Academic institutions as knowledge creators in the entrepreneurial ecosystem

File pic: Entrepreneurship

THE armed forces, universities, public agencies, branches of multinational corporations and their research and development (R&D) laboratories, venture capital funds, incubators and accelerators make up the diversified innovation ecosystem within which entrepreneurship has grown around the world.

A number of cutting-edge technologies, including those for firewalls, billing, USB flash drives, voice over internet protocol, digital printing and camera-based driver assistance, have been developed through entrepreneurial ecosystems. Many developed and emerging nations have seen significant economic development, thanks to entrepreneurship.

In their book African Entrepreneurship, Dana et al (eds) (2018) make the case that entrepreneurship has been acknowledged by stakeholders as a significant engine of economic growth due to its impact on job creation and poverty alleviation.

Despite the fact that Africa’s entrepreneurial performance has been characterised as subpar, exciting advancements in the area of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial skills are taking place.

Although there is a lot of room for self-employment in Africa, there has not been much research done on how entrepreneurship affects the continent's economic growth.

In a book titled Bringing Africa into Entrepreneurship Research, Ratten and Jones (2018) note that entrepreneurship is seen as a potential solution to some of Africa’s economic and social issues.

A growing number of people in Africa are realising that entrepreneurship offers a means of achieving financial independence and self-determination. The improvement of African citizens’ quality of life and community development depends on this.

Hisrich and Peters (1992) defined entrepreneurship as the act of producing something new and taking up the associated risks and benefits.

Recent years have seen a significant increase in interest in the idea of entrepreneurial ecosystems among researchers, policymakers and practitioners.

The fundamental concept of entrepreneurial ecosystems, according to Galperin and Melyok (2018) in their book chapter, Tanzania as an Emerging Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: Prospects and Challenges, was first developed in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a shift away from individualistic and personality-based research and towards a more comprehensive viewpoint that takes into account the role of social, cultural and economic forces in the entrepreneurship process.

The promotion of official and informal connections and structures between research institutes, government, public and private organisations and enterprises is the responsibility of entrepreneurship ecosystems. In turn, these organisations foster the development of ideas into viable commercial operations.

Entrepreneurial ecosystems highlight the fact that entrepreneurship takes place in a specific context and a thorough grasp of the influences of cultural, social, political and economic structures and processes is required.

An entrepreneurial ecosystem is mostly concerned with fostering an environment whereby various stakeholders play various roles, with the government playing a key part in promoting entrepreneurship.

By fostering the growth of entrepreneurial enterprises, entrepreneurial ecosystems connect the key players in a clearly defined territory, thereby creating value.

Economic success, innovation, and international competitiveness are all products of a high-performing entrepreneurial ecosystem.

An entrepreneurial ecosystem’s ability to thrive depends on how well its stakeholders work together and how their policies are interconnected.

Universities’ place in the entrepreneurial ecosystem

According to the website of the Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development ministry [MHTEISTD], Zimbabwe has 21 universities, six industrial training centres, seven polytechnics, 13 teachers’ colleges, and four ministry agencies.

Through the provision of labour, the academic community of the nation has some synergies with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. These synergies have, for example, produced 419 engineers for every million people, though leaving a shortfall of around 23 000 engineers.

With 315 and 158 engineers per million inhabitants, respectively, the nation outpaces South Africa and Kenya (MHTEISTD, 2018 National Critical Skills Audit Report). Zimbabwe’s literacy rate is 94%, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency 2022 Population and Housing Census report on education.

According to the survey, there are 663 320 people with tertiary education credentials, with 342 975 of them being men. According to the research, 48 447 people hold master’s degrees, 185 362 people hold a diploma, 105 993 people have a bachelor’s degree with honours, and 105 654 people have a bachelor’s degree general.

There are only 4 772 people with doctorates. According to the World Bank Development Indicators (2022), Zimbabwe had an educational attainment rate of 0,03675 as of 2 017 (doctoral or equivalent, population 25+, total (%) (cumulative)).

Since 1980, the nation has not produced a single Nobel Prize winner. There have been minimal, if any, knowledge transfers and significant university-industry ties in Zimbabwe’s academic sector.

In order to promote and reward research and university-industry collaborations, the culture in the nation’s universities needs to change. The foundation for a technologically-driven economy is investment in R&D.

Therefore, authorities need to appreciate the transformative power of research through advancing knowledge, driving economies and building nations. Therefore, financing for R&D needs to be targeted and long-term.

Despite the significance of R&D, Zimbabwe has been spending 0,076% of gross domestic product (GDP) on it instead of the African Union’s suggested 1% of GDP (MHTEISTD, 2018 National Critical Skills Audit Report).

To ensure that there is meaningful technology transfer between universities and industry, there is need to abandon traditional approaches in favour of more agile and flexible approaches that provide university lecturers and professors free movement between the university, government and industry while maintaining their full university positions.

Universities need to create conducive environments that encourage the growth of young researchers as well as nurturing young professors.

Several engagements need to be instituted domestically and internationally to foster more meaningful research collaborations.

Universities play a fundamental role in economic development through cutting-edge researches that influence and inform policy formulation and implementation.

Governments need to be informed scientifically on ways to solve economic, social and political challenges.

So universities need to engage government and industry as well as collaborating with them to provide intelligence based on proven scientific research on ways to address socio-economic challenges.

Without research, government policies will never address the real challenges facing their economies.

For example, Zimbabwe has suffered for decades without a functioning currency and one is forced to ask where are the universities and what are they doing about it?

Universities must strive to provide sustainable solutions to challenges facing communities they operate in.

Universities need to engage the community and private sector provide sustainable developmental solutions.

Additionally, universities ought to have technology transfer organisations (TTOs) that aid in the commercialisation of academic research.

These companies should transform university research into industrial goods that pay academic institutions handsome royalties.

For the best and the brightest researchers to have a chance to make a difference on a global scale, universities must bridge the gap between industry and academic research.

For instance, Israel has 16 TTOs that collectively produce €1 billion in royalties each year.

Every year, Israeli universities and research centres license roughly 150 new technologies, and on average, 15 new businesses based on academic ideas are spun out.

These TTOs are crucial in inspiring scholars whose work would probably never be published without the necessary technical assistance.

Universities in Zimbabwe have created innovation hubs to help nascent entrepreneurs turn creative, technology-driven ideas into goods or services.

However, due to financial difficulties and a lack of competence, little is occurring within these hubs, which are meant to offer access to R&D, grants, infrastructure (such as office spaces, a mentorship network, informal event programmes, investor exposure, and public funding links), and consultancy services.

Liesel Gentelli (2015) in an article titled Using Industry Professionals in Undergraduate Teaching: Effects on Student Learning published in the Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice argue that when it comes to research, universities and industry collaboration in research commercialisation is becoming more and more common, from a supplementary activity to a significant source of major funding for universities, at a time when government funding of research may be in decline. 

Universities have been shown to place a high importance on the two-way exchange of knowledge with researchers in industry, aside from receiving more research funds.

Students, especially those who are engaged in research, benefit from links between universities and businesses.

To increase the connection between research organisations and industry, the government must encourage the creation of centres that support R&D in collaboration with industry.

Government should institute domestic ranking methodologies and matrix to measure university performance based on research but without missing institutional mandates of these universities.

These methodologies also have to consider sustainable development goals.

Professor Isaac Ben-Israel in his speech at the World Academic Summit organised by the Times Higher Education on October 4, 2018 argued that government should support and encourage university professors to take part in their own start-ups without choosing either university or industry.

While they are still full-time university professors, lecturers should be encouraged to serve only 20% of their time at the institution and 80% in industry, not the other way around.

To support that point, Suzanne Fortier (2018), Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill in Canada, argues that university professors are encouraged to split 50/50 of their time between the university and industry.

It is important to promote these systems so that everyone can connect to one another.

This will facilitate easy transfer of technology by the free movement of technologists.

Professor Israel continues by saying that after more than 50 years of working in academia and the defence industry, he no longer believes in the transfer of technology in the traditional sense.

Instead, he claims the only way technology can be transferred is by moving the technologists, or the people who work with it.

There is a need to promote free movement of persons between communities not only in institutions but also in government and defence.

He contends that something along these lines is the only way to transfer technology and that it is necessary to support the free movement of people from industry to government and back to the university.

He sees allowing free movement of people as the answer to technology transfer.

This strategy outperforms the one proposed by the University of Zimbabwe, where university instructors are required to go on industrial attachment in order to troubleshoot issues that arise in business.

Before introducing such programmes, authorities need to hold extensive consultations since they will have a negative impact on universities, which are already struggling with brain drain and funding issues among others which results in lowering the standard of higher education in Zimbabwe.

The right thing to do is to support the free movement of professors, a practice that is common in nations like Israel, China, Canada and Japan, among others.

University professors should be allowed this freedom while still working full-time in academia.

In summary, the academia plays a critical role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem through knowledge creation and collaborations between university and industry.

The major take-away is the encouragement of university professors to participate in their own start-ups as well as allowing the agility and flexibility of their engagement with the university that is, spending 20% of their time serving at university and 80% in industry.

This will create an environment that allows technology transfer between university and industry.

  • Alexander Maune is an Institute of Directors Zimbabwe member as well as a Talmudic and Zoharic expert, lecturer, researcher and consultant contactable on [email protected].


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