Uni Acceleration: Who’s in the Room?
8 May 2018 at 8:37 am
Universities have the ability to tap a cohort that wouldn’t ever consider entrepreneurship or change-making as a career, writes Will Dayble.
For many, putting the words “university” and “accelerator” together is oxymoronic. Unis are big, ponderous, and they struggle to access the networks and capital of a for-profit, venture-backed accelerator.
That said, the UBI World Benchmarking report on uni accelerators cites $4.7 billion of investment attracted from nearly 15,000 graduates, and $3.2 billion in sales revenue from qualifying university-attached accelerators. The numbers still pale in comparison to the billionaire-minters in the valley, but they’re certainly more than zero.
Interestingly, the same study highlights a strong social focus at unis:
This graph essentially says:
- 72 per cent (186 of the 259 benchmarked programs) have at least one impact startup within their cohorts.
- Most programs have one to 25 per cent of their startups working on social issues.
It’s hard to tell if these are vanity metric or not. Only around 20 per cent of the programs assessed actually made it through to the benchmark, so we’re missing a lot of data.
But what if there’s a better way to measure the impact created by university accelerators than dollars, jobs and growth?
Checking who’s in the room
Just like the evolution of boardroom gender policies, it’s almost always valuable to ask “Who is in the room? Do they sound like me?”
Aussie uni accelerators have a growing number of engaged and engaging international students in programs. We see students who’ve never considered entrepreneurship joining programs, and I’ve witnessed chance encounters between students from very different backgrounds blossom into projects, careers, and friendships.
Many of these students didn’t consider entrepreneurial careers until they went through some sort of program.
Last weekend, the SPARK Deakin hackathon had a considered and deliberate diversity of delegates, across faculty, skillset, gender and background. The program’s manager, Daizy, put serious effort into ensuring the people in the room were an interesting mix.
As mentor Emerson Tan says, the results were palpable: “None of these ideas suck. That’s really rare for a hackathon.
“In my experience, most silicon valley startups are built by rich white men in their 20’s with no real life experience and whose most serious struggle in life is how to get fed and laid with minimal human interaction. Everything else has been taken care of thanks to mum and dad’s money. Their product ideas are solutions to their problems, and the problems of the richest 1 per cent in the world.
“This group is different. Many are older, most aren’t white, or rich or male. You’re building solutions for real problems that afflict everyone else. That’s a long winded way of saying you’re working on problems that matter. Addressing the needs of the many, not the whims of the privileged few.”
The winning project was built on highly scalable dental care tech, and the leader was Ramya, a dentist.
What I found fascinating about Ramya is that she nailed every personality trait I’d expect from a good founder – she attracted and led a quality team, she was focused, and her agility on the solution counterpointed a deep knowledge of the problem space – yet she doesn’t identify as a founder.
“I don’t think of myself as a startup person because I’m a clinician, I don’t know anything about business, I’m not very good with numbers,” she says.
Whether the startup will last is to be seen, but the early indicators are there, more-so than I’ve seen from many computer science geeks with big egos.
The day after the hackathon, Ramya remained humble: “This weekend changed my perspective on startups. I thought you had to be a business expert.
“I also didn’t know you could change mindsets that fast! Seeing really different ideas to mine helped me realise that our idea might work, and that I’m not alone. I was surprised that I could recruit people who knew nothing about my idea. By the last day they believed in the project even more than I do!”
I don’t know about you, but that’s the sort of leader I’d work for.
While most accelerators holler about investor dollars attracted and bottom line sales metrics, they may be telling a simplistic story.
If you get into YCombinator you get rich, in no small part because you’ve joined an old boys club of investors and founders that take care of their own. Profitable accelerators are ROI beasts, optimised towards that outcome.
It’s not inherently good or bad, it’s just necessary for the model to work. High risk, high expectations, and a steep power law in the failure and success ratio.
While acceleration is very much a selection game, from delegates and mentors, to investors and community, universities don’t need to hunt unicorns, so they have space to think about selection differently, and measuring more interesting outcomes. With 50,000+ students dropping out of uni this year while paying around $12,000 for the privilege, they also have a serious incentive to drag student engagement into the 21st century.
So could universities dig into the texture and depth of the participants joining in entrepreneurial programs? Why they come at all? Why are they engaging or disengaging in more traditional studies? What career did they expect, and where are they ending up?
Are we luring people into the startup and impact fray that wouldn’t previously self-select, and how are they tracking against their own definitions of success?
The Monash GENERATOR program manager, Helena Fern comments: “While startups are becoming more relevant and there’s a lot to be said about entrepreneurial skills playing into the employability space. But founding isn’t for everyone. I get annoyed by the push for everyone to be a leader, in the traditional sense; we don’t all need to be leaders like we don’t all need to be traditional startup founders.”
Fuel for the social sector
Bringing more enterprising skills into third sector programs is what everyone is claiming to do, despite business model backflips looking more like face-plants. We could be looking to the students of uni accelerators for gumption, mindset, and impact focus.
Even more encouraging, these students are looking for a softer entrepreneurial endeavour than their grittily profitable counterparts. Many flirt at the edges of the skill-set, without the obsessive focus on trading a decade of their life and mental health for a chance at a screaming success.
They’ll make great employees and project leads, in a country that has too many founders and not enough employees: “Too many people in Australia’s tech startup community are first-time founders, with no prior experience being a tech startup founder and no prior experience as a tech startup employee,” says Alan Jones, Blue Chilli.
These people would do great work cutting their teeth in partnership with an existing organisation on a meaty problem.
Joyfully, this is barely a beginning. Unis may be slow, but hidden within is the ability to tap a cohort that wouldn’t ever consider entrepreneurship or change-making as a career.
Startups have been around long enough now for a clear old and new-school divide. The new school kids have some distinct advantages, especially if Aussies can consider our shifting cultural identity, India and Southeast Asia as growth markets, and where the customers of our education institutions are coming from.
I’m tired of visionaries. Maybe we can ask someone else to lead us into the next stage of Australia’s accelerated future?
About the author: Will Dayble is a teacher, and founder of the Fitzroy Academy, an online social impact school. The academy works with students and educators to teach people about entrepreneurship and social impact. Will is at once a loyal supporter and fierce critic of of both the startup and impact ecosystems.
This is part of a regular series of articles for Pro Bono Australia exploring impact, education and startups. Please do reach out with advice, commentary, criticism or ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org.