The Natural Entrepreneurial Playgrounds

Germany needs more entrepreneurs. But while recent surveys agree that 25% to 30% of young scientists have good chances for creating a start-up, only 5% currently dare to take this step. In our ongoing series, Next Wave Germany and the Berlin Institute of Entrepreneurship have invited leading experts to discuss ways in which the culture of entrepreneurship can be fostered at German universities. This week, Günter Faltin, professor at the Fre University Berlin, Germany, and founder of the highly successful Teekampagne, tells us what Universities can do to foster the entrepreneurial interests of young scientists and eventually to make university the breeding ground for new, visionary ideas.

Joseph Schumpeter brought it to our attention. The entrepreneur is an innovator who introduces entirely new products or processes to the market. Entrepreneurship is a new beginning, an affront against established businesses. It results in "creative destruction," as Schumpeter himself described it. That is quite different than mere "business administration," in spite of the need for effective administration in both cases.

The market is the natural enemy of businesses that do not innovate. But it is your friend if you introduce a truly good and thoroughly developed business idea or "business model," as the new economy evangelists would say.

Of course not all conventions are bad. Reinventing the wheel won't be necessary. But conventions are often out-dated: New technologies and new forms of organisation have appeared, or buyers' needs have changed.

Is there an institution more appropriate than the university where conventions can be questioned? Theoretically, no. Universities, founded through citizens' resistance to the church and the feudal lords telling the lower classes what to do, continue to exist in the tradition of critically analysing our existence as we know it.

Scientific-systematic thinking is an excellent tool for rejecting what merely appears to be true and for seeing through private interests. The average student is younger, less biased, more curious, and more critical than other members of society are; they are also not yet so imprisoned by status-oriented professional or financial interests. Additionally they are also more willing to commit themselves to ideas that benefit the community. To enable this, the entrepreneurial initiative must be cast further to include disciplines beyond the natural and engineering sciences; it must also involve social and cultural sciences.

The critical analysis of social problems is an excellent breeding ground for new ideas. Compared to daily life in companies--its deadline pressure, its blindness to its own problems--the university has definite advantages in terms of freedom and interactive working styles, which normally are not available to businesses. Idea creation and development are the areas in which the universities should feel at home.

Considering this background, it is amazing how little independent and creative thought and action actually occurs in the universities. While students in the United States or Great Britain identify with their colleges and universities, and even view them as a part of their heimat, surveys in Germany show that most German students experience the university as a faceless factory of knowledge with dated, overloaded, and badly organised content. The students have accordingly little motivation to view the university as the focal point in their lives and to unfold initiatives. Professors, for their part, are not honoured for their joy in invention, but rather for looking askance at the composition of the boards in charge of decision-making. They are further honoured for their talent in sensing the political orientation of a research program, and for their knowledge of the finesses of attaining funds and having expenses covered.

Diversity is not dominant; orientation on the (immanent and narrow) logic of one's subject area is king. Understanding the complexity of reality is not encouraged, but rather methodical rigorism and subject egoism. It is this background that led Peter Glotz, a German politician specialized on educational structures, to drastically describe the German university as "rotten to the core." It is obvious that the university has behaved counter-productively towards the goals of a culture of entrepreneurship.

Is there another way to imagine the setting?

The university (not only, but also) as a centre of entrepreneurship, with work groups which question and process knowledge, which work on idea development, and where students found new companies with their professors? The university as a breeding ground with a flow of new, visionary ideas? The university as an assembly of the entrepreneurial avant-garde? Sounds far-fetched? But doesn't something like this already exist--at least, traces of it?

New ideas and experiments need locations that make openness, play, and trial and error possible. Creating and developing an entrepreneurial idea and introducing it to the market is certainly one of the most exciting, lively, and learning-intensive student projects imaginable. It could be worthwhile to view teaching and learning at the university as a breeding ground for good and useful ideas for society!

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