Entrepreneurship meets innovation
One of the things we often hear economic and social commentators say is that the era of the “job for life,” either corporate or not-for-profit, is ending, and so today’s graduates must learn to be entrepreneurs.
Without accepting some of the more extreme prognostications on this score – surely there will be a space, for instance, for public service, long a major destination of Queen’s alumni – it’s hard to deny that innovation and entrepreneurship are and will be critically important to Canada and the world.
Successful businesses generate the taxes and the jobs that support our social safety net. Yet with a few noteworthy exceptions, when compared to the U.S., Canada historically has underperformed in the arena of entrepreneurship. Similarly, despite a wealth of inventions and discoveries pouring out of Canadian universities, the rate of translation of these into commercial, scalable products is slow, as noted in the recent Jenkins Report on research in Canada. (http://pwc.to/10TpDji)
On some of my recent international travels, I’ve been struck not just by the number of small- and medium-size enterprises that have emerged from universities and grown into successful businesses (or indeed, failed businesses; I’ll come back to that point), but rather by the spaces for young entrepreneurs that have been created in urban centres. On a recent trip to Boston, I visited several of these spaces in the company of Greg Bavington, Sc’85, Executive Director of the Queen’s Innovation Connector – a joint venture by the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science and Queen’s School of Business.
The places we toured aren’t high-gloss corporate facilities. One, which is called “Mass Challenge,” does have a lovely view of the Charles River, but someone pointed out to us that after the first day no one who works here notices the view. The space is filled with desks and open spaces where would-be start-ups get four months to develop and spin out a product before they have to move along. Mass Challenge is a business incubator with a high turnover rate and a varied demographic. The oldest resident is 87, although (not surprisingly) most are a lot younger.
"One of the most important bits of advice I’ve heard successful entrepreneurs offer is ‘Fail early, fail often.’
Greg and I also visited “Greentown,” a basement space in a rather grungy building in Boston that’s home to a dozen or so small groups developing products that take basic research and apply it to green technologies. This is a different approach than the one taken at Mass Challenge because in addition to desks and computers, Greentown also provides an actual shop floor and equipment to use in building and testing products.
Similar initiatives are scattered across the U.S.. A common feature of all of them is that ever present is the risk of failure, which is an accepted part of the entrepreneurial experience. As the saying goes, “Reward is in direct proportion to risk.” Not every idea becomes a product; nor does every product become a success.
One of the most important bits of advice I’ve heard successful entrepreneurs offer is “Fail early, fail often.” In short, don’t be afraid to take risks; know that sometimes you’re going to fall flat on your face, so learn how and when to pull the plug on an unsuccessful venture, and then move on.
While Canadian universities and cities have some work to do when it comes to developing such models, there have been some good starts. For example, here at Queen’s and in Kingston, apart from Innovation Park and PARTEQ, the Queen’s Innovation Connector is showing great promise. The University is looking for funding to expand this program, and the 2012-13 AMS Executive team was fully supportive of efforts to provide the conditions for success in student entrepreneurship.
Queen’s is already a hothouse of ideas and new research, and each year we graduate a new cohort of bright young minds who are bubbling with the “spirit of initiative.” Our challenge is to create the conditions that fully unleash this potential and to nurture it as it migrates out into the world. Our alumni can play a big part in the process by providing mentorship, networking opportunities, and possibly even capital investment.
If such an opportunity knocks on your door, I’d urge you to please give it some serious thought, and consider ways you can contribute to the successes of Queen’s graduates and to society as a whole.