these workshops and the state-of-the-art of the academic literature on entrepreneurial universities, this report presents a process-oriented framework for HEI entrepreneurial ecosystems to nurture entrepreneurial activities among staff, students, and graduates. HEI entrepreneurial ecosystems emerge from the “strategic and collective actions of various organizational components [...] in order to maximize both the entrepreneurial and innovative contributions of universities” (Hayter, 2016, p. 634). To enable this: 1. HEIs should understand their own entrepreneurial ecosystem and create a supportive environment for its development. This environment includes an entrepreneurial and innovative culture; policies that support and reward entrepreneurial activities; and efforts to connect staff, students, and alumni; all coordinated and promoted through a clear vision and strategy. 2. HEIs should develop clear internal pathways for entrepreneurial staff, students and alumni and constantly monitor their effectiveness and adjust if necessary. Many HEIs offer a variety of programmes and different ways of supporting entrepreneurial students, staff and alumni. The challenge for most HEIs is to provide a clear path for their constituents in order to help them navigate through the opportunities and resources that are available to them. 3. Technology-based ventures typically need more resources than a HEI on its own can provide. At the other end of the spectrum of external resource need, artists and freelancers can also benefit from connections to the wider ecosystem. HEIs therefore need to collaborate with the wider ecosystem to leverage additional resources. For HEIs, it is important to show how engaging with external organisations can be valuable, to whom they are of value, and how and when this fits within the internal pathway. Furthermore, many HEIs have a particular regional mission. As entrepreneurial ecosystems are increasingly recognised to be regional rather than national phenomena, some HEIs have the opportunity to become leading stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of their city or region. We extend those three recommendations and provide a more holistic perspective for Scottish HEIs as a group, enabling them to contribute more to Scotland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, to implement sustainable policies and structures that link to current national policies, and incorporate lessons that other institutions have learned from experience. In particular, HEIs should take the following steps: 1. There is a continuing need to cultivate collaboration among HEI enterprise-related staff at all levels and between them and relevant ecosystem stakeholders such as the Scottish Institute for Enterprise and entrepreneurial alumni. While innovativeness at the institutional ecosystem level is a necessary ingredient, it is not sufficient. If individual HEIs, like other wider ecosystem stakeholders, are too focused on their own activities and policies, their efforts will remain fragmentary and undervalued. 2. The standard metrics are “convenient to collect, keep the funding bodies happy but do not tell you much about what is really happening” (Graham, 2014, p. 8). While metrics cannot be avoided for HEIs, learning, skills and education must be at the heart of all metrics and both business formation (quantity of entrepreneurship) and start-up performance (quality of entrepreneurship) should be secondary objectives. 3. A more radical concept raised by some participants is ecosystem experimentation, perhaps funded by a prize fund where proposals for experiments that could enhance HEI entrepreneurial ecosystems. Results would be published and successful experiments could be replicated or adapted across the HEI community. While a small series of workshops and events cannot cover all challenges and opportunities, the discussions during the workshops have shown that this series has addressed at least some of the key enterprise issues facing Scottish HEIs. Feedback from all four workshops was very positive. Overall, participants recognised the value in working with like-minded people at different levels in different organisations, the opportunity to make new connections, establish relationships, and to exchange ideas, best practices and learn from each other.


Levie, Jonathan ORCID logoORCID: and Wurth, Bernd ORCID logoORCID:;