Should STEM graduates in Ireland and in the EU be taught to be more entrepreneurial? If so, how?

New and innovative Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) organisations are driven by and benefit from STEM graduates able to innovate, develop and deliver value to society. As the funding and number of people in research increases (DETE, 2021), there is a growing focus on increasing the impact, commercialisation, and valorisation of research, be it commercially or government funded. This has increased interest in making universities ‘more entrepreneurial’ and implies that in addition to being excellent researchers and knowledge-experts, STEM graduates may also need to be more entrepreneurial.

With increasing numbers of people qualified to PhD level (Hilliard, 2017), the Irish government’s Action Plan for Education 2019 emphasised supporting more PhD graduates entering the private sector assuming that PhD graduates will support innovation and promote the development of new products and services. The employment of highly specialised PhD graduates in commercial businesses can be challenging, especially if their areas of expertise don’t align with industry demands. One suggested solution has been to build better connections and networks to facilitate more coordination, and so greater valorisation and employment of PhD graduates. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘the innovation quadruple helix of industry, education, government and civil society’. Community-based teaching and research has also been proposed as a way to match research effort and non-commercial goals.

Anecdotally, there is a belief that a lot of research, such as is conducted in completing PhDs, is insufficiently applied (valorised) and after graduation remains ‘left on the shelf’. The actual extent of this potentially untapped value has not been quantified to our knowledge. It is in this context, that the STEM valorise project aims to increase the value, impact and employability of STEM graduates through the development of a bespoke training programme for STEM post grads. To inform the design of this training programme, we recently performed an initial review to identify what skills would support STEM valorisation and posed the following two questions:

  1. What entrepreneurial / valorisation skills, if any, are STEM students being taught?’
  2. Distinct from the status quo (question 1), what should STEM students be taught to increase the valorisation achieved by STEM graduates?.

We found that academic discussions have tended to be holistic and general. Typically, the relevant literature is based on small numbers of case studies or anecdotal experience. Be it at national (Hladchenko, 2016) or at institutional (Lundqvist & Middleton, 2013) level, valorisation is treated as an ephemeral, fragile, complex and poorly understood process, with complexity affected by dozens of potential factors. Importantly for the STEM valorise project our initial review found no concrete findings that address the research questions.

Therefore, we looked beyond graduate valorisation to the related area of entrepreneurship education which has strong overlap with valorisation. Nabi et al., (2017) echoed Sirelkhatim & Gangi (2015) and highlighted a lack of specific detail regarding what entrepreneurship education entails and worryingly, found that measured impact of EE is small and sometimes negative.  Since these review papers in 2015 and 2017, more promising studies have been published providing more concrete answers using experimental designs (Åstebro & Hoos, 2020; Camuffo et al., 2020; Chatterji et al., 2019).

The most robust of these studies used randomised controlled trials. They assessed entrepreneurs using a scientific experimental approach compared to a standard application of heuristics during the idea viability assessment phase (Camuffo et al., 2020). The control group were taught standard accelerator training. The ‘scientific approach’ focused on formalising early stage decision-making strategy regarding whether entrepreneurial start-ups should proceed/ pivot or abandon an idea based on scientific experiments (Camuffo et al., 2020). The programme included setting falsifiable hypotheses and pre-defined thresholds for decision making. The participating entrepreneurs ran trials to see if their pre-set thresholds for decision making were met or not with the predefined thresholds mitigating potential bias. The studies found greater revenue and survival among the treatment (scientific approach) group compared to the control group months after the course.

STEM researchers are (most likely) already familiar with many of the scientific concepts, and this approach could be readily applied to STEM research valorisation efforts. Increased value could be derived by applying existing scientific skills to new contexts. There may therefore be significant potential to increase the success of valorisation efforts with a relatively modest investment. Whether the scientific approach is beneficial for other forms of valorisation than just entrepreneurship remains to be tested.

Beyond the value of a ‘scientific approach’ that will be tested within the STEM valorise project, it is not yet clear how STEM graduates should be trained so they can valorise their research to a greater extent. Equally, the specific research approaches that should be implemented to address these questions are also not clear yet. Development of detailed recommendations on future research in this area will provide a valuable output of the STEM valorise project. If you have insights or views on what should be included in a training programme for STEM postgrads, or how such training should be implemented please email niall.oleary@mtu.ie.

Authored by Niall O Leary (MTU)

References

Åstebro, T., & Hoos, F. (2020). Impact measurement based on repeated randomized control trials: The case of a training program to encourage social entrepreneurship. Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, 1–78. https://doi.org/10.1002/sej.1391

Camuffo, A., Cordova, A., Gambardella, A., & Spina, C. (2020). A scientific approach to entrepreneurial decision making: Evidence from a randomized control trial. Management Science, 66(2), 564–586. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2018.3249

Chatterji, A., Delecourt, S., Hasan, S., & Koning, R. (2019). When does advice impact startup performance? Strategic Management Journal, 40(3), 331–356. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2987

DETE. (2021). The Research and Development Budget (R&D) 2019-20. 1–105. https://dbei.gov.ie/en/Publications/Research-and-Development-Budget-2015-16.html

Hilliard, M. (2017). Doctorates on the double: Ireland’s PhD holders multiplying. Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/doctorates-on-the-double-ireland-s-phd-holders-multiplying-1.3303222

Hladchenko, M. (2016). Knowledge valorisation: A route of knowledge that ends in surplus value (an example of the Netherlands). International Journal of Educational Management, 30(5), 668–678. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJEM-12-2014-0167

Lundqvist, M. A., & Middleton, K. L. W. (2013). Academic entrepreneurship revisited – university scientists and venture creation. Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, 20(3), 603–617. https://doi.org/10.1108/JSBED-04-2013-0059

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