The University of Southern Denmark – An SDG approach to entrepreneurship
We would like to give a warm UIIN welcome to our new Inititator members, the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). We sat down with Søren Land, Head of Incubation and Enterprising at SDU’s Research and Innovation Organisation (SDU RIO) and discussed how the mission of SDU influences their entrepreneurship activities and how offering start-up opportunities for students is always a “win-win”.
What first began as Odense University in 1966, later became the University of Southern Denmark in 1998 following a merger with two other institutions. Today, SDU is present in six cities, including a main campus in Odense, and has an estimated 4,000 employees and approx. 27,000 students across their regional campuses. This considered proximity of education to industry in different parts of the country is emblematic of the wider political agenda in Denmark to grow industry in tandem with regional presence, says Søren, as “this provides a unique regional anchoring paving the way for relevant international knowledge and research being integrated into society”.
SDU RIO is an integrated part of the university that supports all faculties through divisions organised as seen below:
- Legal Support
- Research Support
- Careers & Employability
- Incubation & Enterprising
- Communication and Management support
Søren’s particular team of Incubation and Enterprising focuses on incubation and student start-ups on the one hand, and outreach activities securing the frequent integration of student experience with private and public companies on the other. Through close collaboration between Incubation & Enterprising and Careers & Employability, these two teams work together towards the overall objective of higher employability. This effort strengthens students in terms of their graduate career opportunities and preparing students’ ability to adapt to an ever-changing job market, as well as maintaining and developing their value in the job market.
Søren first became aware of UIIN through the testimonies of colleagues who attended previous UIIN events and the annual conference in Amsterdam earlier this year and saw a fit with the activities of UIIN and SDU’s strategic approach. As both SDU and SDU RIO have a significant international focus – the university joined the European EPICUR university alliance in November of last year– it is therefore, in Søren’s words, “only natural to seek out relevant stakeholders where we could share knowledge that we hold, but also get input from other institutions’ and companies’ best practices.” Through this new membership, they hope to gain further inspiration on incubation and outreach activities that can leverage the quality of their entrepreneurial activities for SDU students.
SDU have particular expertise in facilitating a cross faculty incubator which is complemented by a successful talent programme with a specific SDG focus. The incubator at SDU presently houses an estimated 120 active start-ups. They provide students with insights and tools relating to business development, lean business management, and pitch training. In June 2022 one such start-up that originated in SDU, HumAId, were crowned overall winner and winner of the social category in the Danish National Start-up Competition. Recently HumAId also won their category of ‘early-stage social tech start-ups’ in the World Championship. Søren explains that SDU’s start-up experience is a “win-win” for students regardless of whether or not they reach sustainable company success; merely being part of such an entrepreneurial environment adds so much relevant knowledge to a student’s educational experience that, “even if they end up pivoting two or three times and closing their start-ups, they’re still a winner!”.
With their talent programme Below Zero, SDU RIO has managed to distil 135 applicants to a student group of 35 with representation from all five faculties, national and international students. Towards summer 2023 they will work in teams focusing on new solutions to lower the CO2 footprint. Experience from previous talent programmes shows that 2-3 new start-ups can be expected to hatch from Below Zero.
The city of Odense and SDU play an integral role in the collaborative robotics and drone ecosystem, with Odense Robotics being among the top 10 strongest clusters in the robotics industry worldwide. SDU graduates have moved on and produced industry leaders such as Mobile Industrial Robots and Universal Robots, both of which were later acquired by the US Teradyne corporation. The reinvestment of capital into the region from this industry, and the support from the local municipality results in an outstanding knowledge ecosystem, and a prime example of the power of the triple helix model of innovation. As such, Søren views part of SDU’s role in fostering new start-ups as a way of generating welfare and growth:
The start-ups that grow into companies, feed into the welfare system and the growth in the area”.
This is representative of the vision and mission statement of SDU, which is combined into a single narrative and echoes their commitment to being an SDG-driven university: “We want to create value for and together with society by working with the UN’s SDGs. We want to develop talents that encourage unique, innovative solutions for the benefit of a sustainable world, and we will contribute to breaking down barriers and shaping a sustainable future.”
This mission guides their approach to stakeholder screening, competitions for student start-ups, and research with many current projects related to climate, demographics, health, and equality. What began as a concerted focus on SDGs, has since transformed into a natural tendency towards this SDG mindset from the outset of most activities.
Like many other academic institutions, over the last couple of years SDU has had to work around strict COVID restrictions and find new ways of keeping up the pace of innovation and partnership from home, without regular face-to-face interaction. Though this caused an initial decline in meeting new business partners, Søren affirms they have since overcome this challenge, and offers the example of student engagement in start-up activities; during the height of the pandemic, student start-up work took place entirely from home. Now however, SDU facilitates incubator group programs where students in the incubator are offered more responsibility and have the opportunity to share experiences with one-another in-person. The results speak for themselves: students are more engaged and often return for future entrepreneurship opportunities at the hub.
In a final word to the UIIN community Søren added that SDU are looking forward to participating in future events, collaborating with international partners and contributing their expertise to the network, making UIIN even more relevant for its members.
Image credits: University of Southern Denmark