What makes academic incubators different?

Published: September 9, 2019 1:47:12 AM

Whether it is Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for the baby boomers, or Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey for the millennials, the narrative of people starting from a garage to controlling the world has been compelling.

The entrepreneurial landscape is dominated more by failed ideas and ventures and entrepreneurs who have lost more than money and timeThe entrepreneurial landscape is dominated more by failed ideas and ventures and entrepreneurs who have lost more than money and time

By Venkatesh Panchapagesan

The story of entrepreneurship, like history, is often told by the winners. Whether it is Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for the baby boomers, or Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey for the millennials, the narrative of people starting from a garage to controlling the world has been compelling. The reality is, however, different. The entrepreneurial landscape is dominated more by failed ideas and ventures and entrepreneurs who have lost more than money and time. While no one starts a journey thinking of a failure, it is important to have environments that encourage people to try.

It is fashionable these days to have academic institutions run incubators. Larger universities like the Stanford and MIT, or our own IITs or IISc, have thriving incubators where students work on cutting-edge technology with their professors. Incubators in non-technical institutions such as NSRCEL in IIM Bangalore have been successful in attracting ventures—from social enterprises to small businesses.

Most of these incubators provide five key things to potential start-ups: space, mentoring, market and network access, venture support and money.

What makes academic incubators different? From being the only game in town to one of the hundreds of games, NSRCEL has learnt to appreciate its uniqueness amongst scores of angels, VCs and private equity investors who operate in the by-lanes of Bengaluru. For one, there is a need for a supportive environment for early-stage start-ups to get their feet on the ground. While non-academic entities like angels can provide financial support and guidance, most lack the ability to provide a diverse peer network and a non-intimidating environment that fosters trust.

Second, academic incubators can accommodate very early-stage and high-risk ideas that many private incubators shun. We, at NSRCEL, for example, believe that our focus is more on the entrepreneur than on a particular idea or a venture. We want the entrepreneur to succeed in his or her journey in the longer run even though the venture may not. Only academic institutions can afford to take such a longer-term view of nurturing entrepreneurs like they nurture students to be tomorrow’s leaders. It is not surprising that more than 60% of our entrepreneurs have stayed in the journey long after they left our care.

Third, academic incubators can facilitate engagements with its other key stakeholders—students, faculty and alumni. One of the major bottlenecks for growing ventures aside of funding is finding the right talent. Students, aside of starting up on their own, provide a large pool of talent for young start-ups to tap into. If curated well, student projects, meant to augment learning in the classroom, can be designed around start-up needs. Similarly, faculty, aside of serving as mentors, contribute significantly to the ecosystem through their research and understanding of the entrepreneurial process. For example, NSRCEL, through IIMB’s faculty, is working on an action-oriented network model to attempt scaling for social enterprises.

While academic incubators differ significantly in their approach and outcomes, one thing is certain—they are often the kindergarten for new ideas and ideators. Like good early-stage schools, we provide the foundation and revel and rejoice in the success of our wards many years later.

(The author is chairperson, NSRCEL, IIM Bangalore. Views are personal. venky@iimb.ac.in)

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