Would it be possible to expand the commercialisation of tech if research were put in the hands of entrepreneurial students? The question arose during a conversation between Chalmers researcher Sören Sjölander and the business development agency of the day, Nutek. Mats Lundqvist, director of Chalmers’s School of Entrepreneurship, remembers how Sjölander presented the question to him:
“I had just finished my thesis, in which I had found that those who work efficiently and successfully in industrial projects also learn a lot. That’s the way we work today, but back then it was new. I thought, here we have a teaching method.”
Social skills important
Lundqvist and Sjölander cofounded Chalmers’s School of Entrepreneurship based on three core elements: Students will learn through hands-on work. They will manage and create value out of research results that don’t have built-in impetus. And they will do it in teams.
“My thesis showed that successful entrepreneurship is not, contrary to popular belief, about individual heroes starting one exciting company after another,” Lundqvist says. “It’s actually about people working together. Social skills have always been important to us.”
Even today, only about 20 universities worldwide provide this type of instruction. Back in 1997, no one did. So Chalmers was the first, alongside two universities in the United States, which started at the same time, unbeknownst to each other.
There is no doubt that the teaching method in which students manage research results and act as surrogate entrepreneurs has been highly successful. Of tech-based start-up companies that have developed from Swedish incubators, Chalmers companies represent fully 40% of revenues, while five other universities represent 10% each.
“We are four times better, thanks to our student-run projects,” Lundqvist says. “Otherwise we’d be at the same level as the others.”
Part of a bigger start-up environment
Of course, the School of Entrepreneurship is not freestanding; it is part of a start-up environment that has developed over time. At the turn of the millennium, a “third-party” incubator – Encubator – was founded that not only invested, but also helped with partnership contracts between concept originators and students. A few years later, in 2003, the prospects for strong business foundations got another boost when the Intellectual Capital Management profile track became a part of the school.
“That brought in legal competence among all the engineers,” Lundqvist says, “which is an important combination. This track also exists at Gothenburg University, which means that we also have access to their skills. The importance of this became extra-clear in 2006, when the school’s language switched to English and we created a track for bio-entrepreneurship, which also exists in the Sahlgrenska Academy.”
Huge investment in the start-up environment
Two years ago, Chalmers invested SEK 450 million (of which 300 million were investment resources) to rally our forces and further enhance our environments, which were already strong internationally. At the same time, we merged the two incubators Chalmers Innovation and Encubator with their seed capital funds and founded Chalmers Ventures. This brought our start-up environment out of the “garage” level to “flagship operation”. At the rudder of the operation was Linnéa Lindau, a former student of the School of Entrepreneurship.
“The Chalmers Venture initiative is a step on the path to Chalmers becoming a genuine entrepreneurial university,” she says. “Currently the School of Entrepreneurship is a diamond in the rough with some 50 students, but ten years down the line, we expect that all Chalmers students will have entrepreneurial experience when they graduate. The undergraduate programme is already pursuing a project to this end.”
Students learn to take on the future
What do the students take home from all this? The tools to tackle “an uncertain future,” Lindau says. “It’s all about the insight that you have to create it yourself.” But that’s not enough.
“You can’t control the world,” Lindau says, “but you can train yourself to understand the map or the system you work within. And from there you learn to navigate towards your goal.”
Learning with a lot of emotions
The year of entrepreneurial school is also very much about emotions. Sometimes it’s all high-fives and euphoria, sometimes it’s the opposite.
“And that itself is a teachable moment. It’s for real. So of course it’s best to be in a group where you can help each other out.
“We think the whole ‘lone hero’ scenario is a bit of a caricature. Most people can’t do everything themselves, especially not now when the world is so complex. You need to interact with other people, you need to be able to build up networks, collaborate, get people interested, get them involved.”
Entrepreneur becomes intrapreneur
In 2013, Chalmers’s School of Entrepreneurship started its latest profile track – Corporate Entrepreneurship, or intrapreneurship. This is because several of Chalmers’s business partners have realised that they need to pursue entrepreneurship internally to avoid falling into the same trap that companies like Nokia and Kodak did. Now students are running a variety of development projects with them.
“And that’s the key to the future,” Lundqvist says. “Entrepreneurship is co-creation, both within and between different structures. Sometimes there’s a start-up company at the core, but often it occurs in established partnerships. Fully 70% of our students work with industrial companies. And the best part is that almost all of them have an entrepreneurial role, one that they adopted on their own accord.”
Text: Lasse Nicklasson
Lundqvist’s and Lindau’s six favourites from the Chalmers portfolio
Netclean: Makes software for locating and identifying child pornography. The company’s solutions are already being used by businesses, government agencies and internet suppliers in 110 countries. Started in 2003.
Vehco: A portmanteau of vehicle communications, they develop “apps for trucks” – but they started out before apps even existed. The company develops, markets and sells Fleet Management Systems (FMS) to hauliers in Europe. It employs 100 people and has sales of SEK 180 million.
Minesto: Develops the hydropower turbine Deep Green, a “kite” on a cable attached to the seabed that produces green energy from tidal currents. Named one of the cleverest inventions of 2010 by Time Magazine. Headquartered in Gothenburg with a subsidiary in the UK.
Swedish Algae Factory: The company’s concept is based on using shell material from algae, whose cell walls consist of a nanoporous silicon dioxide, to make solar panels more efficient. The production process also results in a nutrient-dense organic biomass, along with purified water. Founded at the School of Entrepreneurship in 2014.
Oxeon: The company’s carbon fibre woven tape has completely wowed the composite industry. The ultra-light, strong solution is used in everything from ice hockey clubs to aeroplanes. Started at Chalmers in 2003.
Mimbly: Has developed a clever module that can be installed on washing machines to purify and reuse laundry wastewater. Founded as recently as last year at Chalmers’s School of Entrepreneurship. Mimbly was the only Swedish start-up to earn a place in IKEA’s new accelerator programme last autumn. A total of 1,300 applicant companies were accepted in the programme.
FACTS: Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship and Chalmers Ventures
- Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship started 1997 as action-based entrepreneurship education with the aim to also be a tech transfer scaling mechanism for promising R&D results in need of driving-force.
- Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship and what is now Chalmers Ventures have close collaboration since the start and has led to about five startups per year.
- Chalmers Ventures and Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship is, by far, Sweden’s leading startup environment: Startups from Chalmers account for 40% of all revenue generated by tech ventures at 21 leading Swedish incubators (2012).
- Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship became a top-ranked entrepreneurship education (Swedish government after international peer review 2009)
- Chalmers Ventures became top-ranked European incubator (UBI-index 2014)