Big Ideas in Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Emerging Trends to Watch in 2018

big ideas innovation entrepreneurship

For over 20 years, VentureWell has been deep in the fray of the innovation and entrepreneurship community. We work closely with innovators, faculty changemakers, and entrepreneurial support networks. That provides us with a unique vantage point to identify big ideas developing in the space.  

Based on our active connections with key players in innovation and entrepreneurship, we see five emerging areas taking shape:

  • More initiatives to jumpstart regional economic development through science and technology
  • Increased support for students navigating the maze of innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities
  • Growing effort to eliminate inequality in innovation and entrepreneurship
  • More emphasis on measuring the impact of innovation on campus
  • Creation of more opportunities for industry-university collaboration

Below is our analysis of how these big ideas will impact innovation and entrepreneurship in the coming year.

More Initiatives to Jumpstart Regional Economic Development through Science and Technology

Innovation and entrepreneurship are key drivers of economic growth and opportunity. Take Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston. Each location is a model I&E hub, attracting the best and brightest talent in the world. The result? Talented and driven people plant roots in those areas to live, work, or start new companies, further bolstering the regional economy.

Around the country, there are many regions with great potential to become a vibrant I&E hub. But how can these burgeoning ecosystems grow to support promising science and technology-based startups? The answer isn’t simply more training opportunities for early stage startups. Through work with our investment readiness program, ASPIRE, we’ve learned that a community’s ability to support startups is enhanced when a diverse group of stakeholders are deeply engaged. Recruiting and connecting stakeholders such as entrepreneurial support organizations, venture capitalists, and industry veterans in support of startups benefits the ecosystem as well.

“The needs of both science and technology-based startups and the regional entrepreneurial ecosystems where they are based are closely connected,” said Christina Tamer, VentureWell program officer. “One of the most challenging barriers that startups face is securing the strategic partnerships and investment that will enable them to grow. It is not just a matter of more or better curriculum, but of bringing together a community of sector-specific investors, experts, and corporate mentors to advise and support startups. This requires extensive network development. We have found, however, that the benefits of doing this work accrue not only to the participating startups, but to the entrepreneurial ecosystems in which our programs are held.”

Austin, Texas is a prime example of the power of building entrepreneurial ecosystems. The study, Sustaining The Technopolis: High-Technology Development in Austin, Texas 1988-2012, illustrates the role of key influencers, institutions, and networks that made possible Austin’s extraordinary technology-based growth. Austin’s model is based on first- and second-level influencers – key leaders and visionaries from academia, business, and government networking and working together to achieve targeted objectives.

While it’s crucial to build strong regional networks, Heath Naquin, VentureWell Vice President of Strategic Development also recommends building connections between regional stakeholders and experts outside of the region to gather a broad range of insights and best practices. “One of the biggest things that can empower emerging regional economic development models is not “copying” what has been done in other regions, but rather learning what didn’t work in other places,” said Naquin.

This year, we’ll see more effort to bring key stakeholders together to provide a powerful support system for participating startups and increase integration and partnership within the ecosystem, which can lead to new and lasting relationships and initiatives.

Increased Support for Students Navigating the Maze of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Opportunities

The volume of trainings, sector-specific prize competitions, hackathons, incubators and accelerators, and other resources for student innovators continues to grow each year. That’s technically a good problem to have. However, as innovators explore possible paths to take, they quickly discover that there’s no one way to transform an idea into an impactful solution. This gray area can cause many early stage innovators to struggle in identifying the right route to scale their invention.

“Early stage innovators need to identify the right path for them – personally and professionally,” said Laura Sampath, VentureWell Vice President of Programs. “There are many resources available to innovators who want to understand specific innovation pathways, from on-campus programs and lectures, to books, to resources such as the global health-focused USAID Pathways to Scale guide. Still, there is no secret formula to ensure individual inventor-entrepreneurs are adequately primed for their innovation and entrepreneurship adventure.”

From our point of view, we’ll see a greater focus on supporting early stage innovators in developing their own roadmap. Look for more organizations in the innovation and entrepreneurship community to offer resources that help tomorrow’s inventor-entrepreneurs navigate the maze of opportunities, such as the Innovator Insights Series developed in partnership with VentureWell, USAID Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, The Lemelson Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Growing Effort to Eliminate Inequality in Innovation and Entrepreneurship

While there are more and more resources and opportunities for early stage innovators, far too many people still lack access to them. A recent Stanford report looked at who becomes an inventor — and who doesn’t. The results are troubling. For instance, the study showed low-income children who excel at math rarely become patent holders. In fact, they are less likely to hold patents than high-income students who do substantially worse in school.

The findings from the study raise an important question: how many breakthrough innovations have we missed because of extreme inequality? In order for more talented and motivated students to participate in innovation and entrepreneurship, there needs to be more seats available at the table. All early stage innovators, regardless of gender, race, or background, should have the opportunity to develop their interest in entrepreneurship.

Our vision is inclusive. Underrepresentation within science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is a barrier to cultivating a diverse pipeline of science and technology innovators. “We want and need the full engagement of everyone who has the potential to contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Phil Weilerstein, VentureWell CEO.

As we move into 2018, we’ll not only see more conversations around inequality in innovation and entrepreneurship, there will be an increase in initiatives designed to level the playing field in innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, in early 2017 we partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program, The Frontier Set, to help improve academic access and success for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Organizations like ours with experience catalyzing and sustaining transformation within higher education will take a more active role in creating more opportunities for all of tomorrow’s inventor-entrepreneurs.

More Emphasis on Measuring the Impact of Innovation on Campus

Many universities claim innovation as a cornerstone of their educational initiatives. But how do those claims translate into core policies, curriculum development, or turn students on to innovation and entrepreneurship?

This year, we’ll see more higher education institutions set goals, measure their progress, and identify gaps in their efforts. For instance, more universities will take part in initiatives such as the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) Innovation & Economic Prosperity (IEP) Universities Program, which helps higher education institutions benchmark their efforts around innovation and entrepreneurship and economic engagement. Participation in such programs provides a thorough internal review of economic development and engagement activity, and enables institutions to be both strategic and deliberate in developing future programs.

Our funding partner, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, recognizes the importance of measuring impact of innovation and entrepreneurship programs. The Foundation has enlisted VentureWell to conduct a study for an innovative approach to evaluating accelerators for science and technology-based impact ventures. The study will be conducted on our longest standing early stage innovator program, the E- Team program.

“The findings from the study will be used to develop a model for other entrepreneurial support programs to adopt or adapt for their own evaluative purposes,” said Weilerstein.

Creation of More Opportunities for Industry-University Collaboration

Industry and university collaboration allows both parties to rely on each other for their strengths. Industry has the funding for research and the experience to commercialize a product. Universities—who are receiving fewer federal dollars than ever before for scientific research—are research powerhouses that can tackle the in-the-trenches work to invent, develop, and test products.

These mutually beneficial partnerships can produce groundbreaking applied research and innovation that solves complex problems, drives economic growth, and creates a more skilled workforce. Dorn Carranza, the director overseeing VentureWell work with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers Program (IUCRC), says, “There are major challenges in society, and universities and industry can combine their technical skills, knowledge, and resources to innovate and address those challenges.”

In 2018, we’ll see more opportunities to foster industry-university collaboration. These include more innovation-centric approaches to engaging with industry, opening more spaces for private-public collaborative innovation, and more ground-breaking applied research that has major social, environmental, and economic benefits.

“To ensure these collaborations work, both groups must acknowledge and overcome the cultural and communication divides that tend to slow down industry and university collaborations,” said Carranza.

Track these trends with us throughout the year on our blog and social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).


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