Hat tip to Josh Baer and Capital Factory’s Message to Obama for providing the early bedrock for the discussion and evolution of these ideas.

Due to the restructuring of the modern economy and the increasing importance of adaptability and self-directed learning, universities students are demanding access to entrepreneurship education. However, while 90% of university students believe that entrepreneurial skills are important, 3 in 4 students lack the resources and support they need to start a business. [1]

After running over 130 3DS programs across the globe, our experience led us to recognize patterns across different ecosystems for activating and supporting early-stage university entrepreneurial ecosystems. To best serve students, universities should allocate their resources and energy to creating a dedicated space, providing learning opportunities, and promoting success stories.

Dedicated Space

In this context, “dedicated space” refers to a community center on campus set aside for entrepreneurial activities. The value of a dedicated space is that it provides a community center where support is easily found, and it also gives entrepreneurial students the ability to work in close proximity of one another.

Big universities tend to have the most support to offer early stage startups, but these institutions often struggle to aggregate, organize, and communicate information about the support structures in place. As a result, large institutions can be difficult to navigate, and students may not be aware of the spectrum of  resources available to them. As a startup, any advantage may prove to be invaluable, so having university support as accessible as possible is a huge boon for students.

Arguably more important than the concentration of resources, however, is the concentration of talent into a single area. In a recent post about Cross-Pollination: The Value of Interdisciplinary Friction, we wrote about the power of being “collisionable.”

A dedicated space for student entrepreneurs is essentially an environment where talented individuals can congregate. When smart, creative people are in physical proximity of one another and intermingling, the likelihood of innovation increases. Like the accelerating collisions of atoms in a confined space, the quantity and quality of ideas increase with the addition of more people. That means that a dedicated coworking space can be a great place for students to meet potential co-founders, gain feedback on current projects, or simply be motivated by like-minded peers.

Some examples of successful university spaces include the University of Virginia’s student-started HackCville  and the University of Michigan’s TechArb.

Learning Opportunities

Learning opportunities are a set of activities that allow students to engage with entrepreneurship. These activities consist of entrepreneurship classes, university accelerators, pitch events, and short-format education programs such as 3DS. Activities can also include clubs and meetups, community events such as Startup Weekend, and business plan or venture competitions.

These opportunities are valuable because they give students avenues for theoretical and experiential learning, helping them to develop entrepreneurial capabilities as well as self-efficacy. Using 3DS as an example, participants surveyed after the program reported having a better understanding of the blueprint of starting a company and feeling more confident in their personal abilities as entrepreneurs. This confidence stems from contact and experimentation of the core values of successful startups – fast failure, rapid prototype, learning by doing, and customer discovery.

By increasing entrepreneurial activities on campus, the density of like-minded students interacting is similar to the compounding effect of a dedicated space.

Success Stories

A huge component of a strong ecosystem is that aspiring entrepreneurs can see examples of others in the ecosystem succeeding – no matter how big or small. Success stories send a clear message to individuals that people from this community can be entrepreneurs. Harvard doesn’t have this problem; Mark Zuckerberg’s name looms large. However, most of us aren’t in communities with famous names like that. So having a team reach a key milestone – whether that means a strong performance in a business plan competition, getting angel investment, or launching a product successfully – is social proof to those in the community that they can do it, too. Successes of any size serve as a beacon that draws other would-be-entrepreneurs out of the woodwork.

Success stories beget other success stories, but this process takes time. (For strong teams that come out of a 3DS program, for example, it usually takes 3-6 months to hit a milestone such as landing investment, launching a solid MVP, or gaining a user base beyond their immediate circle of friends.) That’s why we recommend nurturing ecosystems early on so that the process of bearing fruit can start sooner rather than later.


While these three pillars are the foundation of a thriving university entrepreneurial ecosystem, an ecosystem requires sustained effort and upkeep. This means that leaders must continue to nurture the ecosystem by bringing in new blood (aka fresh talent) and keeping activities engaging and relevant to university students.


[1] Time Magazine’s How Entrepreneurship Can Fix Young America