The penultimate webinar in the Autumn series explored innovation and entrepreneurship from a student perspective. We invited students as well as representatives of HEIs and international organisations to discuss how to best connect students with real life situations, how to develop their entrepreneurial skills, and how to make teaching more effective. As before, the discussion was moderated by Rebecca Allinson, Managing Partner at Technopolis Group. She was joined by the following contributors:
- Cristina Santini – an Associate Professor at the Università San Raffaele in Rome, Italy. Cristina’s research revolves around topics of entrepreneurship, sustainability and strategic management with a focus on the agribusiness sector and entrepreneurship in small and medium enterprises
- Denzel Basso – a MA student in Management Engineering and also the Secretary General of Junior Enterprises Europe, a network of over 33.000 students who are junior entrepreneurs complementing their university education with real-life entrepreneurial experience
- Frank Gielen – Professor of Software Technology Entrepreneurship at the University of Ghent, and the Education Director at the EIT InnoEnergy. Frank has extensive experience with R&D in the telecommunication and software technology sector, as well as in university-industry collaborative research, raising venture capital, and spin-off creation
A poll launched during the webinar indicated that the participants to the webinar were business people, Higher Education managers, academic members of staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students, viz a spectrum that broadly represents the stakeholders of innovation and entrepreneurship. There were many questions from the public about the themes discussed.
Frank explained that innovation and entrepreneurship are the two pillars that will allow us to achieve the objective of climate neutrality by 2050: it is through an entrepreneurial approach to solving problems that students will find the commitment and the motivation required to face the energy challenge. According to Frank, there have been two drivers that have accelerated a new form of learning:
- The Covid-19 crisis pushed us to teach remotely and forced us to rethink our pedagogical approach
- The act of designing new learning solutions got us to understand that the more successful solutions are those with which the target audience (i.e. students) is familiar, rather than those with which the teachers are comfortable with
Frank described a learning solution that is in fact a game: The Battle of Green Talent is an online entrepreneurship game which simulates the real-life market dynamic of a start-up company. The aim is to generate innovative ideas for sustainable energy in a true entrepreneurial ecosystem. The four key features of the game are:
- students from the Energy Master programme across Europe play the part of entrepreneur and some become founders of start-up companies
- students on any degree course are recruited as talents by entrepreneurs who may need to complement their entrepreneurial skills with marketing, design, IT expertise etc
- students from business schools play the role of investors; as venture capitalists, they challenge the student entrepreneurs to value their company and learn about investing in clean energy and technology
- the role of advisors is played by faculty members, industry experts, or external advisors who are there to represent the stakeholders of a local entrepreneurial ecosystem
Cristina talked about the challenges an academic researcher has to confront when researching and teaching about the needs of SME stakeholders and gave us an insight into how students responded to experience-based learning. She summarised the main difficulties encountered as follows:
- Figuring out who the stakeholders really are
- Making the teaching more effective
- Managing the academic-practitioner gap
Understanding who stakeholders really are as people - i.e. listening to their needs and learning how to speak a common language - were all identified as important and challenging steps for the students to take. Cristina presented examples of effective teaching that have emerged from the International Student Competition and the Wine Lab, an Erasmus Plus project aimed at generating innovation based on practice and research. The International Student Competition is an initiative in which individual or teams of students within a classroom, or across different schools and across geographical regions, enter a competition whereby they are required to act as facilitators for fostering a dialogue among stakeholders, while nurturing their own entrepreneurial skills. The long-term aspiration of the programme was to establish a more authentic connection between students and local agribusiness landscapes.
The Wine Lab too helped to stimulate a dialogue between university students and practitioners: students travelled to other countries to experience wine week so that they could confront the issues that wineries in disadvantaged areas often encounter. One important insight emerging from this experiential learning is how SMEs tend to focus on short term solutions and see ‘reaching a solution’ as the outcome of the collaboration; however, the complexity of the agribusiness sector is such that the issues cannot easily be rationalised in an academic way, or cannot be resolved so quickly; rather, a discussion on how to find a creative work around to the issues may be what the collaboration can offer. Cristina also reflected on the fact that the casting students as facilitators works well because entrepreneurs tend to respond to people who come up spontaneously with ideas: entrepreneurs found an empathetic relationship with students which they found more difficult to establish with academic staff.
Denzel talked about Junior Enterprises Europe, a network linking 33,000 student entrepreneurs and 356 junior enterprises in 16 European countries. Student entrepreneurs have the opportunity to forge work-ready skills by complementing their university education with non-formal education and real-life entrepreneurial experience. Junior Enterprises are non-profit organisations, formed and managed exclusively by Higher Education students, which provide services for companies, institutions and individuals; their overarching goal is to enhance the learning of their members through practical experiences. Denzel gave the example of a project called 1000, an initiative created for the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath whereby Junior Enterprises provide pro bono services to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Denzel highlighted the value of being part of a network for students and explained that students can connect well to the real problems of SMEs because they tend to share experiences and learn by doing. Cristina mentioned how there is “empathy” between students and SMEs, and Frank talked about the importance for students to experience being part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and understand its connections. As the speakers shared their experiences, it became apparent that the common thread emerging from their accounts was the value of connectedness.
You can watch the edited recording of the webinar here.