Student start-ups: racing towards innovation, or killing creativity?

Our contributors discuss whether Queen’s should encourage entrepreneurship at its core

The final day of Queen’s Summer Innovation Institute program, which aims to encourage student entrepreneurship by providing student start-ups with funding and mentorship.
The final day of Queen’s Summer Innovation Institute program, which aims to encourage student entrepreneurship by providing student start-ups with funding and mentorship.
Credit: 
Supplied by Alex Pickering
Credit: 
Supplied by Alex Pickering

Queen’s must provide entrepreneurial opportunities to students
Taylor Mann, ArtSci ’13

There are numerous ways for institutions to innovate. Many universities naturally excel at one of these: research. But we shouldn’t ignore the other ways in which a campus can foster innovation, specifically through student entrepreneurship.

Queen’s has embraced the entrepreneurial spirit for more than 50 years, starting with the university administration allowing students to have more autonomy.

This included the Alma Mater Society (AMS) being granted more power, clubs receiving more funding and the position of Rector being filled by a current student as opposed to an alumnus.

The 300-plus clubs at Queen’s represent not just groups of students trying to make a difference, but hundreds of not-for-profit ventures. Similarly, the AMS is as entrepreneurial as any $15 million corporation could be. These types of not-for-profit entrepreneurialism are one of Queen’s greatest strengths.

For Queen’s and a number of other Canadian universities, building a better culture to support student start-ups – big and small – is essential to student success.

While our degrees are important, it’s increasingly the case that they aren’t enough.

Very few people can predict what the world will look like in 10 or 15 years and what industries may rise or fall in that time. The best way to ensure students’ future success is to give them the tools to control their own destiny.

Our generation is certainly up to this challenge. A recent survey by Intuit, an online blog for small businesses, shows that Millennials are twice as likely to plan on starting their own company.

Furthermore, if universities don’t create an environment that supports and encourages start-ups, students may look elsewhere. This is especially true in Kingston, where the off-campus opportunities for entrepreneurship and mentoring are fewer than Toronto or Montreal.

By not supporting students in their desire to build a company, the University is at best losing some potential, and is at worst forcing current and future students to choose between possible entrepreneurship and higher education at Queen’s.

The way to address this problem is by offering a mix of support systems for entrepreneurs, both during the school year and the summer.

One current example of this is the Queen’s Summer Innovation Institute, a four-month accelerator I participated in this summer.

It provides the resources and support required to get a complex company off the ground, and the impact has been quite real.

Out of this summer alone, a pioneering 3D printing company was founded, a new type of mining exploration camera was created and a medical-grade smartphone sanitizer was designed. But the University has to build cross-faculty entrepreneurial supports for year-round innovation.

This type of integration was highlighted in an AMS innovation policy paper last year. In short, the University has to better coordinate its efforts across all faculties, and consistently communicate them to students.

There are many ways this can be achieved, but one of the most effective strategies will be a specialization in entrepreneurship.

This is because it simply takes advantage of all a university’s existing resources – their students, their facilities and their knowledge – and combines them in a way to accelerate and enable student-led growth.

Campuses act as natural incubators. They bring together people of different interests and backgrounds. What we need to focus on is how to connect these people – how to help them make the leap from an idea to a successful company.

This means funding shared workspaces, small-business seminars and incubator programs. It also means ensuring that we offer financial support, so that entrepreneurship isn’t limited to those of significant financial means.

All of this requires money, but it’s well worth the investment, both from the perspective of educating students, as well as giving them experience.

It’s difficult to say what direct return Queen’s will see from these ventures. But failing to provide ambitious students with the tools and resources they need to succeed is far riskier.

Taylor Mann is the CEO of a Kingston-based medical start-up, Limestone Labs.

Creativity over innovation
David Leach, MA ’94

I want to argue against innovation. I realize that’s like arguing against the rhythm of the tides. Today, innovation is a buzzword for a universal good, like global peace or free WiFi. How can anyone be against it?

Let me be clear. I’m not against the kind of applied creativity that has given us everything from penicillin to the The Simpsons. No, what I oppose is the concept’s narrowing to profit-driven “entrepreneurialism” — an idea’s worth gauged by the size of its initial public offering (IPO).

It’s hard, I know, for cash-strapped public universities to resist the siren call of “start-up incubators” and classrooms run like episodes of Dragons’ Den.

Last spring, Queen’s Alma Mater Society tried to botox Silicon Valley youth into the sagging jowls of higher education with Setting Sail, a policy paper filled with bullet-pointed truisms – more risk-taking and collaboration – and vacuous exhortations to create an “entrepreneurial mission”. Mostly, it demanded the rest of campus act like Commerce and Engineering.

Two decades ago, I chose to attend Queen’s because the school’s appeal lay in its deep and broad tradition of humanistic inquiry across the disciplines.

As Steven Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, true innovation arises when we draw serendipitous links between disparate fields of knowledge, not when we rush a new dating app to market.

My studies focused on urban planning and James Joyce’s Ulysses, so venture capitalists weren’t exactly lining up when I got my degree. Still, the experience transformed how I think about how we live. My favourite Queen’s memory was gathering at a professor’s house so our class could chant lines of experimental poetry. Try to monetize that.

I appreciate the need for innovation. I respect the risk-taking of the entrepreneur — and of the artist. I worked for years in journalism, an industry turned upside-down by new technologies. Now, I preach the entrepreneurial spirit to students who will graduate into a freelance culture of perpetual change.

But if writers and artists need to be entrepreneurs, then entrepreneurs and innovators need to be artists, too — to see the world through new eyes, not just seize its riches. What might our society look like right like now if true innovators like Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame or Tim Berners-Lee, who created the world wide web, had been driven by the Kevin O’Leary fantasy of the big cash-out and hadn’t released their creations as a common good?

So, forget mere innovation. Queen’s is better than that. Instead build a campus with creativity at its core, a place where students learn to harness the winds of change together and tack toward the better future we all need.

David Leach is the Chair of the Department of Writing and Director of the Technology and Society program at the University of Victoria.

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