big ideas 2020: a vision for the future of innovation and entrepreneurship

big ideas 2020

As we enter into a new decade, we’re reflecting on what the field of innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) has achieved and the direction the community is taking. For nearly a quarter century, VentureWell has worked closely with innovators, faculty changemakers, and entrepreneurial support networks in I&E. Our connections and involvement in the community have provided a unique vantage point into the ever-changing needs within the I&E landscape. To kick off the new year—and new decade—we’d like to draw attention to four big ideas that will be of great importance in 2020 and in years to come.

  1. Tapping the power of I&E to solve humanity’s greatest environmental and social challenges
  2. Rise of the underrepresented in innovation and entrepreneurship
  3. Assessing impact: evaluating what innovators need to succeed
  4. Solving global biomedical engineering (BME) design challenges by scaling collaboration

tapping the power of I&E to solve humanity’s greatest environmental and social challenges 

Climate change, a global-scale environmental crisis, has massive social implications. It is not just an environmental crisis, it is also a humanitarian crisis where marginalized members of society will be most impacted, mainly through food, water, and energy scarcity. Through our ongoing work to prepare tomorrow’s inventors and designers to address future environmental challenges, we recognize that social issues are inextricably interconnected. 

We’ll see more I&E programs geared toward solving social issues through an environmental lens. We know there’s great interest in this area. For instance, we’ve seen innovators in our programs working at the water-energy nexus. Water is used in all phases of energy production and electricity generation, and energy is required to extract, convey, and deliver water as well as to treat wastewater prior to its return to the environment. In India, pumping water for agriculture consumes up to one-fifth of the country’s energy, roughly half from the power grid and half in diesel fuel. Powering Agriculture Xcelerator participant Soumitra Mishra and his partners at Claro Energy set out to change that, introducing small-scale off-the-grid solar systems that allow local farmers to power their pumps more reliably, cheaply, and sustainably using the country’s abundant sunshine.

To ensure tomorrow’s innovators are prepared to tackle these pressing and complex challenges, we’ll see more members of the broader I&E community come together to develop a shared vision for environmental responsibility in STEM and entrepreneurship education. We’ve already started this work in partnership with our founding funder, The Lemelson Foundation. We engaged a community of stakeholders from academia and industry to government and nonprofits to draft the Environmentally Responsible Engineering (ERE) Definition and Framework. In fall of 2019, nearly 90 stakeholders weighed in on the draft ERE Framework through more than 430 comments and over 1,000 peer-to-peer interactions. This will help define ERE and outline core skills, experiences, and knowledge that all engineering students need to acquire in order to become environmentally responsible engineers. 

“Despite the differences across higher education institutions, stakeholders have identified core student learning outcomes to integrate into engineering programs to prepare tomorrow’s environmentally responsible engineers,” said Cindy Gilbert, senior program officer at VentureWell. “The ERE Framework will serve as a collective vision for institutional change.” 

Starting in 2020, we anticipate the broader I&E community will begin the integration of the ERE Framework into engineering programs at academic institutions across the U.S.  

rise of the underrepresented in innovation and entrepreneurship

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the I&E community come together to discuss how to make access to and participation in innovation and entrepreneurship more equitable and inclusive. We’re now seeing the conversation turn to action. More individuals, organizations, and institutions are mobilizing to overcome inequality—on campus and beyond.  

“National attention around this topic is quickly moving from lip service to action. We’re seeing deployment of capital and program implementation from leaders who have experience in this space,” said Eli Velasquez, director of venture development at VentureWell.

For instance, Dr. Isabelle Monlouis, associate director of the H.J. Russell Center for Entrepreneurship at J. Mack College of Business at Georgia State University developed a program to close gender gaps in I&E education. Monlouis received a VentureWell Faculty Grant to launch the WomenLead Innovation and Entrepreneurship program to support female students through the process of building a profitable and scalable solution to a validated customer problem.

Other programs focused on addressing the needs of underrepresented groups are continuing to emerge and expand, such as New Mexico State University’s program for Native American student entrepreneurs, and UNCF’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Innovation Summit, which helps drive innovation, entrepreneurship, and access for African American communities in the science and technology space. We also expect to see the launch of funding programs that lower barriers to access capital for minority entrepreneurs.

There will be more collaboration among thought leaders in the I&E space who have been actively working to make innovation and entrepreneurship more equitable. For instance, we’ll see more convenings that highlight, connect, and empower underrepresented founders in the I&E space, such as the Afrotech Conference. We’re partnering with The Lemelson Foundation to gain an in-depth understanding of existing efforts and promising practices for increasing equity and inclusion within STEM invention-based innovation and entrepreneurship, and share our emerging learnings with the field. These findings will help us identify strengths, gaps, and opportunities for improvement within our core E-Team grant and early-stage innovator training program, with a view to building an equitable and inclusive pipeline of E-Team innovators.

assessing impact: evaluating what innovators need to succeed

How do we know whether the support we provide to entrepreneurs helps them grow? Whether our efforts to support ventures helps teams progress? Whether we are making progress in building entrepreneurial ecosystems? Many organizations are implementing program and system-focused strategies aimed at supporting entrepreneurs; however, it is often difficult to know whether we are making progress—and how to strengthen our efforts.

There is an ever-increasing call from the field to examine and understand the implementation and impact of efforts to support entrepreneurs. In a recent article, Sarah Zappe, director of assessment and instructional support at Penn State’s Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education, noted the need for additional “assessment approaches that are rooted in rigorous research” in the engineering entrepreneurship education community. 

What will it take to build field-level knowledge? A first step is clearly articulating the intended impacts of our work. VentureWell has used a well-defined organization-level theory of change to describe the relationship between our work and the change we aim to create. Conceptual clarity about what we are trying to achieve as an organization has supported the definition of specific outcome milestones (such as the Venture Development Framework, which describes the development of early-stage science- and technology-based ventures along six dimensions) as well as our organizational learning agenda.

Other organizations have worked to provide conceptual clarity around the focus of their work as well as their outcomes. For example, GIZ has outlined three elements of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and related measurement approaches to help practitioners describe and build the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Another example, GALI has defined a set of impact measures, such as annual revenue and the number of full-time employees, to support accelerator programs in collecting data and benchmarking performance.

“We look forward to the continued development of evaluation approaches and measures in the field so we can all do a better job of learning how to achieve our goals,” said Lauren Gase, senior evaluation analyst at VentureWell.

solving global BME design challenges by scaling collaboration

Globally, we’re seeing that BME programs are expanding rapidly at all educational levels—and are adding design to their curricula. In parallel, we’re also noticing an increased demand within the corporate medical device sector for talented biomedical engineers who have the skills and perspective needed to design healthcare solutions for global markets, including low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).  

We believe that educators have a unique opportunity to serve the field as expert leaders and innovators by incorporating essential knowledge, skills, and experiences into their programs with regard to the global aspects of BME. In order to develop a new generation of US-trained leaders in BME across all aspects of the field—from researchers and scientists to designers and problem-solvers—new opportunities for global collaboration must be developed and scaled. 

Mark Marino, VentureWell senior program officer for global initiatives, says that “to develop future BME leaders with an international perspective, it’s critical that strong connections are made between the US-based BME community and BME programs around the world. We’ve seen that designing from a distance doesn’t work. You can’t invent something in isolation in a US-based university lab with the expectation that it will work in a low-resource setting. Gaining in-country context, and developing partnerships with key stakeholders in the region, is required.”

As we’ve seen through our own work, more efforts are being made to develop stronger collaborations between US-based and global BME design programs. For instance, the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health program (which received early support from VentureWell) offers innovative undergraduate programs that engage students to design and implement new technologies to solve global health challenges. Key aspects of that model include strong collaboration with local education institutions, building skills and opportunities for students and faculty at local institutions, and building capacity for sustainable adoption of new innovations in low-resource settings.

With support from the Whitaker International Program we’ve launched a multi-year initiative to build strong partnerships between US-based and global BME design programs, including exchanges of faculty, students, resources, and best practices. Our efforts will foster the development of US-trained leaders in BME design prepared to bring an informed and connected approach to teaching and practice, developing collaborative programs—especially in LMICs in Africa and Latin America. 

Every other year, a consortium of higher ed leaders in BME innovation and design convene to explore the potential for sharing resources and creating community-wide tools. The next meeting in October 2020 will bring a focus on international partnerships highlighting the knowledge sharing and best practices for global collaboration. Looking ahead, we’ll see grant opportunities for student BME programs and faculty professional development to continue to engage in global BME partnerships.

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