Universities could be missing a key piece when they encourage entrepreneurship

Canadians launch approximately 80,000 new businesses each year,[1] and on international measures of entrepreneurship, Canada ranks third overall.[2] We’re a nation where 98 percent of businesses are small- and medium-sized (and mostly small),[3] with some of the highest rates of early-stage entrepreneurship in the OECD.[4] Entrepreneurship plays a critical role in the Canadian economy, helping to drive innovation and productivity.

As job precarity, disruptive tech and a changing economy affect the ways we live and work, experience working for— or launching — a start-up can help Canadians develop skills, experience, and resilience that may prove important. So it’s no surprise that universities are encouraging students to complement their university skills with entrepreneurial experience.

To some extent, this focus on entrepreneurship is nothing new. Business schools have taught entrepreneurship as a subject for decades. But, increasingly, universities are emphasizing new initiatives that directly engage students across the entrepreneurial process, from coming up with a business idea, to scaling-up their own companies.

Reconciling the culture of universities and that of entrepreneurship is a challenge and may prompt cognitive dissonance. After all, universities are large institutions with complex governance systems that can be slow to react, with deeply entrenched silos among faculties and departments. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, requires a fast-paced and approach, taking risks and drawing on multiple disciplines.

When we convened stakeholders to discuss the role of universities within entrepreneurship ecosystems, we heard that the extent to which universities successfully develop a culture of entrepreneurship— pivoting towards more responsive, interdisciplinary approaches—may depend on the institution. Some felt that older, more traditional universities can struggle more than those with a longer history of community engagement and experimental approaches to education.

Even within universities, the extent to which faculties embrace entrepreneurship can vary from one to another. Engineering and computer science students tend to easily embrace incubator programs, for example. But faculties such as medicine or dentistry— despite constant technological innovation in their fields— seem slower to embrace entrepreneurship as part of the educational experience.

Of course, developing an entrepreneurial culture on a university campus is an ongoing process, and there’s no agreement in Canada on how to measure the extent to which a university can be considered “entrepreneurial.” There’s also no agreement on what an “entrepreneurial culture” actually is (so take this blog post with a grain of salt). As we were told by stakeholders, it’s more of a mindset or an atmosphere than a set of metrics.

And, establishing an entrepreneurial culture isn’t simple. Constructing a cool-looking building and giving it a flashy name doesn’t automatically fill it with engaged, entrepreneurially-minded students and faculty. Through our discussions with stakeholders, we found that there seems to be broad consensus that successful entrepreneurship initiatives receive buy-in across all levels of the university— from students to senior administrators. And depending on the scope and objectives of the initiative, collaborating with partners in the broader community can also have an impact as the university feeds into — and benefits from —  support for entrepreneurship across a city or region.

What’s clear is that entrepreneurship on Canadian campuses is more than a fad. As universities look for creative and responsive ways to equip students with skills and experience for a changing workforce, it will be interesting to see if the seemingly juxtaposed cultures of universities and entrepreneurship can become more aligned.

To learn more about this growing area of focus for universities, read our newest report, Entrepreneurs on Campus: University-Based Support for Start-ups.




Mitacs empowers Canadian innovation through effective partnerships that deliver solutions to our most pressing problems. By driving economic growth and productivity, we create meaningful change to improve quality of life for all Canadians.