Triple Helix Association

Visiting Professor
Birkbeck, University of London

The University’s entrepreneurial role, taking advantage of opportunities that appear through its customary teaching and research missions as well as an emerging third mission to advance innovation, is fundamental rather than accidental. Formerly only an indirect contributor to local economies through salaries, supplies, and services spend; universities directly contribute to economic development, formally transferring technologies, rather than relying on informal ties. The entrepreneurial university presumes a considerable degree of independence from and involvement with government, industry, and ecclesiastical sponsors. It seeks out the practical as well as theoretical implications of research, assists technology transfer and firm formation with training programs in entrepreneurship, completing a virtuous circle.

‘Hotspots’ in co-authorship data reveal deep intellectual structures and transformations at the industry-higher education coalface as “university” and “industry” scientists in research groups and their spin-offs and large firms and their academic collaborators operate as virtual hybrid entities (Zhou, Tijssen and Leydesdorff, 2015). An overlay, built on these implicit structures, has infused the university with new purpose, as many look to it as a source of innovation to be diffused to the larger society (OECD, 2012). A university technology transfer officer said that, “Each year I have 3,000 new inventors” (the student intake). Not that it was meant literally, but it was the potential for invention coming from an educational process. Attracting the best students and professors in fields with future theoretical and practical relevance is an academic and economic development strategy at one and the same time. Renowned institutions attain a new badge of academic status while up-and-comers find a pathway to recognition.

The entrepreneurial university supersedes and incorporates the contrasting nineteenth century Newmanian and Humboldtian academic paradigms, respectively focused on teaching and research. Whereas Dublin’s Cardinal Newman celebrated the character building potential of the teaching college with faculty serving as role models for their students, Alexander Von Humboldt, founder of the University of Berlin, emphasized the research university’s contribution to nation-building, with the humanities as well as the sciences contributing to this objective (Brander, 2006). Taking an even more central societal role, the entrepreneurial university expands academic roles from teacher, to researcher, to entrepreneur. Synthesizing a wide variety of data drawn from in- depth interviews, participant observation, archival research and secondary analysis into a common model, we analyze the role of the entrepreneurial university as Launchpad of the knowledge economy.


The rise of the entrepreneurial university occurs in tandem with the evolution of the social norms of science, from disinterested to entrepreneurial science. While the social norms are subject to historical variability, the technical norms of science are essential for epistemological validity (Merton, 1942). Classical humanistic knowledge is also a source of contemporary economic development. For example, a drama teacher at Southern Oregon State College initiated a Shakespeare Festival during the 1930’s Depression, providing a student training ground that supported development of a nationally renowned theatre school through continuing ties. An arts cluster, with ancillary tourist facilities, made possible transition from a resource-based economy as Ashland re-conceptualized itself as a humanities town (Etzkowitz, 2014).

Changes in the structure of knowledge and the shift from industrial innovation to a knowledge-based economy drive government research funding policy and practice. Quantitative change in funding patterns morph into qualitative change in organizational innovations in teaching and research that foster entrepreneurship. The key elements include (1) the organization of group research, (2) the creation of a research base with commercial potential, (3) the development of organizational mechanisms to move research out of the university as protected intellectual property, (4) the capacity to organize firms within the university, and (5) integration of academic and business elements into new formats such as university-industry research centres.

The first two elements are within the framework of the research university; the third is part of the transition from the research to entrepreneurial academic models; and the fourth and fifth elements are special features of the Entrepreneurial University. Elements one and two may also be institutional principles of a research university; it is the confluence of all four elements that make for a full-fledged entrepreneurial university.

The entrepreneurial university model is expressed in four interrelated propositions:

Proposition 1: Interaction
The entrepreneurial university interacts closely with industry and government; it is not an ivory tower university isolated from society.
Proposition 2: Independence
The entrepreneurial university is a relatively independent institution; it is not a dependent creature of another institutional sphere.
Proposition 3: Hybridization
The resolution of the tensions between the principles of interaction and independence are an impetus to the creation of hybrid organizational formats to realize both objectives simultaneously.
Proposition 4: Reciprocality
There is a continuing renovation of the internal structure of the university as its relation to industry and government changes and of industry and government as their relationship to the university is revised.


Universities creatively synthesize available resources in experiential learning programs, ranging from simulation to real projects with financial resources at stake (Jones-Evans and Klofsten, 1997). Teams of graduate students representing disciplines from across the university, present their solutions to problems posed by firms during Demo Day at the close of the year long Mechanical Engineering 310 course at Stanford. A new PhD program in the biological sciences, at the University of California Irvine includes training in intellectual property and business development, provided by the university’s business and law faculties (2013). Entrepreneurship, intellectual property recognition, and research management training, is included in leading edge PhD programs, and incubator and accelerator spaces appear alongside laboratories and seminar rooms in academic buildings.

Stanford University, widely recognized as the world’s leading entrepreneurial university, has underestimated its entrepreneurial potential. Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) role model for the university technology transfer profession, performed limited outreach; so busy was it serving the university’s cadre of serial entrepreneurs. A series of faculty, staff and student initiated translational research and entrepreneurial mentoring initiatives (Spark, Epicenter, Ignite, Biodesign and StartX) filled the gap during the past decade much as OTL’s founding director, Niels Reimers, had addressed an earlier era’s patenting shortfall. When university research administrators held that, ”if its not broken; don’t fix it;” aspiring student entrepreneurs saw room for improvement, founding the StartX Accelerator with student government and alumni support. The university’s rate of spin-off creation increased significantly as Silicon Valley’s ecosystem drew closer to the university’s orbit by mentoring its aspiring entrepreneurs (Etzkowitz, 2013).


Universities assume an entrepreneurial role and identity due to perception of opportunity, civic duty, and external pressures (OECD, 2003). The first step towards an entrepreneurial academic ethos is increased sensitivity to the economic potential of knowledge, whether scientific or humanistic, followed by a willingness to realize this potential. When a university first essays entrepreneurship, it may be inspired by an important discovery that was not patented, like a significant advance in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technology at Stony Brook University, a proverbial, “big fish that got away” according to John Marberger, the University’s then President. A technology transfer office may then be created to protect intellectual property and market inventions.

On the demand side, a local firm, industry association, or government, may request assistance in solving a production or governance problem. On the supply side, devolution of the academic enterprise includes change from block funding as a matter of right in academic systems based on this principle to competitive research grants. A turbulent environment encourages academic researchers to manage risk by fund raising from multiple sources, introducing an entrepreneurial element into the faculty role as a matter of academic survival. There is also a shift in the center of academic gravity from departments of individual scholars to networks of research groups and centers to capture larger funds, often only available to such collaborations.

Paradoxically, expanded research funding as well as financial stringency increases uncertainty for existing players as teaching universities, incentivized by regional authorities, aspire to get into the game. Less research-intensive regions press for funding increase, recognizing its salience to economic growth, while research-intensive regions struggle to maintain pre-eminence. Demand for knowledge to promote disease cures and technological fixes for environmental crises create a hypercompetitive struggle for resources. An academic “steady state” envisioned by John Ziman (1994), following significant post-war expansion, is unlikely as contraction and expansionary forces oscillate, disrupting traditional academic structures.


The university‘s potential as a generator of discontinuous innovation opens the way to policy initiatives encouraging academic institutions to realize economic value from their research. The first step is the development of organizational capacities to work with firms in solving their specific problems, through consultation arrangements that may be formalized in longer–term contracts. This phase typically winds down when formal arrangements offer little beyond what individual faculty members informally provide. Archives of letters of intent, Memoranda of Understanding are created, and payments may be made, but too often content is missing in these general arrangements.

Nevertheless, The MIT “Technology Plan” initiated during the 1920’s, Mexico’s UNAM Center for Technological Innovation in the 1980’s, and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro effort in Brazil in the 1990’s, to develop contracts with firms provided a learning platform for more targeted initiatives. MIT’s office to manage industry contracts was reoriented to manage government contracts at the onset of the Second World War, providing a template for a widespread system of university- government relations. The sponsored research offices that were created at American universities in the post-war came full-circle to industry when Stanford spun its Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) out of its research office in 1969.

A second step, the development of organizational capacity for university technology transfer, is based on research that produces useful results as an unexpected outcome. Results were traditionally conveyed through informal ties between professors and former students working in industry. However, a gap emerges when a firm is not interested and the inventor is unable to carry the commercialization process forward, or find someone to do it on his or her behalf. University technology transfer offices, are Janus-faced search mechanisms that winnow candidates for protection, identify licensees, and negotiate agreements. Originating as intermediaries, they have been internalized within the university’s administrative infrastructure and diffused globally (Bresnitz and Etzkowitz, 2015).

A third step is the encouragement of start-ups based upon technologies that do not find a fit within existing firms or have greater potential for growth as an independent entity. Incubation candidates are drawn from both advanced technologies in emerging industries, or to replicate existing firms and fill gaps in expanding traditional industrial clusters. Entrepreneurship training programs, translational research and university venture capital initiatives, on the supply side, are coupled with regional initiatives such as Technopoles and science parks on the demand side, with incubator facilities sponsored by both sides. Just as a research ethos was universalized throughout academia, so is an economic role that was formerly limited to specialized academic sectors such as the US land grant universities and European polytechnics (Veysey, 1965; Artz, 1966).

Universities spawn start-ups of various kinds, both commercial and non-commercially oriented, with diverse economic and social effects, from advanced research in science and technology, and from traditional sources of knowledge in the humanities (Colyvas and Powell, 2007). StartX offers an opportunity to actualize the entrepreneurial potential in discoveries made in Stanford’s research groups. It operates outside the official boundary of the university with students taking leave of absence to pursue entrepreneurial training as an extra-curricular activity As professorial opportunities become sparser, a start-up based on one’s PhD project is an increasingly attractive alternative. For example, Bell Biosytems, currently located in the QB3 incubator at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), grew out of Caleb Bell’s Stanford PhD; its early development stage assisted by StartX.

The entrepreneurial university has spread globally. Impetuses include perception of opportunity as well as loss of industry as in New England, Singapore, and Finland. Twente University in Holland, tasked with renewing a declining industrial region, identified itself as an “enterprising university” in the 1970’s. Helsinki’s Aalto University was recently founded to speed diffusion of the model. The concept may be introduced by new faculty members who have received their training in an entrepreneurial university, or by senior faculty who have made a sabbatical visit. In a reprise of the medieval pattern of fission of universities over religious schisms, students at the University of Ljublana, frustrated by the unwillingness of their university to develop entrepreneurial education, broke off and founded the Hekovnik start-up school, with branches in Ljublana and San Francisco.


There are several variants of the entrepreneurial university model, including but not limited to direct involvement in economic activities (Etzkowitz, 1983). Industrial research funding and receipts from licensing of intellectual property rights are small in absolute terms in comparison to government funding sources. Nevertheless, academic patenting, technology transfer and spin-offs are a long-term growth trajectory (AUTM, 2015). A charitable, eleemosynary institution is being transformed into a training platform for new organizations, both profit and non-profit. Following a venture capital model, enterprises were spun-off from Boston’s concentration of academic institutions in the early post- war, becoming members of the Fortune 500, like EG&G, DEC and Ionics, before their merger or decline.

A civic university model promotes enhanced university engagement in society, but is largely limited to an extension of existing teaching and research roles, keeping traditional boundaries intact (Goddard, 2009). John Goddard’s concept of the “civic university” signals that the university’s role in society should not be seen solely through the lens of economic development, but should include cultural activities and the transfer of social innovations that may not have an immediately observable economic impact (2009, 11). Other scholarship on the “engaged campus” similarly points to activities such as service learning (placing students in volunteer roles for class credit), and other kinds of community partnerships as examples of the social impact universities can have on their surrounding region (Holland and Gelmon, 1998). Such partnerships are not just adjuncts to the university’s primary goals of teaching and research, but are increasingly integrated with them as knowledge production becomes more multidisciplinary, collaborative, and problem-oriented (Hall and Tandon; Gibbons et al, 1994).

Finally, there is the sense in which “entrepreneurial university” is used by Burton Clark in his analysis of European universities extracting themselves from virtually total Ministry control down, to the number of students that may be recruited in each discipline, in order to achieve a modicum of autonomy and self-direction. Clark developed his analysis of the “entrepreneurial university” through a study of five European universities in the 1990s (later expanded internationally). Significantly, the entrepreneurial university refers to deliberate changes in the organization and operation of the university as an institution that actively and intentionally responds to societal changes. Positing an entrepreneurial university as a non- economic format, Clark focuses on the transition of the government-sponsored university to a more independent status (Clark, 1998).


These different conceptions of the university within the larger socio-economic system may be viewed as stages and phases in the development of the university as an entrepreneur, with each modality building upon the other, in a usual but by no means necessary order. In an initial phase (University Entrepreneur One) the academic institution takes a strategic view of its direction and gains some ability to set its own priorities, either by raising its own resources through donations, tuition fees, and grant income, or through negotiations with resource providers. European universities, that formerly received almost their entire income by government subvention, are undergoing the painful process of diversification, forming alumni associations to connect with their graduates and establishing fund raising offices, long a staple of US academia.

A prerequisite for the university taking the role of entrepreneur is the ability to set its own strategic direction. If a university system operates as it formerly did in Sweden where the Ministry of Higher Education decided how many students would be admitted each year to each discipline, there is hardly a possibility to have sufficient autonomy on which to base an entrepreneurial university. Universities in France did not have an independent existence until the 1970’s devolution that occurred as a side effect of reforms made in response to the student protest movements of the 1960’s. Until quite recently, the various faculties were directly linked to the National Ministry, and universities hardly had an organizational framework, let alone autonomy (Musselin, 2001).

A facilitative legal framework is a necessary but not sufficient condition of creating an entrepreneurial university. France changed its laws in 1999, legalizing academic entrepreneurship. Previously it was illegal for a faculty member to participate in spinning off an enterprise from their research. Indeed, the Innovation law went much further and provided significant resources to encourage technology transfer and firm formation. However, a study of a new university, established in a declining industrial region, found that these incentives were insufficient to create an entrepreneurial university in an inhospitable setting (Laperche, 2002).


In a second phase (University Entrepreneur Two) the academic institution takes an active role in commercializing the intellectual property arising from the activities of its faculty, staff and students. In this phase, a university typically establishes its own technology transfer capabilities, in-sourcing them from firms to which they may have been contracted, such as the Research Corporation in the US, or through devolution of system-wide offices as in the State University of New York and the University of California to individual campuses. Universities with significant intellectual property potential, like Stanford, received an immediate boost in income from having their own staff in more direct contact with the faculty.

Similarly, research powerhouses, like Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial in the UK, and Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Columbia in the US, quickly became leaders in technology transfer and firm- formation once they turned their minds to it and opened their pocketbooks. Universities with fewer research resources to commercialize, not surprisingly, take a longer time to ramp up. However, schools like Arizona State and the University of Utah, that have made tech transfer and firm formation an equal priority with education and research, have achieved higher rates of valorization than many of their resource rich competitors.


In a third phase (University Entrepreneur Three), the academic institution takes a proactive role in improving the efficacy of its regional innovation environment, often in collaboration with industry and government actors. In this stage, a university wishes to build upon these relationships, raise its profile, and play a strategic role in encouraging innovation in its region. This typically occurs through local actors from academia, industry, and government, coming together at the invitation of a respected person with convening power, to formulate and implement a strategy to promote regional development via a “High-tech Council” or “Knowledge Circle,” often supported by governmental initiatives.

The scientific and technological innovation produced by universities is widely recognized as a contributor to both regional and national economic growth. Stated another way, universities play a role in national and regional “innovation systems,” and a significant body of literature investigates this role. Researchers studying this subject have used a variety of methods to measure the economic impact that universities have on regions (Drucker and Goldstein, 2005). Universities contribute to regional development through the spin-off of new firms, or more indirectly, the cultivation of cultural norms that help foster innovation (Genasekara), perhaps through the participation of university employees in local and regional governance as they serve on boards and councils (Chatterton and Goddard 481).

George Mason University’s rise is attributed to its involvement with regional business and political actors in the emerging high tech offshoot of the Pentagon in northern Virginia whose firms lacked an academic interlocutor (Ceruzzi, 2008). President Johnson saw the opportunity to develop IT and systems engineering programs, interfacing with firms meeting US government systems engineering needs. Becoming active in the Chamber of Commerce, he gained the support of technology industry leaders and local developers for the university, and in alliance with them, played a key role in the region’s governance while raising the university’s level. On the other hand, a ‘paradox of success’ inhibits the world’s leading entrepreneurial university from taking further steps given Silicon Valley’s abundant firm- formation resources. “Stanford is a natural incubator” is the response to visitors inquires about the location of the university’s incubator.


Questions have been raised about the relevance of Silicon Valley to aspiring regions elsewhere. Rather than focusing on transformational technologies and formation of high-growth firms; they are advised to adopt a more modest strategy of using IT to raise the level of traditional industries and/or developing application niches of IT based on existing platforms rather than attempting platform development themselves (BrodolinI, 2015). Conceptualized as “smart specialization;” this follower strategy has become the European Union innovation policy. Surely, there is room for additional discontinuous as well as incremental innovation regions, globally?

While not every region can develop multiple technological platforms characteristic of Silicon Valley, why have more not appeared (Caspar, 2007)? Countries, like the UK, have universities that are the equal of Stanford and Berkeley, the academic linchpins of Silicon Valley. A green belt restriction on Cambridge’s growth is an insufficient explanation as firms have jumped over these hurdles, locating in neighboring towns (Koepp, 2003). Oxford University is investing in a highly capitalized venture capital fund to fill the financing gap that has inhibited the Oxford Vale region. The “Golden Triangle” metaphor of London/Oxford/Cambridge is belied by hypercompetitive universities and shortsighted transportation policies, like the “Beecher cuts” that destroyed the “varsity line” between Oxford and Cambridge in the early post- war. While each leg develops significant spin-offs, commanding prices in the billions like Autonomy’s purchase by Hewlett Packard, high growth firms are seemingly beyond reach (Lawton-Smith and Waters, 2015).

Boston and Silicon Valley emanated from Brownfield and Greenfield sites, respectively. MIT and Stanford were founded with a culture of innovation in their institutional DNA and attained world-class status in tandem with the development of their regions. Massachusetts’s Route 128, the world leader not too many decades ago, was displaced by Silicon Valley (Saxenian, 1994). Boston’s university complex, a creative source of innovative economic activity, continues to grow even as Silicon Valley’s giant firms replace an earlier era’s fluid networks as the region’s dominant characteristic, suggesting regional leadership reversion as a future possibility (Etzkowitz, 2013).

We safely hazard the prediction that Silicon Valley is the leading edge of a knowledge-based innovation model that is subject to further development. The innovation pre-eminence of Silicon Valley is a fairly recent phenomenon. Not too long ago, Bell Laboratories, integrated within the AT&T telecommunications monopoly was the US innovation leader, along with its peers at IBM and General Electric. Elements of the Silicon Valley innovation eco-system such as venture capital firms focused on high growth potential start-ups, legal firms with start-up expertise, universities with porous boundaries hosting academic serial entrepreneurs are fairly well known. Zurich, Tel Aviv, London, Barcelona, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, and Berlin, among others, are developing similar characteristics and may break through the “innovation barrier” inhibiting regions from becoming self-renewing (Etzkowitz and Klofsten, 2005).


In his New Yorker article Ken Auletta (2012) asked whether Stanford University and Silicon Valley had become too close, citing among other facts the participation of President John Henessey on boards of various firms that had grown out of the university as well being a successful entrepreneur himself. This is not a unique distinction as both a former Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University, and the incoming President of Tsinghua University had their start-ups, and we will no doubt hear of other academic leaders.

The converse hypothesis that Silicon Valley and Stanford are not close enough should also be explored. An iconic firm, Hewlett Packard, lost its ties to the university in recent years and is working to recover them, according to its director of university relations. On the other hand, design consultancy Ideo, founded by a PhD dropout, maintained its links, helping grow the university’s highly successful Design School, providing part-time teachers and eventually its Director. Ideo’s founder, David Kelly, a full Professor whose tenure was awarded on the basis of “impact,” maintains offices and a busy schedule in both venues, shaping a virtual university/firm entity.

Whereas a full time faculty devoting their careers to disciplinary pursuits was the epitome of the ivory tower research university, an entrepreneurial university faculty has a mix of cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, internal and external commitments. The academic role is a bundle of tasks, pursued in varying proportions and integrated or separated in a variety of ways. The Brazilian “community universities“ Feevale and Univale, dedicated to regional development, have established a matrix organizational format to organize these different tasks systematically. Interdisciplinary groups pursuing research to meet local needs are located in separate facilities from regular research and teaching activities. Faculty members divide their day between the two venues and tasks. Similarly, the University of California at Berkeley established a series of centers in the early post-war where faculty pursued extensive research activities apart from their departmental academic tasks (Kruytbosch and Messinger, 1968). UC Berkeley and other institutions continue to use the organizational structure of centers integrating different disciplines, as well as industry and academia, a phenomenon that has been described by Birx et al (2013) as the “open laboratory” format.

Academics operate in multiple worlds, simultaneously and successively, no longer necessarily giving up one world when they enter another. Indeed, industrial funds are often used to supplement government funded research projects and vice versa. Entrepreneurial initiatives arise bottom up, top down and laterally in ever shifting patters. For example, Orin Hershkowitz, the head of Columbia Technology Ventures, the University’s Innovation arm, noted that he looked forward to working with Columbia Professor Sia’s New York City supported incubator project. Would any contemporary academic administrator say otherwise in an era where the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University finds time to attend a reception opening the Said Business School’s new launch space for start-ups and give it his blessing?


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