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Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and Stem Cell Commercialization at the University-Industry Boundary

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Entrepreneurial universities play an important role in the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems by supporting the triple-helix of university-industry-government interactions. Alongside university teaching and research activities, commercialization activities at the university-industry (U-I) boundary drive ecosystem economics. Yet, venturing at the U-I boundary is difficult and uncertain, and creates unique tensions for the academic entrepreneur.

Over the past three years, Professor Adam J. Bock and myself have been studying entrepreneurial ecosystems at the U-I boundary in the stem-cell-based regenerative medicine (regenmed) field. This is a nascent industry combining extremely knowledge-intensive innovation and high levels of market uncertainty. More specifically, we have investigated regenmed ecosystems in Edinburgh (Scotland, UK), Madison (Wisconsin, USA), and Moscow (Russia) to explore how technology entrepreneurs (including academic entrepreneurs) make sense of venturing uncertainties and the implications for the emergence of entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Our findings have highlighted the importance of micro-level factors in the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems and we have recently published this in our journal article. In summary, we have found that when uncertainty is high regenmed entrepreneurs implement specific coping strategies to help deal with these uncertainties. In particular, we witnessed entrepreneurs engaging in either problem-based coping mechanisms or emotion-based coping mechanisms. Problem-based coping strategies rely on directly addressing uncertainties in an attempt to alter the stressful situation. In contrast, emotion-based coping strategies rely on avoiding the stressful situation and ignoring uncertainties. Each strategy has important implications for the emergence and development of entrepreneurial ecosystems at the U-I boundary.

Our research highlighted an association between the level of entrepreneurial culture at the parent university and the preferred coping strategy implemented. When the entrepreneurial culture at the parent university was high, we witnessed greater levels of problem-based coping strategies. When the entrepreneurial culture at the parent university was weak, we found this to be associated with emotion-based coping responses. Additionally, when entrepreneurial culture was high and problem-based coping was favored, we saw higher levels of knowledge collaboration in the ecosystem. In contrast, when the entrepreneurial culture was weak and emotion-based coping strategies were evident, we witnessed reduced levels of knowledge collaboration. This latter scenario is problematic for nascent ventures operating in high-technology sectors, which likely rely on collaboration and knowledge exchange mechanisms to access critical resources necessary to exploit given opportunities. This relationship is depicted in the table below.

University entrepreneurial culture Dominant entrepreneurial coping strategy Knowledge collaboration development
High Problem-based Greater
Low Emotion-based Lower

 

Our research findings are especially important for policymakers looking towards fostering thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems. While the triple-helix of university-industry-government is a fantastic model for regional economic development, there are many “broken” triple-helices where good policy intentions actually hinder the development of a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem. We have previously reflected on this in a practitioner-based article. The bottom line: healthy entrepreneurial ecosystems in technology-intensive fields require more than top-down economic development policy. Healthy entrepreneurial ecosystems thrive on knowledge sharing and entrepreneurs inspired to leave the relative safety of the university or incubator. A good example of knowledge sharing in Scotland is the Interface program, which connects SMEs with Scotland’s major universities in order to generate research contracts. Equally important, institutional leaders must be willing to tolerate reasonable levels of venture failure, which enables the recycling of key resources within the ecosystem and supports entrepreneurial learning.

Our research in this area continues. In particular, we are continuing to further investigate the role of the entrepreneur in entrepreneurial ecosystems and are currently collecting a large-scale dataset that explores academic entrepreneurs’ engagement with industry.

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