The role of universities in startup regions

Universities are of key importance in promoting entrepreneurship as they produce technology and talent to keep innovation hubs running, speakers at a recent webinar agreed.

The forum, moderated by NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye, also highlighted that universities, while contributing to the local economy, need to be nimble to adapt to a fast-changing external environment.

“Things change so fast. You can’t even predict what’s going to happen in five years’ time, and typically it takes four years to train a student and five years at least to train a PhD student,” said Prof Tan.

“That means that universities have to adapt and be very nimble and change to adapt to the evolving environment. This is challenging, but I think that the universities that can survive are those that are more nimble and more adaptable to rapid changes.”

At the 12 Jan session titled “Ideas to Impacts: Roles of Higher Education in Startup Regions”, Prof Tan was joined by Professor Chen Shiyi, former President of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in China’s Shenzhen; and Professor Peretz Lavie, former President of the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) based in Haifa.

The three professors shared the contributions that their respective institutions have been making to boost the startup scene.

Nurturing entrepreneurs in Singapore

“We are putting a lot of attention on startups in Singapore,” shared Prof Tan. The country’s tech ecosystem was worth US$25 billion in 2019, while fundraising in 2018 reached S$10.1 billion. The country is benefitting from its location at the heart of ASEAN, a vibrant region experiencing rapid economic growth and an emerging middle class.

NUS has been supporting the national effort and similarly devotes a lot of attention to promoting entrepreneurship. The NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme started in 2001 and is today present in 13 locations across the world.

Among other support, the programme provides students with access to entrepreneurial education, co-working facilities, community events, and access to NUS technologies and funding.

NOC’s results have been very encouraging: The programme’s alumni are almost 10 times more likely to become entrepreneurs than other NUS graduates. Of startups that have raised more than US$10 million in external funding, almost 5 per cent are NOC alumni.

“This programme has been extremely useful in the context of NUS and in the context of Singapore in promoting and in building the start-up ecosystem,” said Prof Tan.

Growing a Shenzhen university in 10 years

Shenzhen is widely known as the Silicon Valley of China due to its vibrant startup scene, thanks in part to the relatively young SUSTech which was set up only in 2011.

At the university, entrepreneurs can take a sabbatical leave of up to three years to focus on their startups while support is also provided for funding and intellectual property. The university’s efforts resulted in garnering research funding of about 3.56 billion yuan, as well as climbing ranking tables worldwide.

“Like a start-up company, we are a startup university,” said Prof Chen, who just completed his term as President of SUSTech. “So we have tried to learn from all the schemes, from all the methods from different universities. At the same time, we have tried to test all kinds of different approaches to attempt to help the city.”

SUSTech’s contribution has helped Shenzhen to launch 70,000 tech companies overall, of which eight are in the Fortune Global 500.

“Shenzhen’s technology needs in the last 40 years have provided great opportunities for universities,” said Prof Chen.

Haifa’s link to Michael Bloomberg and Li Ka-shing

Israel is known as a startup nation due to cultural, historical and governmental factors, shared Prof Lavie, who is also Chairman of the Israel Council for Civilian Research and Development.

Israelis serve a long time in the military, which Prof Lavie credits as an excellent training ground for being able to deal with failures and for building teamwork.

The country has also benefitted from the immigration of large numbers of people, including some 1 million talented minds who moved from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and were immediately able to assume leadership roles in industry.

Israelis are generally known for their “Chutzpa” – or self-confidence and outspokenness – a trait which is beneficial in entrepreneurs.

The end result is a very high rate of start-ups, with one per 1,400 people.

Technion, which Prof Lavie led from 2009 to 2019, has contributed in a large way. About 1,300 of its graduates founded or managed 1,600 companies between 1995 and 2014, creating 100,000 jobs. Its programmes include a “t-day” focused on entrepreneurship, where startup founders, multinational executives and venture capitalists would deliver talks while students and staff participate in hackathons.

Technion has successfully set up two overseas campuses. First, it tied up with Cornell University in 2011 to propose a new applied sciences and engineering campus in New York City, to boost the city’s economy. The city’s mayor at that time, media tycoon Mr Michael Bloomberg, announced that Cornell-Technion won the bid, and the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute was set up.

Technion has also expanded to Shantou in China’s Guangdong province after being persuaded by billionaire Mr Li Ka-shing, whose businesses from property to retail had made him Hong Kong’s richest person until he was overtaken last year. He was born in Shantou before moving to Hong Kong at nine years old.

He wanted to give back to his birthplace, and so convinced Prof Lavie to set up shop there. Thus, the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology was launched in 2015 to focus on engineering and life sciences.

“The mixing of cultures is very, very important for creativity and innovation,” said Prof Lavie.

“I truly believe that universities can play a major role in creating an ecosystem of creative innovation. Universities are important for this process and they can be the engine behind the success of (global cities). We must take this role.”

The forum was the second in a series of dialogues on Asian universities.

See recording of the session, as well as coverage of the first session in the series.