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University business incubators (UBIs) have skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade. They are viewed as a symbol of the “future of education”, a testbed for breakthrough innovations, and a place where entrepreneurially-minded students can grow their skills. However, establishing and running an academic incubation arm is not for the faint-hearted. It requires significant human and cultural capital to grow the diverse network needed to support entrepreneurs. In this article, we help define UBIs and ask what advantages they have for the affiliated university, and their wider region.
What is a UBI?
A university business incubator is a university-based institution that provides services and support to business start-ups and entrepreneurs in the form of mentorship, rental space, and access to a network of investors and experts. They are typically funded by universities, with support from government organisations, and their proximity to the universities (either on campus or in a science/business park) fosters stronger university-industry relationships. As Universities are relatively large players in their regional economies, their wide network and legitimacy as an institution are assets unique to UBIs.
What are the advantages of a UBI for the university?
UBIs can be of great benefit to an academic institution at student, faculty, and institutional level for many reasons. They can:
- Generate start-up ventures, spin-offs, or spin-out opportunities for student and staff
- Lead to the development of industry partnerships for student internships/project-based learning opportunities
- Grow a greater network for research commercialisation opportunities for faculty
- Advance an institution’s strategic plan by helping to reach external engagement goals
- Fulfil an institution’s “fourth pillar” regarding its service to society
What advantages of a UBI for the region?
UBIs are an integral part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and this relationship is considered both symbiotic and bi-directional, benefiting both parties. UBIs contribute to regional growth by providing resources and expertise, while the ecosystem influences the types of services a UBI can offer its tenants and what kind of resources it can derive from its environment. Additionally, UBIs can:
- Aid regional innovation by aligning their educational entrepreneurship programs with market needs
- Contribute to a greater transfer of knowledge and innovation by pooling their resources with their regional network and work toward the common goal of regional growth
What are some of the challenges of university business incubators?
While UBIs offer numerous benefits to their tenants and wider region, they also face the challenges that typically arise when attempting to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Where higher education institutions (HEIs) prioritise impact and rigorous validation, industry values profit and speed. As a result, the internal structures and bureaucracy of HEIs may impede entrepreneurship efforts, which require more flexibility and risk tolerance. Furthermore, as academic researchers are called upon to do more and more, they can lack the time and energy to engage in entrepreneurial activities. Effective stakeholder management and recognition of those boundary spanning agents who are capable of breaking down the siloes in both spheres are essential in overcoming these challenges.
Where HEIs prioritise impact and rigorous validation, industry values profit and speed”
Demand for UBIs is equally supported by policy at EU level; strong links to UBIs were listed as a key characteristic of an Entrepreneurial University by the European Commission and the OECD. UBIs hold immense potential for aspiring entrepreneurs, offering a unique blend of resources, mentorship, and networking opportunities. With their commitment to fostering innovation, collaboration, and knowledge exchange, they will continue to play a vital role in shaping the future of entrepreneurship and education.
This article takes insights from UIIN’s involvement in the Erasmus+ funded DigiHealth UASHome project. You can find out more about it here.
 Lasrado, V., Sivo, S., Ford, C., O’Neal, T., & Garibay, I. (2016). Do graduated university incubator firms benefit from their relationship with university incubators? The Journal of Technology Transfer, 41(2), 205–219. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10961-015-9412-0
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 Nijenhuis, D. (2020, July 7). The University Business Incubators’ value-creating activities on enhancing new product development: A systematic literature review [Info:eu-repo/semantics/masterThesis]. University of Twente. http://essay.utwente.nl/81883/
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 EC/OECD. (2012). A Guiding Framework for Entrepreneurial Universities. Final version 18 December 2012. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/site/cfecpr/EC-OECD%20Entrepreneurial%20Universities%20Framework.pdf
Ready for more?
If you liked this article, you might enjoy our piece on Why Boundary Spanning Agents are the New Genereation’s Super-Heroes.
Regional Innovation Ecosystems: This topic delves into the web of academia, industry, and government interactions that constitute regional innovation ecosystems. Stakeholders in these ecosystems have a shared goal of furthering innovation and development at a regional level by harnessing collective knowledge and resources. Investigating the symbiotic relationships within these ecosystems illuminates how they fuel economic growth, spark entrepreneurship, and address region-specific challenges with global implications.
Madeline Arkins is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.