3 strategies to cultivate comprehensive entrepreneurship ecosystems

entrepreneurship ecosystems

Entrepreneurship is notoriously hard work, especially for early-stage innovators. Without access to entrepreneurship ecosystems, even the best ideas can fail. A robust support system is crucial to the success of early-stage entrepreneurs, allowing them to bypass obstacles and accelerate their ventures. Key stakeholders like organizations and foundations often provide much-needed resources and support for young entrepreneurs, but it can be difficult for them to build the infrastructure necessary for comprehensive entrepreneurship ecosystems. 

During our first virtualOPEN conference, we gathered expert panelists for Charting the Future: Philanthropic Trends in Innovation and Entrepreneurship to discuss the best strategies for cultivating healthy and robust entrepreneurship ecosystems. 

  • Susie Armstrong, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Qualcomm; 
  • Carol Dahl (moderator), Executive Director of the Lemelson Foundation; 
  • Sameeksha Desai, Director of Knowledge, Creation and Research for Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation; 
  • Emily Miller, Policy Advisor in the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the US Department of Commerce. 

Below, we’ve highlighted key insights from the panel discussion. 

equip students with the tools to pursue STEM innovation through robust K-12 programming.

By introducing students to the basics of STEM education at an early age, ecosystem stakeholders can create early and lifelong engagement and tap into students’ imagination to build exponential knowledge. Programming that provides opportunities for students to identify and address real-world problems enables them to understand the real-world impact of STEM entrepreneurship.

As Susie Armstrong mentions, children of inventors end up pursuing entrepreneurship at much higher rates than children of non-inventors, and these gaps are exacerbated by other metrics like class, race, and geographic location. Programs that draw students in from an early age allow them to envision themselves as inventors, motivating them to become the problem-solvers of the future. K-12 programming like the FIRST Robotics competition and Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab are crucial stepping stones in an entrepreneurial pipeline. As is The Lemelson Foundation’s ongoing support for organizations that develop the tools, resources, and evidence needed to create invention education opportunities for all youth and foster the next generation of inventors.

These initiatives also create active talent pipelines that span regional and national industries; local economies thrive when students are encouraged to apply innovation training to the problems they identify in their own communities. 

By ensuring students can develop entrepreneurial mindsets across their educational careers, ecosystem stakeholders can dramatically widen access to STEM fields and motivate engagement from potential innovators of all ages.

support universities that connect entrepreneurship ecosystems and fortify the innovator pipeline.

Universities are vital intermediaries for entrepreneurs, connecting innovators to experienced faculty mentors, funding resources, state-of-the-art facilities, and pathways for post-university success. University laboratories nurture and produce incredible STEM research, making them excellent spaces for experimentation and innovation; in addition, technology transfer offices enable faculty and students to transform their research into marketable applications. Universities are integral community institutions, developing local, regional and national collaborators and networks that can be tapped into by emerging entrepreneurs. “Some of the best and most impactful grants we’ve made have been to universities that have really been thoughtful about how they integrate with their communities,” said Emily Miller. 

Student grant programs like our E-Team program supplies the early funding that student science and technology entrepreneurs need to advance their innovations beyond the classroom or laboratory, and connects students with a vast network of peers and mentors. Government grant opportunities like the Accelerate R2 Network Challenge help seed networks and support institutions addressing community resilience through innovation. Programs that support university faculty, like our Faculty Grants program, help university faculty and administration establish the infrastructure to identify and support student entrepreneurs. 

By supporting the entrepreneurial and STEM initiatives of universities,  stakeholders in entrepreneurship ecosystems can amplify the potential impact of university programming and the social good of university-backed innovation. 

prioritize diversity and inclusion to ensure entrepreneurship ecosystems accurately reflect the communities they intend to support.

Black and brown entrepreneurs are severely underrepresented in STEM fields, and at the current pace of progress, it would take 118 years for women and men to have equal engagement in innovation. Entrepreneurial ecosystems need to be designed for structural equity, and institutional stakeholders have an important role in leveling the playing field. Building a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem isn’t a quick fix: it requires a comprehensive analysis of the entire system — from recruitment and retainment processes to student programming to researcher pipelines. 

“I don’t think diversity and inclusion is just one of many strategic priorities. It’s at the heart of what we do,” said Emily Miller.

Establishing a diverse, representative innovation ecosystem allows inventors to approach entrepreneurship and research with their whole selves. When innovators are able to look at the problems of the world within the context of their backgrounds and cultural knowledge, the resulting solutions are grounded in lived experience rather than speculation. 

Sameeksha Desai emphasized the importance of expanding diversity and inclusion efforts in the researcher pipeline in particular. “We think about what we can do to help open opportunities in the researcher pipeline, so that we don’t miss out on valuable methods, questions, empirical, and theoretical perspectives,” she said. Prioritizing diversity and inclusivity can help ecosystem builders pave the way for new methods of approaching, understanding, and innovating entrepreneurial work.

It takes a village to raise a child — and the same can be said about STEM ventures. Emerging entrepreneurs tend to the seedlings of an idea, and with the support of robust innovation ecosystems and their many stakeholders, these ideas can thrive in the real-world and create positive change. 

“The world is born out of people with not only ideas,” said Susie Armstrong, “but thousands and thousands and thousands of little great ideas.”

Watch the full Charting the Future panel discussion below.

Thank you to all of our panelists, and a special thank you to The Lemelson Foundation; The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property; Engineering Unleashed, an initiative of the KEEN Program from The Kern Foundation; the Blackstone Launchpad; The Burton D. Morgan Foundation, and the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurs for their support of virtualOPEN 2020.


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