Exploring the motives and practices of university–start-up interaction: evidence from Route 128
Exploring the motives and practices of university-start- up interaction: evidence from Route 128
Niels van Stijn 0 1 2
Frank J. van Rijnsoever 0 1 2
Martine van Veelen 0 1 2
0 INGENIO (CSIC-UPV), Universitat Polite`cnica de Vale`ncia , Valencia , Spain
1 Climate-KIC, European Institute of Technology , Padualaan 8, 3584 CH Utrecht , The Netherlands
2 Innovation studies, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University , Heidelberglaan 2, 3584 CS Utrecht , The Netherlands
This paper explores the concept of university-start-up interaction (USUI) as a source of knowledge spillover and innovation. In doing so, we bring together literature on three broad mechanisms that enable knowledge utilization: education, new venture support, and university-industry interaction (UII), as we argue that USUI is a process in which all three are relevant. We first identify USUI practices and how universities and start-ups use these practices to achieve their objectives. Second, we study when the USUI process is mutually beneficial to both actor types in terms of resources. We develop a theoretical framework based on the objectives of the two actor types, the resource-based view, and three generic utilization mechanisms: education, creating new venture support, and UII. Empirically, 36 qualitative interviews were conducted with clean-tech start-ups, universities, and other experts, such as accelerators and incubator facilities in the Boston area, Massachusetts, USA, also known as ''Route 128''. After analyzing the resources exchanged during through 14 practices, we find that USUI is largely based on intangible resources. Second, the resources that universities transfer to start-ups mostly relate to organization and product development, but little to market development. Third, universities can strengthen their (entrepreneurship) education programs and knowledge utilization objectives through USUI, but there is little added value to fundamental research carried out by universities. Overall, we conclude that whether USUI is beneficial largely depends how organizations value their different objectives. Science-based start-ups are more likely to benefit from USUI, whereas start-ups close to market might be better off with other support programs. Universities with a strong focus on fundamental research benefit less from USUI than universities that are more diverse, applied, or have a strong focus on teaching and knowledge utilization. As such, our findings provide insight into the motives of USUI,
which enables policy makers and universities to promote knowledge utilization through
JEL Classification I23
The utilization of knowledge created at universities plays an important role in the
development of radical innovations, which contribute to the advancement of society and help to
overcome grand societal challenges such as climate change (Elzen et al. 2004). However,
knowledge utilization is often perceived to be lagging behind and universities are
encouraged to devote more resources to this process (Grimaldi and Grandi 2005). To this
end, universities have taken several actions, such as providing entrepreneurship education
(Schulte 2004), establishing technology transfer offices (TTOs) and incubators, supporting
university spin-outs (Siegel 2006), and performing collaborative research with industry
(Adams et al. 2001; Medda et al. 2004)
. These knowledge utilization practices can be
categorized in terms of three broad mechanisms: education, direct new venture support,
and university–industry interaction (UII).
Start-ups are traditionally seen as an important source of innovation
, and these innovations are often considered a consequence of the
utilization of knowledge from universities
(Audretsch et al. 2012; Bellucci and Pennacchio
. This highlights the importance of the direct new venture support mechanism. Yet,
the concept of the entrepreneurial university (Etzkowitz 2004) entails that also education
and UII play a role in the process of academic knowledge utilization through new ventures.
This process starts prior to the creation of new ventures in education and research
programs, and can continue after the new venture is created through interaction between the
university and the resulting start-up. Hence, all three mechanisms contribute to the process
that we refer to as university–start-up interaction (USUI). The interaction between
startups and universities is receiving increasing academic attention (see, for example, Boh et al.
2015; Calcagnini et al. 2015; Gubitta et al. 2015). Recent research shows that university
based start-ups have a very high failure rate (van Geenhuizen and Soetanto 2009), this is
especially true for start-ups that explore novel technologies (Soetanto and Jack 2016). Such
findings cast doubt on the usefulness of USUI, as both the university and the start-up seem
to gain little by interacting with each other. However, before such a conclusion can be
drawn, we must first systematically understand the USUI process. To this end, three
knowledge gaps deserve further attention.
First, in exploring USUI, it is important to consider exactly who is involved in the
process. Knowledge utilization has been widely studied in relation to existing industry
an overview see Rothaermel et al. 2007; Bozeman et al. 2013)
, as is generally the case in
UII. However, these studies do not take into account that start-ups differ greatly from
established firms: they have a stronger focus on generating product innovation (Ries 2011),
they have a higher dependency on their sales from innovative products (Criscuolo et al.
2012), and they play an important role in exploring new technology markets
, but are more likely to lack the resources required to develop and market
radical innovations successfully
(Vohora et al. 2004; Bruton et al. 2010)
. As such, the
interaction between universities and start-ups demands explicit academic attention.
Second, to understand knowledge utilization, it is important to understand why actors
engage in this process. For this we need to look at the incentives that the two different actor
types receive from their own institutional contexts (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000).
Universities are known to focus strongly on publications and scientific credibility (Latour
and Woolgar 1979; Hessels and van Lente 2008), whereas start-ups focus on the creation of
new organizations, products, and markets
(Bhave 1994; Gaglio and Katz 2001)
. For this
they need crucial resources that can be exchanged with other actors via interaction
practices (Lin et al. 2009). Only if knowledge utilization contributes to achieving the objectives
of all the actors involved can it become viable in the long term. Most current studies focus
only on only one actor type (Rothaermel et al. 2007), but to assess if USUI is a viable
process, it is important to look at how it affects the competitive position of both actor types
Third, we need to understand how knowledge utilization takes place. The interaction
between universities and start-ups has mainly been studied in the context of incubators
(Hisrich and Smilor 1988; Rothaermel and Thursby 2005a, 2005b)
, or in a more descriptive
sense of the entrepreneurial university (Etzkowitz 2003; Schulte 2004; Levie 2014), but the
simultaneous use of all three mechanisms has not yet been systematically assessed. This is
unfortunate as the extent to which the objectives of an actor are achieved is the result of a
combination of all three mechanisms.
Therefore, this study aims to explore the conditions under which university–start-up
interaction is mutually beneficial to both universities and start-ups in terms of resource
acquisition. To this end, we first develop a theoretical framework based on the objectives
for each actor type, their resource requirements, and the three utilization mechanisms
underlying the process of USUI. Empirically, 36 qualitative interviews were conducted
among clean-tech start-ups, universities, and other experts, such as accelerators and
incubator facilities, in the Boston area, Massachusetts, USA, also known as ‘‘Route 128’’.
We draw the overall conclusion that whether USUI is beneficial or not largely depends on
how organizations value their different objectives. Science-based start-ups are more likely
to benefit from USUI, whereas start-ups close to market might be better off with other
support programs. Universities with a strong focus on fundamental research benefit less
from USUI than those that are more diverse, engage in applied research, or have a strong
focus on teaching and knowledge utilization.
Theoretically, this study is the first to explore USUI systematically as the interaction
process between universities and start-ups from both sides, considering practices from all
three utilization mechanisms. By taking this broader perspective, we demonstrate how
universities and start-ups can help each other to achieve their objectives and contribute to
understanding of the incentives for interaction among different actor types. This can enable
policy makers and universities to promote knowledge utilization via start-ups.
This section develops a framework that serves as the basis for the data collection and
interpretation in this study. First, building on extant literature, we provide a
characterization of university and start-up objectives and the core activities deployed to attain these
objectives, based on the incentives these actor types receive from their institutional
environment. Second, we identify and categorize the resources that universities and
startups acquire in the process of USUI, and how these resources contribute to the previously
defined university and start-up objectives or activities. Third, we discuss the three
knowledge utilization mechanisms and how they contribute to the process of USUI.
Together, these theoretical concepts compose a framework of interpretation that allows for
the understanding of the motives and benefits of USUI for both universities and start-ups.
2.1 Start-up objectives and core activities
The central endeavor in entrepreneurship is the establishment of a viable new organization,
which Liao and Welsch (2008) define as ‘‘the temporal sequence of events or activities that
occur as entrepreneurs create a new business’’ (p. 104). This connotation is also referred to
as gestation (Reynolds and Miller 1992), organizational emergence (Gartner et al. 1992)
and start-up (Vesper 1990). In this paper, we refer to this process, as well as the
organizational entity involved in this process, as a start-up.
Analytically, a start-up aims to achieve three main objectives: organization
development, technology and product development, and market development
(Bhave 1994; Gartner
and Vesper 1994; Gaglio and Katz 2001)
. These objectives are met by means of a set of
core activities that take place at different moments in time
(Bhave 1994; Liao and Welsch
. Together, these objectives and activities form the basis of incentives for USUI on
the part of start-ups. The following list of objectives and activities is not exhaustive, but
outlines the most important objectives and activities that new organizations need to achieve
to develop a successful organization.
2.1.1 Organization development
Organization development encompasses structuring both the conceptual and physical
attributes of the organization
. The literature recognizes three activities as key
to reaching this objective; (1) opportunity recognition, (2) business concept development
and (3) organization creation.
Opportunity recognition relates to the decision to start a venture based on a specific
opportunity to which the entrepreneur commits. This commitment follows a process of
opportunity filtration, opportunity selection, and opportunity refinement
Bhave 1994; Gaglio and Katz 2001)
. After the entrepreneur has recognized a business
opportunity and decides to exploit this opportunity, he or she will need to develop a
business concept to do so. Business concept development refers to defining the business
model and value proposition of the start-up. This involves action to define the business
concept, and align customer needs and the entrepreneur’s perception of those needs
(Ardichvili et al. 2003; Delmar and Shane 2003)
. Organization creation is the activity of
organizing of both the physical structure and the organizational processes that are required
to produce and sell a certain technology at the core
(Kilby 1971; Gartner 1985; Bhave
. This includes the establishment and accommodation of processes that aid in the
development of a business concept (Ries 2011), as well as processes that enable the
production and selling of the products or services that fulfill the customer needs as defined
in the organization’s business concept
. Hence, the activity of organization
creation takes place during and after business concept development.
2.1.2 Technology and product development
Technology and product development may be considered a second objective of start-ups.
In the development process of a functional product, two activities are key; (1) the
development of the technology underlying a product and (2) the development of a product
Technology development refers to the development of technology fundamental to the
product. New technology-based start-ups that develop a new technology often need to
perform research and development in laboratories to proof the technology concept
. Successful technology development may support the entrepreneur’s decision to
exploit the business opportunities related to the technology (Park 2005). However, the
availability of a technology itself is not an innovation. To exploit the business opportunity,
the entrepreneur has to combine the technology with a market need; it requires the
development of a product (Trott 2008). Product development comprises the transformation
of a product idea into a physical product through the allocation of resources (Gartner 1985;
Vesper 1990). Product development can build on technology development, but may also
rely on the combination of existing technologies (Schumpeter 1942).
An important aspect of product development is the relationship between the
entrepreneur, customers, and the market, as the entrepreneur can use information from the customer
and the market to improve the product design
. We discuss two activities
start-ups perform in relation to market development and acquiring information about the
2.1.3 Market development
Market development is the third objective start-ups need to fulfill. This includes a
bidirectional interaction with the market (Gartner 1985). Two activities are requisite for
market development; (1) reaching out to customers and (2) acquiring and responding to
Customer outreach relates to the process of acquiring (first) customers
, in which start-ups have to overcome the supply and demand boundary by
marketing. However, creating a customer base is not enough for the development of a
successful business. Start-ups also need information regarding the needs of customers
(Cooper and Kleinschmidt 1987). Customer feedback subsequently occurs as the start-up
evaluates—and acts upon—feedback acquired from (potential) customer interaction
(Gartner 1985; Bhave 1994)
. Sometimes firms need to revise product features by revising
existing equipment. In other cases, an alteration of the business concept is required. Hence,
customer feedback may contribute to the activity of product development.
2.2 University objectives and core activities
Traditionally, the two objectives of universities are to educate and to perform research
(Go¨ ransson et al. 2009). However, universities also increasingly engage in knowledge
utilization (Etzkowitz 2004), although this often seems at odds with the two traditional
objectives. These three objectives are met by means of the performance of a set of core
activities, which we discuss below. These activities take place at different moments in
time. Even though this list presents a simplified view on the objectives and activities
performed, they are useful for understanding the university’s motives behind USUI as they
form the basis of incentives for USUI on the part of universities and researchers.
Education at the university generally takes place through undergraduate and graduate
programs. Three activities can be distinguished that contribute to the objective of
education; (1) the training of academic professionals, (2) training a high-quality workforce, and
(3) training entrepreneurs. These activities receive input from the research activities
performed by the university, in the form of knowledge.
Training academic professionals concerns the preparation of students for a faculty
. This activity includes education concerning the roles and
responsibilities of faculty, such as teaching, managing research projects, and the development of
(Austin 2002; Go¨ ransson 2009)
. However, not all university students will
make career in academics. Some may also pursue a job within industry (Hager and Holland
2007). Training a high-quality workforce adds the education of high-level practitioners are
able to fulfill a role within industry (Go¨ ransson 2009). Training of a high-quality workforce
can be seen as an indirect technology transfer activity, providing academically educated
and specialized personnel to industry (Carayannis et al. 1998). Furthermore, universities
also deploy programs that consider their students as job creators; the education of
entrepreneurs (Schulte 2004; Levie 2014). Training entrepreneurs, then, encompasses the
transfer of knowledge to students, relevant to developing a business through endeavors
such as business school programs and entrepreneurship courses (Schulte 2004). By these
means, students are trained to start new ventures (Pirnay and Surlemont 2003).
2.2.2 Performing research
Concerning the objective of performing research, we discern two types of activity; (1)
performing more generic or fundamental research activities, and (2) performing applied
research activities (Lee 1996).
Performing fundamental research summarizes the act of study with a basic orientation
in science and engineering from a perspective of developing greater knowledge and
understanding of subjects without a specific application in mind
(Gibbons et al. 1994)
knowledge is typically disseminated by means of educating students and publishing
scientific writings without any direct commercial interest
(Audretsch and Lehmann 2005)
Hence, the objectives education and research are connected as the research objective
provides input for the education objective. Universities however, do not perform solely
fundamental research. Universities may also perform a more user-oriented or applied type
of research. Performing applied research comprises proprietary research with strong
practical implications, such as contract research on behalf of private enterprises and public
authorities (Go¨ ransson 2009).
2.2.3 Knowledge utilization
To need to perform more relevant research and utilize this research is described in various
models (Hessels and van Lente 2008) like the development of ‘Mode 2’ research
et al. 1994; Nowotny et al. 2003)
, and the Triple Helix (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff
1998, 2000). All these models argue that academia needs to become more accountable for
the research it produces with public funds, and that this research must be increasingly
relevant (Hessels and van Lente 2008).
From the knowledge utilization objective, the following two activities generally follow;
(1) research commercialization and (2) start-up support.
Research commercialization entails the transfer of academic knowledge to industry
through efforts such as academic spin-off, spin-out, and spillover (Etzkowitz 2004).
Respectively, this means that university research is commercialized (1) through the
formation of a start-up (Link and Scott 2005), (2) using the technology license of a signed
invention to create a new company for exploitation of the license (Di Gregorio and Shane
2003), or (3) directly with firms in industry through contract research or joint research
(D’Este and Patel 2007)
. Consequently, research commercialization is strongly
connected to the research activities of the university, as they provide the input for
commercialization. Start-up support, on the other hand, does not build solely on the output of
research activities, but facilitates new venture creation by means such as
university-supported incubation practices (Mian 1996), aid in patenting, and the establishment of science
parks (Link and Scott 2005). Such practices are often oriented toward both the university
community and society.
2.3 Resource requirements
To perform the activities described above, both types of actors require resources. For
startups, the ability to acquire and develop resources has shown to be crucial for survival
(Dollinger 1999). In particular, knowledge about how do to business and access to social
networks are considered important
(Bruneel et al. 2007; Eveleens et al. 2017; Van Weele
et al. 2017)
As the environment in which universities operate has become more competitive and
market-like (Powers and McDougall 2005), universities have put more effort into acquiring
research funding, high quality faculty and the brightest students. Consequently, some
universities strive to increase the output of publications (contributing to the advancement
of academic ranking) and strengthen the researchers’ competitiveness for research grants
through cooperation (Latour and Woolgar 1979).
Generally, these resources can be divided into two categories: tangible resources reflect
the assets of an organization with an actual physical existence (Galbreath 2005), whereas
intangible resources reflect the non-physical assets of an organization (Kristandl and
Bontis 2007). The following list of resources is not exhaustive, but outlines the most
important resources that universities and start-ups require for attaining their objectives. We
base this categorization on Van Weele et al. (2017), who used it to understand the resource
needs of clean-tech start-ups at university incubators. Other studies have taken a similar
(e.g. Albert and Gaynor 2000; McAdam and McAdam 2008)
. We first provide a
definition of each resource type. Subsequently, we discuss the resource in the context of the
objectives of the university, respectively start-ups.
2.3.1 Tangible resources
Financial capital encompasses all monetary resources available for the deployment of
. Financial capital is critical for conducting
research within the university. Besides federal funding, universities look for other
sources of funding, which has become essential for today’s universities (Etzkowitz
et al. 1998). Start-ups often depend on external financial capital, especially in
technology and product development and organization creation
(MacMillan et al. 1987;
Human capital is the aggregation of the labor force, differentiated based on educational
training, entrepreneurial experience, working experience, and ambition (Davidsson and
Honig 2003). For the university, human capital is essential for the quality of education
and research (Powers and McDougall 2005). For start-ups, human capital with expert
knowledge and talent is an important resource for commercializing a cutting-edge
technology (Powers and McDougall 2005).
Physical capital reflects the hardware used by organizations, such as the organization’s
facilities and equipment, and the availability of raw materials
universities, the use of expensive or unique laboratory equipment can be essential to
perform certain types of research (Thorsteinsdo´ ttir 2000). High-tech start-ups often
require a place to work from or need specialized equipment for technology and product
development (Roessner et al. 1998).
2.3.2 Intangible resources
Business knowledge comprises the information and experience required for running a
business (Vohora et al. 2004). Business knowledge contributes to research
commercialization in universities as it helps to transform research outcomes into a viable
business (Powers 2003). For entrepreneurs, business knowledge is essential in
opportunity recognition, business concept development, organization creation, promoting
products across the supply and demand boundary, and customer feedback (Chan and
Technical or scientific knowledge refers to information and experience with a specific
technology, and can be a result of academic research (Rosenberg and Nelson 1994).
Developing technical or scientific knowledge in scientific publications is one of the
core activities of universities (Hessels and van Lente 2008) and is considered a source
of its competitive advantage (Van Rijnsoever et al. 2008). In start-ups, technical
knowledge allows effective exploitation of the potential of technology, the
interpretation of new information (Cohen and Levinthal 1990), and determination of the
optimal product design (Rosenberg 1994).
Market knowledge covers the information and experience enabling organizations to
make more accurate predictions of the commercial opportunities in their environment
so that they can take strategic action (Cohen and Levinthal 1990). Knowledge of the
market value of specific scientific discoveries can increase a university’s ability to
determine the commercialization potential of a technology (Shane 2000). Knowledge
of customer demands, customer preferences, and the market is valuable for start-ups
regarding product development and marketing (Shane 2000; Von Hippel 2007).
Social capital can be defined as ‘the goodwill that is engendered by the fabric of social
relations that can be mobilized to facilitate action’
(Adler and Kwon 2002, pp. 17)
‘comes about through changes in the relations among persons that facilitate action…it
exists in the relations among persons’ (Coleman 1988, pp. 100–101). Social capital
aggregates the organization’s potential to extract benefits from its network and social
structures (Davidsson and Honig 2003). Social capital can enable start-ups to ‘access’
resources provided by third parties, and can therefore compensate for an initial lack of
essential resources internally.
Credibility of actors has been extensively studied and debated in the past (Hovland and
Weiss 1951; Pornpitakpan 2004; Sternthal et al. 1978). However, the concept is rarely
defined explicitly. Authors refer instead to elements of the concept, commonly
trustworthiness, expertise and reliability. We follow the suggestion by Van Rijnsoever
et al. (2014), and define credibility as the trustworthiness, reliability, and expertise of
an actor. Start-ups in particular, suffer from a shortage of credibility as they often lack a
track record (Vohora et al. 2004). Based on a relationship with an external actor,
credibility allows start-ups to access resources such as other networks and financial
capital (Shane and Cable 2002). Scientific credibility helps universities to earn
recognition for, sustain, and expand their practices (Latour and Woolgar 1979), such as
those related to teaching, research, or entrepreneurship.
2.4 Knowledge utilization mechanisms
In the USUI process one can distinguish several mechanisms through which the resources
are transferred. Based on the extant literature we identify three knowledge utilization
mechanisms; education (Saxenian 1996; Etzkowitz 2004), new venture support
(Rasmussen and Wright 2015; Soetanto and Jack 2016), and university–industry interaction
(UII) (Meyer-Krahmer and Schmoch 1998; Perkmann et al. 2013; Frank J. Van Rijnsoever
et al. 2008). These mechanisms are not exclusively part of the USUI process, but USUI
encompasses all three. The three mechanisms form broad categories, under which various
practices can be categorized through which the resources (Sect. 2.2) that contribute to the
activities of both actor types (Sect. 2.1). We identify these practices in the results, and
show in what manner they make their contribution to the goals of both actor types.
Education is an indirect utilization mechanism (Saxenian 1996; Etzkowitz 2004), as the
fundamental knowledge is transferred by delivering specialized graduates to industry
(Carayannis et al. 1998). In addition, universities can transfer knowledge on developing a
business through entrepreneurship education (Schulte 2004), thereby supporting graduates
in starting a new venture (Pirnay and Surlemont 2003). Education is important as the
employment of graduate students is one of the most frequently used types of interaction
between firms and universities (Schartinger et al. 2001). Moreover, ideas for new business
are often formed during university education
(A˚ stebro et al. 2012)
education can be used to support business entry (Gartner et al. 1992). Despite its
importance, it has received the least attention in the utilization debate.
2.4.2 New venture support
A utilization mechanism that has received much academic attention, is new venture
support (Perkmann et al. 2013; Rothaermel et al. 2007). New venture support entails directly
supporting the creation of university spin-offs in the form of new ventures (Mueller 2006;
Rothaermel et al. 2007). University research is commercialized by building a new business
from scratch (Clarysse and Moray 2004). Uninhibited by past structures, start-ups are able
to generate radical innovations, introducing new products or even creating entirely new
. Supporting the creation of new ventures is important as
building a new organization requires specific resources (Rothaermel and Thursby 2005a)
and entails entrepreneurial learning processes (Scillitoe and Chakrabarti 2010; Wang and
Chugh 2014). Both can be supported by the university (McAdam and McAdam 2008). The
support of new ventures or academic spin-offs belongs to a relatively new
conceptualization of the university, often referred to as the entrepreneurial university, in which the
university is framed as an entrepreneurial organization
(e.g. Bramwell and Wolfe 2008)
2.4.3 University–industry interaction
The commercial engagement of the university is considered an outcome of the wider
concept of academic engagement. Perkmann et al. (2013 p. 424) define academic
engagement as ‘‘knowledge- related collaboration by academic researchers with
nonacademic organizations’’. Academic engagement has affected the role of the university in
knowledge production. This changing role of the university in knowledge production has
been described in the literature on modes of knowledge production
(Baber et al. 1994)
the triple helix thesis (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000), which emphasize continuous
interaction between industry, policy and academia. A utilization mechanism that stems
from academic engagement, and that we consider relevant for USUI, is university-industry
interaction (UII). University–industry interaction entails the knowledge transfer and
research support relationships of universities, primarily with existing industry (Santoro and
Chakrabarti 2002). Established firms have the resources and market power to make radical
innovation successful (Chandy and Tellis 2000), but are often inhibited by their own
and internal inertial forces (Hannan and Freeman 1984).
UII is important as start-ups still need access to resources after venture creation, such as
specialized equipment, knowledge, social capital, and legitimacy, which are crucial for
firm survival (Van Weele et al. 2017). Interacting with universities can provide access to
these resources (Santoro and Chakrabarti 2002).
3.1 Description of the case
We study the USUI process around clean-tech in the greater Boston area in Massachusetts,
or as it is informally known, ‘‘Route 128’’. Clean-tech consists of ‘‘a diverse range of
innovative products, services and solutions that optimize the use of finite and renewable
natural resources for long-term commercial and environmentally sustainability’’ (Ernst and
Young 2011, p. 6, in Davies 2013). Clean-tech is increasingly receiving attention from
both politics and academia (Caprotti 2012), and is considered an area in which knowledge
utilization and innovation is necessary (June and Fargo 2013). Furthermore, this industry
includes a wide variety of societal actors and scientific disciplines that serve a common
objective, making clean-tech a typical ‘‘Mode 2’’ technology
(Gibbons et al. 1994)
Altogether, clean-tech is an outstanding empirical example for the study of USUI.
Massachusetts is a leading US state on clean-tech policy, having strong regulatory
mandates and powerful incentives in place for clean-tech development. The region is
known for clean-tech leadership in early-stage technology-based firm development,
combined with a high capital attraction. In particular, the Boston area shows a high density
of start-ups oriented to high-tech and active in the clean-tech industry (June and Fargo
2013), and also offers a large diversity of universities that show continuous interest in the
clean-tech industry (June and Fargo 2013). This includes top universities, such as Harvard
and MIT, but also smaller universities, such as Babson College and Olin College. Based on
these characteristics we expected to find a many instances of USUI. This makes the Boston
area a suitable location for the study.
3.2 Data, data collection and measurements
The primary data for this study were acquired by means of 36 semi-structured on-site
interviews, which enabled the researchers to gather in-depth information, and created the
possibility for further clarification and explanation of concepts. The interviews took
40 min on average.
Data were gathered from entrepreneurs (13), university representatives (9), and other
stakeholders (14) considered experts in the field of new firm creation and
universityindustry interaction (such as incubator managers, managers of accelerator programs, etc.).
‘‘Appendix 1’’ presents an overview of all respondents. The respondents were identified
using web queries, formal and informal introductions, and referrals from earlier interviews.
To increase the likelihood of theoretical saturation, the sample includes representatives
from start-ups in different stages of maturity, representatives with various responsibilities
from a variety of universities, and a large variety of other stakeholders.
Three types of interview schemes were used: one for the entrepreneurs, one for
university representatives, and one for incubator managers and other stakeholders. The
interviews were structured as follows. First, several background questions were posed.
Entrepreneurs were asked to give a brief introduction to themselves and their firm.
Representatives from universities and incubators were asked to give a brief introduction and to
define their main purpose and core activities. Second, the interviewees were asked to define
if and why interaction takes place between the actors, from their own perspective. This
interview section aimed to derive an overview of the different interaction practices used in
the process of USUI, the organizational activities that benefit from it, and the resources
acquired. Further questions aimed for a more in-depth understanding regarding the
methods used for interaction, the formal characterization of interaction, the interaction
frequency, and how the interaction was established. In conclusion, the interviews focused
on the conditions under which USUI is successfully deployed. The interview scheme was
refined and updated if new concepts or information surfaced during the interview process.
An overview of the final interview schemes is provided for in ‘‘Appendix 2’’. All
interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. Data were collected until
theoretical saturation was achieved, meaning no new concepts emerged
3.3 Data analysis
Prior to coding and analysis, a distinction was made between data from entrepreneurs,
university representatives, and third party representatives. After this differentiation,
qualitative coding was used to analyze the data. An inductive approach was adopted, but
the connection between data and theory was constantly monitored using the coding process
of Corbin and Strauss (Corbin and Strauss 1990). In doing so, cross-actor patterns could be
Accordingly, the data coding process was divided into two steps. In the first steps of the
analysis we broke down the data analytically. We read the interview transcripts to
inductively identify concepts that could explain the engagement of both actor types in
USUI. Next, we identified relevant codes by means of open coding (Corbin and Strauss
1990). Segments from the transcripts were labelled with ‘in vivo’ terms used by the
interviewee as to minimize researcher subjectivity and bias. We then combined synonym
codes into ‘first order categories’ (Gioia et al. 2013).
We relied on these open and first order codes to allow distinctive USUI practices to
emerge from the data. It also provided characteristics of the Boston-entrepreneurial
ecosystem. These practices and characteristics served as ‘second order categories’ (Gioia
et al. 2013), which allowed us to relate first order codes with the USUI practices and
ecosystem characteristics. Doing so provided insight in how the distinct practices and
ecosystem characteristics of ‘paying it forward’ and the ecosystem’s diversity contributed
to the actor’s objectives. An example of the data structure is provided in Table 1.
In the second step, we related the first order codes, associated with the previously
identified USUI practices, to the concepts that were derived in our framework: the
objectives of collaboration, the resources shared, and the utilization mechanism at work.
The relationships between the USUI practices and these theoretical concepts were
categorized in a table. We used this table to identify the higher-order relationships about the
benefits of USUI for both actor types. These relationships were used to answer our research
Coding and data analysis were carried out using NVIVO, a qualitative analysis software
program that is designed for the systematic analysis of qualitative data. NVIVO records all
methodological steps taken and all handlings can be traced back, minimizing the
researcher’s personal bias. Moreover, emerging interpretations and findings were discussed
with the entrepreneurs, university representatives and other relevant stakeholders during
the process of data analysis as a form of ‘member validation’ (Lincoln and Guba 2013),
which resulted in feedback and validation of our findings. This vigor increased the
reliability of our findings. Additionally, during the entire process, we compared our results to
what is already known from the current academic literature.
We first discuss the context of the Boston start-up ecosystem related to USUI. Next, we
provide an overview of the USUI practices that were identified. Finally, we relate the
practices to our theoretical categories.
4.1 The Boston ecosystem
Although the general Boston entrepreneurial ecosystem is not as renowned as Silicon
Valley, it has generated a diverse set of start-ups with hundreds of millions of dollars of
revenue in software, life sciences, robotics, and materials industries (Marmer et al. 2012).
These successful start-ups are located in the vicinity of universities, which supply them
with talent and knowledge; ‘‘…every September there is a new flood of students in that are
bringing in new ideas in, and then every June some go out. So, there is constant turnover.’’
(O7). In addition, there are many different programs and facilities that aim to support a
specific stage of start-up development. Besides support organizations that specialize in a
specific development stage, the Boston ecosystem also houses start-up support
organizations that specialize in sector specific start-up support. ‘‘The diversity of industries in the
Boston ecosystem can be explained as each of these supporting organizations provide a
different type of support, tailored towards a diversity of industries, enabling entrepreneurs
to find a place with the best ‘fit’. ‘‘… when you find you don’t fit in one, you can flow to the
other.’’ (E5). Last, the high number of support organizations also generates a lot of
interaction between actors. ‘‘…it’s like atoms hitting each other, there is so many different
ways that all these people could bump into each other, so that you finally find what you are
looking for.’’ (O8). This leads to a highly diverse ecosystem, which makes founding their
business in Boston attractive.
Additionally, a culture of ‘‘forward paying’’ (Ready 2012) enables the founding of
successful companies from the large pool of nascent entrepreneurs in the area. Actors in
the ecosystem support start-ups, but it is expected that when these start-ups become
successful companies, they will show their gratitude for this support. We found that this
culture supports USUI as Boston universities build on this assumption when supporting
(donating time and money) entrepreneurs ‘‘There is just this kind of willingness to help
people out and to sit down and talk with someone, and give them your time to help them.’’
(O1). Once successful, the entrepreneur can return the favor by becoming a mentor for a
new start-up or by giving a financial donation.
4.2 Identifying USUI practices
In total, we identified 14 USUI practices (see Box 1). They cover all three utilization
mechanisms (see Fig. 1). Some are already well known from the literature. We list them
here, because they are included in our second step of analysis. ‘‘Appendix 3’’ gives a
detailed description of each practice.
We did not find any evidence of post-graduate educational practices such as
professional workshops or courses taught in the workplace as examples of USUI practices (Rahm
1994). The reason for this is that the entrepreneurs are often students or recent graduates of
the university, which lowers the need for post-graduate teaching. The interviews also
presented some difficulties regarding the successful implementation of USUI practices. In
line with findings on UII (Kaufmann and T o¨dtling 2001), the major barrier to USUI is that
universities and start-ups operate at different paces. Whereas universities are strongly
focused on generating accurate knowledge and take time to do so, start-ups have shorter
time cycles and are more application-oriented. When actively collaborating, this difference
between the actor types implies different work speeds. Combined with a large overhead,
universities may therefore become a partner too costly for start-ups if any payment is
involved. ‘‘I think those were more challenging in the sense that it was a fee for service and
there are, you know, sometimes we found the academic partners were not as fast and
entrepreneurial as we would have hoped and they are burdened with a large overhead.’’
(E4). Moreover, some universities view interacting with start-ups as problematic because
their dynamic nature makes it difficult to establish a long-term relationship. To overcome
this barrier, start-ups use their pre-existing relationships with the university. This makes
the interaction more informal, and allows for a more tailored treatment. ‘‘So that I think
works more smooth because there’s already a pre-existing relationship. And the employee
at […] knew the professor and then it was more informal.’’ (E4).
4.3 Relating USUI practices to resources, objectives and activities
In Table 2, we categorize each USUI practice according to the utilization mechanism, the
associated resources, and the objectives and activities to which it is related: ‘‘x’’ indicates
x x x
x x x
x x x x x x x
x x x
x x x x x
x x x
)a E E
x x x
x x x
x x x x x x x x
x x x
x x x
x x x
ip se t ip
trrrseeepnnuh tissseaecud iireeangnngnd itisseccacenfi itssedu iitrraaggndu trcudo leeevdopnm rssceuo trrrseeepnnuh rssceuo tirssenhnp titisepoonm tireonng irseecv tiacbunon lltiraaeboov rrseaech ieccadm ltiscnuong itannog iisecnng liitngo
) E E H P E I C M I C A D L P
x x x
x x x x e
x x x x x x
x x x
that a concept is associated with a practice. Higher categories of theoretical aggregation are
given in bold; if a concept is present at the lower level, it is also present at the higher level.
Based on Table 2a, we focus on the benefits that start-ups receive from USUI. For
startups, all three utilization mechanisms offer both tangible and intangible resources. For
education, the only tangible resource that is transferred is human capital, whereas new
venture support provides financial and physical capital. UII practices involve all three types
of tangible resources. For intangible resources, it is clear that universities can transfer these
to start-ups through all USUI practices. This result can be explained by the fact that
knowledge as key resource from universities is intangible and associated with all these
USUI practices. The data also shows that start-ups are aware of that resources can be
acquired through interaction with universities. As one entrepreneur put it; ‘‘It was pretty,
you know, we tried to use the university for everything, you know, see it as a friendly,
helpful resource for anything we could.’’ (E1).
Also, entrepreneurs consider the university to be a relevant partner for both high-tech
and low-tech start-ups; ‘‘If our venture was low tech, we sort of could have still used many
of the MIT resources.’’… ‘‘But the high-tech venture has certain needs that fit with the
resources of a university such as technical labs for example.’’ (E1). This ability may be
related to the variety of start-up objectives supported through USUI.
Organization development is supported by all practices except engineering and
scientific case studies, and internships, both of which come from education. There is therefore a
strong focus on organization development, although some practices contribute to this
process through opportunity recognition, which is the very first stage of the organization
development process. Universities also contribute strongly to technology and product
development. All educational practices contribute to this objective and most other USUI
practices do so as well; donating alone does not. However, when it comes to market
development, only a few USUI practices contribute to this process. Even though market
development is, according to some, the most important objective for a start-up
, universities do not seem to have many ways of promoting this. This is most
likely because market development is not part of the core competences of universities. A
notable and creative way in which universities can contribute to this is piloting, which
allows universities to be a test bed for some new products. ‘‘The biggest is feedback of the
product. The next is, you know, like, product development, meaning we’re able to test new
features in the colleges and see how they react, and that’s been very helpful’’ (E6). More
indirectly, mentors can create awareness and give credibility, helping with market
The university also receives benefits from USUI (Table 2b). What is notable is that
educational practices do not directly result in the return of any tangible resources, nor do
practices that are solely based on supporting new ventures. However, these practices
provide social capital to the universities, which in turn contributes to the practice of
donating. This provides financial capital and human capital for universities. Here, the
ecosystem characteristic of ‘‘paying it forward’’ is important as it is the main reason for
donating to exist. Moreover, the diversity of support within the ecosystem allows
universities to receive financial and human capital from a variety of industries. The only
tangible resources that universities gain from USUI is through practices that come from the
mechanism University–industry interaction. This can be explained by the fact that the
startups often have limited tangible resources themselves. However, all practices do contribute
to the intangible resource base of the university, primarily through credibility and building
social capital. Both resources are important for gaining access to tangible resources such as
government grants (Van Rijnsoever et al. 2014). In some instances, universities gain
scientific case studies
University taught courses with a strong engineering emphasis that
aim to solve real-life problems and bring students from different
disciplines together by building a functional and
marketable product in class
University taught courses on developing a business through
classes, often combined with action-based learning. This differs
from the practice of Entrepreneurship case studies as the
students in class take the active role of entrepreneur. Students
receive course credits while working on a business plan
The participation of students in start-ups through an internship
The participation of start-ups in business competitions organized
A service provided by universities, build around the long-term
appointment of voluntary individuals (mostly experienced
entrepreneurs or alumni; the mentors) to aid start-up
The participation of start-ups in services provided by the
university that aim to launch new start-ups
Research undertaken in collaboration between universities and
start-ups, including renting out laboratory space and specialized
equipment, possibly against a fee
University staff providing direct advice or expertise to start-ups.
This may also include the provision of networking opportunities
The act of giving resources away for free (performed by both
universities and start-ups), as a sign of gratitude or
The protection and commercialization of intellectual property (IP)
that originated from academic research
The activities of universities which provide start-ups with a pilot
site or niche market for their product (usually the campus)
* Previously documented in the literature; Y (yes)/N (no)
a According to
Ankrah and Omar (2015)
b According to Lacke´us and Williams Middleton (2015)
Box 1 Overview of USUI practices
business knowledge from start-ups, but—surprisingly—no market knowledge is gained.
The business knowledge can be used to enrich the teaching curriculum; ‘‘…it’s I think a
real hard interaction that says, the world of business takes place outside the university.
How we bring that world inside the university, so you can study it and so you can learn
from it.’’ (U2). As such, the educational objectives benefit from all USUI practices except
from licensing and piloting. However, it should be noted that it is mostly entrepreneurship
education that benefits.
Research, on the other hand, has little association with USUI practices. There are
examples of research benefiting from education and UII, but not from new venture support.
Moreover, only applied research is strengthened. If the objective of the university is indeed
solely to strengthen its scientific credibility (Latour and Woolgar 1979), interacting with
start-ups seems to offer limited potential. Finally, USUI practices do directly contribute to
the knowledge utilization objective, especially all practices from new venture support and
UII. Education in this context does not always contribute to knowledge utilization, but the
knowledge the graduates receive during education can later be applied in society. As such,
knowledge utilization through education is also an indirect process.
This study aimed to explores the conditions under which the USUI process is mutually
beneficial to both universities and start-ups in terms of resources. To this end, we identified
14 USUI practices, we categorized the resources that are transferred through these
practices, and we looked at how these practices contribute to the objectives of both start-ups
and universities. It is evident from the results that the USUI concept is different from
conventional university–industry interaction (Perkmann et al. 2013), because start-ups
need different resources than large firms (Ries 2011), and because USUI concept also
includes education and new venture support as the transfer mechanisms. We summarize
the conclusions and their implications as follows:
First, we find that USUI is largely based on intangible resources. These are often
important for gaining competitive advantage as they are more likely to be rare and
(Amit and Schoemaker 1993)
. However, their presence—and thus their added
value—is hard to quantify, which makes it difficult to see the use of USUI practices. This is
especially problematic for start-ups, as their key performance indicators are often based on
tangible resources like the amount of capital raised or the number of users (Greene et al.
2015). Within an ecosystem with a culture of ‘‘paying it forward’’ (Ready 2012) and high
diversity, universities do transfer crucial tangible resources to start-ups in the hope that the
favor will be returned in the future when the start-up has matured, for example in the form
of contributions to educational programs or even financial donations. However, indicators
need to be developed that also incorporate of the added value of the intangible resources
that come from each of the practices. This is an avenue for further research.
Second, the resources that the university transfers to start-ups mostly relate to
organization and product development, but little to market development. This is a crucial gap as
new market development is key for the success of academic start-ups (Soetanto and Jack
2016). If universities wish to strengthen their venture support activities, strengthening
market development is crucial. Universities are taking up this challenge by incorporating
market development in their programs, for example by following the lean start-up method
(Ries 2011; Blank 2013)
. Furthermore, using the university as pilot site for new ventures is
one interesting avenue. However, start-ups with a product that does not benefit from the
technical or scientific knowledge or credibility of universities should carefully consider the
added value of being involved in start-up support programs originating from a university.
Support programs that originate from corporations or independent programs might better fit
their needs. Using our results, future research needs to look at the decision of start-ups to
engage in USUI practices in comparison to other start-up support mechanisms or working
with other actor types.
Third, universities can for the most part strengthen their educational programs through
USUI, specifically those related to entrepreneurship. Also, the knowledge utilization
objective benefits from USUI. This means that USUI practices largely provide resources
that reinforce themselves. However, there are no clear links to fundamental research, which
many universities value as their core activity and which is the source of much scientific
credibility (Latour and Woolgar 1979). Universities with a strong focus on fundamental
research thus have less incentive to engage in USUI practices than those that focus more on
application. The lack of a strong connection between fundamental research and USUI
practices is not a direct problem as USUI partly reinforces itself and caters to the demand
of students with a more practical orientation. However, if the aim of USUI practices is also
to strengthen fundamental research activities, practices should be designed to bring the
world of starting new ventures and fundamental research closer together. Policy makers
can catalyze this process by providing incentives for universities to develop fundamental
knowledge in collaboration with start-ups. An example of this is the SBIR scheme in the
US (www.sbir.gov). Future researchers need to focus attention on the conditions under
which researchers from universities are likely to engage in USUI practices. The list of
resources and objectives provided here can serve as input for such a study.
This leads us to draw the overall conclusion that whether USUI is beneficial or not
largely depends on how organizations value their different objectives. Science-based
startups are more likely to benefit from USUI, whereas start-ups close to market might be better
off with other support programs. Universities with a strong focus on fundamental ‘Mode 1’
research benefit less from USUI than those that are more engaged in applied ‘Mode 2’
research, or have a strong focus on teaching and knowledge utilization. Theoretically, we
add to the existing literature about the interaction between entrepreneurs and universities
by explicitly studying incentives for the USUI process from the perspective of both actor
types. We show that USUI can reinforce and sustain the entrepreneurial orientation
(Etzkowitz 2004) of universities, and can be beneficial to science-based start-ups.
However, our results also imply that universities that do not follow the societal trend to more
societal relevant and applied research (Hessels and van Lente 2008) have little to gain from
USUI. These ‘Mode 1’ universities are also in a poor position to aid science based start-ups
with their market development, which is important for survival of these start-ups (Soetanto
and Jack 2016).
There are a number of limitations in this research that should be taken into account. The
theory and data analysis resulted in a clear overview of the exchange of resources, and of
the potential benefits universities and start-ups can create through collaboration. However,
the framework does not acknowledge the conditions for successful interactions and the
implementation requirements to benefit from the resources. These conditions can partly be
created in university incubators and on science parks (Ratinho and Henriques 2010).
However, the institutional conditions of the entrepreneurial or innovation ecosystem also
determine the extent to which USUI becomes a success (Stam 2015; Van Weele et al. n.d.).
We have now studied start-ups in the clean-tech industry in Boston, which has a specific
‘pay it forward’ culture, a high diversity and a favorable regime towards clean-tech. The
interaction between universities and start-ups with a different industry orientation (such as
information technology or life sciences) or from a different region, might reveal additional
resource exchange patterns. Yet, we do note that if even in this relatively successful region,
start-ups and universities do not fully strengthen their core goals, this is less likely to
happen in other regions. Future research needs to focus on the interactions between
universities and other types of start-ups in other regions. Another limitation is that universities
are heterogeneous in their orientation toward the knowledge utilization objective
and Patel 2007; Perkmann et al. 2013)
, and their capabilities to do so (Rasmussen and
Wright 2015). According to Go¨ ransson (2009), a country’s history influences the role of
universities beyond teaching and research. Respectively, the objectives will vary strongly
based on the location of universities (Go¨ ransson 2009) and will affect the pattern of USUI.
Moreover, we noticed that characteristics of the ecosystem influence the viability of USUI,
as we have seen with the characteristics ‘‘paying it forward’’ and diversity. Therefore, the
findings of the study should be placed in context when deriving theoretical and practical
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
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source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Appendix 1: Characteristics of sample respondents
Founder and CEO
Founder and CEO
Founder and CEO
Founder and CEO
Founder and CEO
Appendix 2: Interview scripts
Opera onaliza on table
Interview script*: Entrepreneurs University repr. Third party repr.
Actor objec ves (both univ./start-ups) 7, 8, 10 6 5, 6
Resources 7a, b 6b 5a, 6a
Descrip on of interac on prac ces 6b, 9 3, 4 3, 4
Condi ons for USUI 11, 12, 13, 14 7 7, 8, 9
Ecosystem characteris cs 15, 16, 17 8, 9, 10 10, 11, 12
*Numbers in each column refer to the number of the ques on(s) in each script that opera onalize the key concepts.
Interview script 1: For Entrepreneurs
Part 1: Introduc on
1. Could you briefly describe your personal background? (e.g. entrepreneurial experience,
a. What was your occupa on prior to this start-up?
b. What were your mo va ons to become an entrepreneur?
c. [If former student/PhD/professor/researcher] Is the start-up based on (academic or
non-academic) research results?
a. In what sector/industry does the start-up operate?
b. How would you describe the phase of development your firm is currently in (e.g.
product development, market orienta on, sustainable returns)?
3. Are you familiar with the Lean Startup Method? [if YES: Q.4 if NO: Q.8]
4. Did you create a minimum viable product (MVP)?
a. Could you explain how the MVP was created?
b. Why did you create a MVP (e.g. building a proof of concept) ?
c. Did you have to pivot from your original product?
5. Did the firm need external investment?
a. Under which condi ons are these investments made?
Part 3: University-start-up Interac on (USUI)
6. If any, what connec ons does your firm have with the university?
a. What type of university representa ves do you interact with (e.g. faculty professor,
TTO manager, students)?
b. What type of interac on method is used in coopera on with the university (e.g.
educa on, mentoring, contract research)?
i. Would you classify this interac on method formal or informal?
ii. How o en do you interact [specify what is meant by interac ons, based on
explana on of method used: e.g. # of interns, weekly mee ngs with
b. Are there any other resources/knowledge acquired through other forms of
interac on with universi es that have not yet been men oned?
[For the different interac ons:]
8. In what way does this interac on contribute to firm development (e.g. student internships)?
a. What are the results of the support, based on a view of the firm (e.g. faster
prototyping because of increased work force)?
b. What is the effect of these results in terms of firm development (e.g. quick me to
market because of faster prototyping)?
9. How was this coopera on established (e.g. through incubator, TTO’s, networking events)?
a. Why did your firm turn to the university (in comparison to other org’s)?
10. What are, according to you, the reasons for universi es to interact with you [here a quick
indica on is enough]?
As we have discussed in what way the university supports your firm development, I now would like
to focus on barriers and opportuni es for USUI.
11. Does your firm experience any difficul es with USUI?
a. If yes, then how?
a. If yes, then why?
12. Is there any kind of support offered by the universi es in the Boston area that you do not
make use of?
13. Do the universi es play a pro-ac ve role, or do you mostly ini ate the support process?
14. If so, at what point in your business’ development cycle do you expect that U-I interac on
will become a disadvantage. And if so, then why?
15. What do you consider to be weak and strong points of the entrepreneurial ecosystem your
start-up operates in?
16. Which actors in the ecosystem do you consider to be very important? Which actors are
missing (e.g. investors, incubators, ac ve government, etc.).
17. Do you have any sugges ons to increase the emergence and growth of start-ups in your
Interview script 2: For University Representa ves
Interview ques ons:
Part 1: Introduc on
1. Could you briefly describe your personal background? (e.g. posi on, educa on,
a. What are your responsibili es within this department?
b. What was your occupa on prior to this func on?
c. [If former entrepreneur] Are your current ac vi es based on your former
entrepreneurial ac vi es?
Part 2: Program/department background
2. Could you briefly describe the program/department background in which you are currently
ac ve (E.g. when was it founded, what’s its purpose, size in terms of employees, the annual
a. What is the orienta on of the university (Liberal Arts/Ins tute of Technology)?
We now have discussed your personal & organiza onal background. I would like to ask you several
ques ons on the interac on between your university and start-ups.
Part 3: University-start-up interac on (USUI)
3. What are the interac on links between your department/faculty/program and start-ups (e.g.
collabora on, internships, mentoring, founder)?
4. What start-ups do you interact with (high-tech/low-tech)?
5. What are types of interac on methods used in coopera on with start-ups?
a. What type of start-up representa ve does the university interact with (e.g. founders,
b. How does your program/department connect with these start-ups?
i. Who is taking the ini a ve in this rela onship?
6. Why does your department/faculty/program interact with start-ups?
a. How do these interac ons contribute to university ac vi es (e.g. educa on,
research, entrepreneurial support)?
b. What type of knowledge/resource is acquired by means of interac on (e.g. technical
c. Would you classify this interac on method formal or informal?
As we have discussed in what way start-ups can support universi es, I now would like to focus on
future opportuni es for U-I interac on.
7. Do you experience any difficul es interac ng with startups?
a. If yes, why?
Part 4: Innova on System/context
8. What do you consider to be weak and strong points of the entrepreneurial ecosystem your
start-up operates in?
a. How would you describe the:
i. Capital market
ii. Entrepreneurial community
iii. Overall culture (e.g. risk taking, ambi on, status of entrepreneurs)
iv. Regula ons
9. Which actors in the ecosystem do you consider to be very important? Which actors are
missing (e.g. investors, incubators, ac ve government, etc.).
10. Do you have any sugges ons to increase the emergence and growth of start-ups in your
Interview script 3: For Third Party Representa ves
a. What was your occupa on prior to this func on?
b. [If former entrepreneur] Are your current ac vi es based on your former
entrepreneurial ac vi es?
2. Could you briefly describe the program/organiza on you are working with (E.g. when was it
founded, with what purpose, annual budget, size in terms of employees and start-ups)?
We now have discussed your personal & organiza onal background. I would like to ask you several
ques ons on the ways universi es and start-ups interact. Please answer these ques ons for your
field of exper se (e.g. Clean-tech/High-tech/IT/Life Sciences).
Part 2: University-start-up interac on (USUI)
3. What interac ons between universi es and start-ups do you know of?
4. What are the types of interac on methods used in coopera on between universi es and
a. How is this coopera on established (e.g. through incubator, TTO’s, networking
i. What type of representa ves interact (e.g. founders, engineers, teachers,
researchers, TTO managers)?
ii. Who is taking the ini a ve in this rela onship?
5. Why do start-ups interact with universi es?
a. What resources are being transferred to start-ups through USUI?
b. How do these interac ons contribute to start-up ac vi es (e.g. idea genera on,
business concept development, founding a physical organiza on, developing
produc on technology etc.)?
6. Why do universi es interact with start-ups?
a. What resources are being transferred to universi es through USUI?
b. How do these interac ons contribute to university ac vi es (e.g. educa on,
research, entrepreneurial support)?
Part 3: Condi ons for USUI
7. Are there barriers for USUI (e.g. cases that have not worked out or are difficult)?
a. If yes, then why?
a. If yes, then why?
8. Are there opportuni es for USUI (e.g. successful cases)?
9. Do you expect that USUI will become a disadvantage on the long term? And if so, then why?
Part 4: Innova on System/context
10. What do you consider to be weak and strong points of the entrepreneurial ecosystem your
start-up operates in?
11. Which actors in the ecosystem do you consider to be very important? Which actors are
missing (e.g. investors, incubators, ac ve government, etc.).
12. Do you have any sugges ons to increase the emergence and growth of start-ups in your
Appendix 3: Full description of USUI practices
In total, we identified 14 USUI practices from our data. A full description of each practice
is provided for below.
Entrepreneurship case studies comprises the invitation of entrepreneurs into the
university classrooms to talk about and study real-life business problems,
generating new knowledge on strategies in specific business situations. Hereby,
new knowledge on strategies in specific business situations is generated. Start-ups
benefit from this as entrepreneurship case studies allow for a ‘‘community of
practice’’ (Wenger 1998) to develop, in which start-ups acquire business
knowledge in support of business concept development, organization creation,
product development, customer outreach, and customer feedback. Universities, on
the other hand, also receive business knowledge as start-ups offer state-of-the-art
empirical data. The knowledge generated is used directly to shape entrepreneurship
education. Therefore, the subject material is considered to be ‘‘shaped at the
frontier’’ and adds to the universities’ credibility in training entrepreneurs.
Moreover, universities acquire social capital through entrepreneurship case studies
as this ‘‘service’’ to entrepreneurs nourishes alumni networks.
Engineering and scientific case studies entails forms of education provided in
collaboration between universities and start-up with a strong engineering focus,
such as capstone projects or scientific projects with direct student (B.Sc./M.Sc.)
involvement in industry. These projects aim to solve technical problems for
startups, while the students involved earn course credits at the university. Start-ups
acquire technical or scientific knowledge as students work on technology- or
product-related problems, contributing to the technological development and
product development of the firm. In return, university staff and students acquire
technical or scientific knowledge while working with state-of-the art technologies.
Moreover, they gain insights into ‘‘the business side of things’’ (Professor) due to
the start-up’s commercial orientation. As such, the practice adds to training
academics, training a high-quality workforce, and performing applied research.
Moreover, being ‘‘involved’’ with state-of-the-art technologies yields credibility in
performing collaborative research with high-tech industry, which favors
undertaking applied research.
Hiring graduates refers to the hiring of (specialized) graduate students by start-ups
and is one of the most frequently used USUI practices by start-ups. Start-ups
receive human capital by hiring graduates, who may carry business knowledge,
technical or scientific knowledge, direct links with the university (social capital),
and a university degree that grants the firm credibility. Start-ups allocate business
knowledge to business concept development and organization creation, whereas
technical or scientific knowledge and networks support technology development
and product development. Credibility is used as an asset in fundraising, which
favors all core activities. Meanwhile, universities acquire social capital as their
network expands by including new start-ups. Moreover, universities earn
credibility as they deliver appropriate education, which is an argument used to
attract new students and evidence that they train a high-quality workforce.
Product development courses are university taught courses with a strong
engineering emphasis that aim to solve real-life problems and bring students
from different disciplines together by building a functional and marketable product
in class. Some of these project groups start new companies based on their work in
class. Therefore, this practice facilitates opportunity recognition. Second, the
project group is an initial human capital base for the start-up to draw from. During
the course, the (pre)start-up is offered workspace and tools (physical capital),
business knowledge, and technical or scientific knowledge by professors and
experienced entrepreneurs. This adds to business concept development and
organization creation. Moreover, the technical or scientific knowledge acquired is
helpful in technology development and product development in the start-up.
Finally, originating from a university gives the start-up credibility with
stakeholders such as investors. Again, universities can expand their network
(social capital) with new entrepreneurs and gain credibility from a successful
startup. Overall, they strengthen their core activities to train a high-quality workforce
Entrepreneurship courses entails university taught courses on developing a
business through classes, often combined with action-based learning. This differs
from the practice of Entrepreneurship case studies as the students in class take the
active role of entrepreneur. In doing so, students receive course credits while
working on a business plan, allowing them to concentrate on both their education
and founding a company. Therefore, this practice entails both education and new
firm mechanisms. In some cases, start-ups are formed during entrepreneurship
courses, and benefit directly from the availability of human capital and business
knowledge present in the classroom. Moreover, credibility is earned through the
affiliation with the university. These resources contribute to opportunity
recognition, business concept development, organization creation, and product
development. Universities benefit as the constant application of entrepreneurship
theories in practice creates opportunities to study best practices at their core and
generate business knowledge. Furthermore, universities increase their social
capital and gain credibility. The practice reinforces universities in training
entrepreneurs and start-up support.
Internships concerns the participation of students in start-ups through an internship
construction. Internships enable start-ups to hire high quality human capital against
relatively low costs. Interns fulfill roles in both entrepreneurial and engineering
assignments, depending on their training at the university. As such, the core
activities of technology development, product development, customer outreach,
and customer feedback are supported. Through internships, universities that
supervise the students interact with the start-up, and acquire tacit technical or
scientific knowledge and business knowledge, as well as network contacts. This
increases their students’ value on the labor market. Second, it enables future
academics to make a better contribution to the activity of undertaking applied
research. Finally, internships at start-ups provide credibility to the university as it
demonstrates that their graduates do relevant work. Therefore, internships add to
the training of academic professionals, a high-quality workforce, and
entrepreneurs, as well as engagement in applied research and research commercialization.
Competitions refer to the participation of start-ups in business competitions
organized by universities. With competitions, universities allocate mentors to the
competing start-ups that coach the teams. These mentors often have experience in
business and are therefore considered a valuable resource for transferring business
knowledge. This is an important aid to start-ups in business concept development
and product development. Furthermore, working with mentors may give access to
a network, which has been shown to be helpful for later fundraising and speeding
up product development. Finally, competitions elect winners and finalists that are
compensated financially and announced publicly. This gives start-ups financial
capital and credibility that aids with raising more funds. Through competitions,
universities gain social capital and credibility as they connect with start-up teams
that reflect the technological and entrepreneurial abilities of the university.
Consequently, students are encouraged to start their own business or take
entrepreneurship classes, creating a support base for training entrepreneurs and
Mentoring services are a kind of service provided by universities, build around the
long-term appointment of voluntary individuals (mostly experienced entrepreneurs
or alumni; the mentors) to aid start-up development. Start-ups benefit from the
professional experience of the mentors and their professional networks as they
have access to technical or scientific knowledge, business knowledge, and social
capital. Mentoring time is mainly spent on coaching for business concept
development and organization creation. To a lesser extent, mentors help to solve
technical problems and contribute to technology development and product
development. Finally, the mentors’ networks indirectly provide access to expert
knowledge or introductions to first customers. Universities engage in this practice
because of the social capital gained through working with both the start-ups and
the mentors. Furthermore, the establishment of a successful mentoring service can
draw attention and be a source of credibility with nascent entrepreneurs. Both can
attract mentoring volunteers, reinforcing the activities of training entrepreneurs
and start-up support.
Incubation covers the participation of start-ups in services provided by the
university that aim to launch new start-ups. First, through the university incubator,
start-ups have a place to work (physical capital), which contributes to the creation
of the physical organization. Second, most universities have funding available for
their incumbents, providing start-ups with the financial capital required to produce
prototypes, and thus aiding product development. Third, incubated start-ups may
enroll for classes and incubator staff may also provide business knowledge. The
staff may also connect the start-ups with important contacts, expanding the
startups’ social capital. Finally, the relationship with the university gives the start-ups
credibility, which may be helpful in later fundraising. In terms of benefits,
universities gain social capital and credibility from the incubated start-ups.
Facilitating entrepreneurship teams brings together students from different schools,
benefiting the social cohesion within universities. Second, universities gain
credibility for their abilities to promote entrepreneurship, which attracts new
(entrepreneurship) students. This complements the universities’ entrepreneurship
education and creates a basis for start-up support.
Collaborative research refers to research undertaken in collaboration between
universities and start-ups, including renting out laboratory space and specialized
equipment, possibly against a fee. Collaborative research provides start-ups with
university-owned laboratory space and specialized equipment, a type of physical
capital is scarce for them. Furthermore, start-ups acquire technical or scientific
knowledge through collaborative research. University researchers can also join
firms for a longer period of time, as an employee, to carry out research. This allows
for more hands-on transferal of university knowledge and adds to human capital.
These resources may benefit the technological development of start-ups, or may
clarify whether a technology has real commercial value (opportunity recognition).
Moreover, collaborative research is a source of credibility as the expertise of the
university is reflected in the start-up. For universities, collaborative research is a
means of acquiring financial capital through research funding or renting out
physical capital. In addition, collaborative research allows universities to acquire
technical or scientific knowledge. Moreover, the collaboration expresses
researchers’ expertise in a specific discipline and thus provides credibility, which
helps attract additional funds. This practice strengthens the implementation of
applied research and contributes to research commercialization.
Academic consulting consists of university staff providing direct advice or
expertise to start-ups. This may also include the provision of networking
opportunities. As such, academic consulting allows universities to train students
outside the curriculum in a highly goal-oriented manner. The university staff
members thus constitute an external source for business, technical or scientific
knowledge, and to some extent social capital and credibility. These resources can
be used to improve business concept development, organization creation,
technology development and product development. Consulting may be free for
start-ups if it is considered a small service on the part of the staff. If consulting
requires more time, the university may ask for financial compensation. In addition,
academic consulting contributes to social capital and the credibility of academics.
Overall, academic consulting contributes to training a high-quality workforce,
training entrepreneurs, and research commercialization.
Donating is the act of giving resources away for free (performed by both
universities and start-ups), as a sign of gratitude or encouragement. In this way,
universities supply start-ups with financial capital and physical capital, such as
providing a small fund to enable further development of a technology (technology
development) or old furniture for an office space (organization creation). Donation
is an important USUI practice in the culture of ‘‘paying it forward’’; there is reason
for providing an act in return. The entrepreneurs supported by the university often
want to return the favor. Based on this practice, universities acquire financial
capital and other offers from experienced and successful entrepreneurs, such as
volunteer work as a mentor (human capital). Donations are also a source for
credibility for the university in supporting entrepreneurship. These donated
resources are mostly employed to support start-ups through other USUI practices,
such as incubation, mentoring services, and competitions. Therefore, donation
strengthens the training of entrepreneurs and start-up support.
Licensing is a USUI practice that serves the protection and commercialization of
intellectual property (IP) that originated from academic research. Licensing
contributes to opportunity recognition in start-ups as the knowledge it protects
forms the basis for starting a business. Moreover, when licensing a technology, it is
not uncommon for universities to supply the founding researchers with funding
(financial capital) for spin-off and to develop the licensed technology further for
commercialization (technology development). Finally, patents are seen as a source
of credibility to start-ups as they are a mark of the originality of a technology. As
licensing IP is costly, the universities see gap funding as an investment. Most
universities own the IP and receive some sort of financial reimbursement (financial
capital) when start-ups generate profit, which universities can allocate to
entrepreneurship education and start-up support: ‘‘We set aside 30% of any
revenues that flow back to the inventor pool’’ (Professor). Moreover, having
licensed successful companies provides universities with credibility for their
ability to commercialize knowledge.
Piloting refers to the activities of universities which provide start-ups with a pilot
site or niche market for their product (usually the campus). Start-ups acquire
financial capital through piloting as the university becomes the first customer of
their technology. This allows the start-up to test its product’s behavior and
durability in real life, and to interact with lead consumers (students and staff),
providing technical or scientific knowledge and market knowledge. Moreover,
start-ups can test their business model. Through multiple iterations, piloting
contributes to business concept development, customer outreach, and customer
feedback. Furthermore, having a university as a customer increases the credibility
of the start-up and may be used as an argument in fund raising. With these new
technologies on campus, universities may also gain financial capital by contract.
Moreover, the visibility of being a test bed for innovations provides credibility,
which will generate support for start-up support. Given that we studied clean-tech
start-ups, we also found that campus sustainability offices value the new
technologies in terms of establishing a ‘‘green’’ campus culture.
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