Friday, January 29, 2016

Startups and Universities

Local startup activities and competitions are targeted towards universities. In some ways it makes sense. Startup methodologies can enrich course contents, startup successes can inspire students, and overall, students have more time to partake in these activities. It makes nice copy when a student team wins. But in other ways, this approach is also ineffective and wasted.

Remember one of the definitions of a startup: "a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty." Uncertainty entails risk. Our system of education, unfortunately, is all about certainty and security. Teachers ingrain in students the importance of producing the right answer on tap. MIstakes and deviations from teacher expectations are penalized.

A startup is more than simply an enterprise and undertaking. A startup is also a culture, a way of thinking. That thinking ventures into uncertainty and embraces risk. To latch on startup thinking, teachers will have to provide the space for their students to make mistakes.

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Startups are also often aimed at the wrong segment of the university. Often the preferred audience are undergraduates for the reasons already mentioned above.

The problem with undergraduates, though, is that in general, they lack experience, depth, and commitment. These are the same students who may have difficulty at first looking for work...and yet we expect them to set up their own companies? This is not a statement on their intelligence but on their maturity.

Well, then, how about at the graduate level? Graduate students are older and therefore expected to exhibit more maturity. Graduate programs are supposed to be research intensive, some running up to two years or more. These researches are supposed to be the fuel for innovation in startups. Supposed to be.

The reality, though, is that graduate programs are geared towards producing teachers. Majority of students attending graduate school are actually teachers. They seek master's degrees in order to gain regularization at their own educational instititions, whose own primary goals are instruction. Research and innovation are not the primary motivations. Neither does this culture embrace risk and uncertainty.

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There might well be a prodigy that defies these odds, touched by the vision and gifted with the drive to build their own company. Startup activity organizers can argue that it is this nugget that they are looking for in the university. But that's a poor strategy, akin to playing the lottery.

A more reasonable strategy is to seek out centers of innovation. This is the role that universities are supposed to play. The criteria ought to be the research being done in the university. Students are just the cheap labor that comes with it.