In knowledge-intensive fields, new ventures live or die within entrepreneurial ecosystems. This article shows how policymakers can nurture entrepreneurial ecosystems to fix broken triple helixes at the university-industry (U-I) boundary. The authors investigated university-based venturing activity in the stem cell field to identify missing links in triple helixes.
Technology transfer has become big business. Between 1996 and 2010, technology transfer in the US contributed $388 billion to GDP via thousands of license agreements and more than 4,000 start-ups.1 Research universities have embraced technology commercialisation as part of the “triple helix model” to drive innovation and regional economic development.2 Policy-makers at all levels have focused attention on practices and resources that accelerate technology transfer and tech venture growth.3 These policies, however, often fail to support the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems just beyond the U-I boundary where new tech ventures thrive or die.
Without a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem, the triple helix of government, industry and university, primarily benefits entrenched firms with less motivation to innovate technologies and business models.
University spinouts are a unique and fragile breed. They often combine world-class science with new and inexperienced founders, testing asset-intensive business models in capital-poor environments. These fledgling firms face an extraordinary array of uncertainties, spanning technical, operational, and market unknowns. Some, like Wisconsin-based Nimblegen and Tomotherapy, grow rapidly and exit via IPO or acquisition. These exits return wealth and knowledge to the ecosystem. But many spinouts stall, struggling year-to-year just to raise enough capital to stay alive. From a university and public policy perspective, these are triple helix successes generating employment. These firms, however, absorb critical ecosystem resources, preventing valuable capital, knowledge, and people from being recycled into better opportunities. Neither alive nor dead, “zombie” ventures are a signal for ailing entrepreneurial ecosystems unlikely to generate fast-growth “gazelles” that drive high-value job creation.