Students’ roles in entrepreneurial ecosystems at universities

With examples from NTNU

By Dag Håkon Haneberg – Associate Professor, Engage

“a set of interdependent actors and factors coordinated in such a way that enables productive entrepreneurship within a particular territory”

Stam and Spigel, 2017

The above definition is a recent yet quite referred definition of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Different ecosystems vary a lot in terms of their characteristics and resources, and different types of ecosystem has been related to entrepreneurial activity in a region. In later years, the individuals within the ecosystem has received increased attention (Lesniak and Sørheim, 2019), such as how students leverage entrepreneurial ecosystems at universities (Wright et al., 2017).

University Entrepreneurship through Student Entrepreneurship

Students are indeed known to benefit from entrepreneurial ecosystems, and the high growth in entrepreneurship education (which you can read more about HERE) has led to an interest in the support for student entrepreneurship outside the classroom. Students create new ventures and student ventures often represents a majority of the entrepreneurial outputs from universities. Students may even be ‘surrogate entrepreneurs’ or ‘entrepreneurial agents’ taking a leading role in commercialising university research. Outputs in terms of new ventures created as provided by student entrepreneurs can be an important measure for the assessment of entrepreneurship education or other initiatives. You can read more about different assessment methods HERE. 

A general model of entrepreneurial ecosystems at universities is presented below (Miller and Acs, 2017). NTNU is quite a good example of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in this regard, having most of the types of actors found in the literature. Interestingly, many of these actors at NTNU are either involving students, led by students or even created by students.

Students’ Roles in Developing the Ecosystem

Students contribute to ecosystems far beyond starting ventures. First of all, the social events hosted by student organisations bring more individuals into the ecosystem. At NTNU, such events are for example hosted by Start NTNU, Spark NTNU and DRIV NTNU. There is a separate article explaining the activities of Spark NTNU HERE. Second, students at NTNU have also created ways of involving student organisations in the entrepreneurial ecosystem through the works of FRAM NTNU. Third, students are central in developing student entrepreneurs and student ventures through Spark NTNU. Fourth, students have also taken roles in connecting new university actors to the ecosystem, such as the case of DRIV NTNU and its Health-Tech Challenge. Last but not least, students have also taken roles in developing entirely new ecosystem actors, such as the incubator Gründerbrakka, where recent graduates working full-time in their new ventures can 

Students are Central Actors and Contributors

Through doing the above-mentioned activities, students contribute to entrepreneurial ecosystems at universities by: 1) Starting new ventures, 2) Leading and developing existing ecosystem actors, and 3) Co-creating new services and actors. Through all this, the ‘bottom-up’ student initiatives complement existing ‘top-down’ ecosystem structures, and students’ contributions are essential to help ecosystems adapt and develop.

Read more about the student initiatives

  • FRAM NTNU, an umbrella for student organisations working on entrepreneurial or innovative projects.
  • Spark* NTNU, student-to-student coaching in the entrepreneurial process.
  • Gründerbrakka, incubator for recent graduates.
  • DRIV NTNU, students’ health innovation arena.
  • Start NTNU, inspiring students for innovation and entrepreneurship.

References / Further Reading:

Lesniak, K., and Sørheim, R. (2019). 17 . The key drivers for emergence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem – the role of brokerage , role models and inspiration.

Miller, D. J., and Acs, Z. J. (2017). The campus as entrepreneurial ecosystem: the University of Chicago. Small Business Economics, 49(1), 75–95.

Stam, E., and Spigel, B. (2017). Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, forthcoming in: Blackburn. R., De Clercq, D., Heinonen, J. and Wang, Z.(Eds) Handbook for Entrepreneurship and Small Business. SAGE: London, UK.Wright,

M., Siegel, D. S., and Mustar, P. (2017). An emerging ecosystem for student start-ups. Journal of Technology Transfer, 42(4), 909–922.