Germany needs more entrepreneurs. But while recent surveys agree that 25% to 30% of young scientists have good opportunities for creating a start-up, only 5% currently dare to take this step. In our ongoing series, Next Wave Germany and the Berlin Institute of Entrepreneurship have invited leading experts to discuss ways in which the culture of entrepreneurship can be fostered at German universities. This week, Miroslaw Malek, professor at Humboldt University, Berlin, pleads for a new breed of interdisciplinary education in intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship that will enable young scientists to succeed in their future careers.
Universities have two major responsibilities: research and education. What they should also be doing is preparing students for their professional careers by teaching them basic knowledge, tools, and skills as well as a new breed of interdisciplinary education in entrepreneurship.
The new economy, despite its flaws and exaggerated growth ratios, has awakened the entrepreneurial spirit in German students. When I moved to Germany in 1994, I asked my students what they would like to do after their graduation. A vast majority expressed interest in working for large companies such as Daimler or Siemens. Today, the picture is quite different as about half of the students are ready to start a company or work for a start-up. To support this process, universities should implement interdisciplinary education by assembling groups of students with different backgrounds and making them think about forming a company. This approach releases a new type of creativity and teaches some unique skills such as teamwork, interpersonal relationships, technology transfer, and project scheduling.
Let me describe a couple of activities that we regularly organize at the Humboldt University to transform the spirit of entrepreneurship into a culture of entrepreneurship: the Technical Entrepreneurship seminar series and the Innovations Forum. Technical Entrepreneurship is a course designed mainly for computer science students but attendees are also recruited from business schools and the Academy of Arts (in the areas of multimedia, marketing, and e-business). The goal of the course is to prepare business plans based on high-potential ideas that are given to the students or directly proposed by them. In the series of seminars featuring speakers such as successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, bankers, lawyers, CPA's, and other experts, the students learn all aspects of business plan preparation. We use the TIMES (Team, Idea, Market potential, Environment, Strategy) principles, which are prerequisites for a successful business plan: a high-quality team, an innovative idea, an excellent market potential, a suitable environment (infrastructure), and a clear way of implementation (strategy). Students present their business plan to a jury of experts and the best plans are rewarded or financed. Usually, one or two plans result in real companies at the end of the course.
To further foster an entrepreneurial culture, we also organize the Innovations Forum every summer semester. At the forum presidents, chief scientists, and engineers of small and large companies talk about the process of founding their company and about high-tech innovations. The social events after each presentation cement the dialogue between industry representatives, faculty, and students.
German universities already possess quite a lot of flexibility to foster the spirit of entrepreneurship, but to turn the spirit into a culture, there is still much to be done. First, awareness among the members of the faculty must be increased, because the word entrepreneurship outside the business school is either unknown or has a slightly pejorative perception. Academics should understand that entrepreneurship is not cheap commercialization of universities but rather a stimulus to creativity, social responsibility, and contribution to know-how and practical innovation. Second, German academia needs a clear model for would-be-entrepreneurs: professors and students.
Worldwide, there are many such models to emulate. In the U.S., universities directly benefit from inventions of their faculty and students. About 80% of the computer science Ph.D. students at Stanford University are founders or members of start-up companies. South African universities such as the University of Pretoria allow students to base their "companies" on-campus, and each company is given an office with a proper address and a phone/fax number. The Chinese government, chronically desperate for funding, has decided to permit practically anything and any type of business structure on campus. At another Mecca of entrepreneurship, Babson College in Massachusetts, the students start their businesses in campus "hatcheries," directly supported by the university-run venture capital funds. (See also William D. Bygrave's contribution to this series.)
In fostering entrepreneurship, universities should learn from the most successful models and adopt the most suitable ones by modifying their own structures and infrastructures. By supporting interdisciplinary education, by encouraging faculty and students to pursue entrepreneurial activities, and by properly awarding creativity, innovation, and initiative, the universities will make a step toward symbiotic relations with industry and the rest of society. By spreading the entrepreneurial culture, academics will more effectively prepare students for their professional careers and significantly contribute to the well being of their respective regions.