Putting the uni in unicorn: the role of universities in supporting high-growth graduate startups

By incubating graduate entrepreneurs, universities can drive economic growth and innovation, boost graduate retention, bolster student recruitment and, most importantly, help more young people fulfil their aspirations. This report explores how universities might do so.

University graduates are at an ideal time in their lives to start businesses. Through their exposure to a range of ideas and activities they are particularly disposed towards developing innovative business ideas and meeting potential co-founders.

Yet start-up rates among graduates remain low – at least compared to the potential. For many graduates, starting a business simply feels too risky compared to a stable job in the corporate world. Others simply have no idea where to start.

The myth of the “lone wolf” entrepreneur is above all just that – a myth. Aspiring founders benefit from training and support as much as anyone else on a new career path. A small minority may persevere through a combination of luck and sheer determination. But for most – particularly young – entrepreneurs success hinges on access to the right kinds of mentoring, training, networks and funding – particularly when disadvantageous circumstances are at work.

This suggests universities can play a bigger role in helping graduates with good business ideas and the right motivation turn their aspirations into reality. Not only would this enable more graduates to pursue their ideal vocation, it would bolster universities’ reputations and contribute to regional economic development, productivity growth and innovation.

The good news is that many universities already do a lot to support entrepreneurship. Over the past several decades entrepreneurship and enterprise education has become increasingly recognised as a core component of what universities do.

The bad news – at least from the perspective of stimulating venture creation – is that much of the support is focused on engaging large numbers of students in “enterprising thinking” and pre-startup activities (predominantly awareness raising and idea generation), rather than helping ambitious graduates actually start companies.

Often, all that is available to a graduate entrepreneur is periodic access to some desk space, a part-time mentor and one-off workshops and events – support more suited to active students – rather than a full-time, intensive business support programme.

We believe more universities should offer graduates tailored incubation programmes, which is why in this report we provide a best-practice guide based on in depth interviews with managers and incubatees at existing graduate-focused incubators.

Universities will have to overcome key challenges in order to improve their support for graduate entrepreneurs. These include uncertainty around future funding, a flawed set of metrics and subpar alumni engagement. Address these issues however, and significant opportunities will be unlocked.

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