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IN MY OPINION

Embracing an entrepreneurial culture on campus

An Ontario model for campus entrepreneurship is being widely recognized by other countries.

By TOM CORR | MAY 04 2016

In Finland, they have the Start-up Sauna, where meetings are called “warm ups” and start-up accelerators “go full steam ahead.” Japan’s Samurai Incubate Inc. has established Start-up Island where an infusion of samurai spirit drives entrepreneurism. In China, the scale of activity is astonishing. One investor group alone talks of opening a thousand new start-up incubators over two years. Even in isolated North Korea, aspiring entrepreneurs attend state-sanctioned start-up programs.

If there’s one standout global trend pertaining to today’s young people, it is an embrace of entrepreneurship as both a career path and a way a life. Whether this is due to low employment opportunities, a generational shift in mindset about the nature of work and careers, or a combination of both, unprecedented numbers of youth around the world are choosing entrepreneurship as the way to secure their futures.

This phenomenon dovetails nicely with the interests of governments seeking new ways to drive economic development at a time when globalization has stripped them of many of their traditional levers for shaping economies. Under a global economic system, the ability of governments to make unilateral decisions on monetary policy or interest rates is diminished. On the other hand, actively promoting entrepreneurship as a viable career stream to new waves of university and college students is increasingly being seen as sound economic policy.

In Canada, Ontario established the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs and has been especially prescient about creating and fostering a strong entrepreneurial culture. This includes investing heavily in regional campus-based programs at universities and colleges that are aimed at encouraging students to acquire business skills and launch their own companies. The scale and intensity of activity under the province’s Campus-Linked Accelerators and On-Campus Entrepreneurship Activities programs has been high, with students clamouring to participate in numbers beyond all expectations. In just over a year, close to 1,000 start-ups have received expert guidance and financial support.

This vast network of campus programs is tightly integrated into the province’s existing entrepreneurial ecosystem of regional innovation centres, small business enterprise centres, accelerators like Communitech, OneEleven and the Digital Media Zone, and innovation hubs such as Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE).

In September 2015, the Conference Board of Canada released its latest How Canada Performs report on innovation. For the first time, it included the performance of individual provinces. Finishing first amongst Canadian provinces and even outperforming Canada, Ontario received an ‘A’ for entrepreneurial ambition.

This Ontario model for campus entrepreneurship is being widely recognized by other countries as exemplary for its emphasis on a community-level approach. It is informed by an overarching vision and held accountable through regular reports on activities and economic outcomes. The province is now taking its leadership role one step further. Through OCE, a global network of campus accelerators is being built in major cities in the east coast of the U.S. as well as in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, China, South Korea and Australia.

Called GlobalStart, this initiative opens up a new frontier of opportunity for the increasing number of Ontario start-ups looking, almost immediately, to global markets beyond Canada, where the greatest growth potential clearly lies. This developing network of international partnerships offers a soft landing and guided path for Ontario start-ups and inexperienced young entrepreneurs needing the overseas mentors and contacts to gain footholds in potentially lucrative markets. For not only Ontario and other Canadian companies but also other countries seeking access to North American markets, GlobalStart creates the ideal exchange platform.

Ontario has a thriving innovation ecosystem that is supporting and building thousands of exciting new companies though programs like OCE’s SmartStart Seed Fund. Many of these promising new companies, which are now reaching the stage where they are ready to scale up, present fantastic opportunities for Canadian and international investors.

Our next challenge is to ensure that these high-potential companies find the investments, market reach, and competitive edge to thrive and grow here in Ontario. We need to build an innovation ecosystem that is as responsive to the needs of scale ups as it has been to start ups. It’s these growing and maturing companies that have the greatest potential to spur significant economic growth through the creation of new jobs and other spin off benefits related to export sales, R&D, and the development of new talent.

Tom Corr is president and CEO of Ontario Centres of Excellence.

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