What can CMU do to help Pittsburgh become a startup hub? Be an even better research university. CMU is one of the best universities in the world, but imagine what things would be like if it were the very best, and everyone knew it. There are a lot of ambitious people who must go to the best place, wherever it is—if it’s in Siberia. If CMU were it, they would all come here. There would be kids in Kazakhstan dreaming of one day living in Pittsburgh.
Being that kind of talent magnet is the most important contribution universities can make toward making their city a startup hub. In fact it is practically the only contribution they can make.
But wait, shouldn’t universities be setting up programs with words like “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” in their names? No, they should not. These kind of things almost always turn out to be disappointments. They’re pursuing the wrong targets. The way to get innovation is not to aim for innovation but to aim for something more specific, like better batteries or better 3D printing. And the way to learn about entrepreneurship is to do it, which you can’t in school.
I know it may disappoint some administrators to hear that the best thing a university can do to encourage startups is to be a great university. It’s like telling people who want to lose weight that the way to do it is to eat less.
But if you want to know where startups come from, look at the empirical evidence. Look at the histories of the most successful startups, and you’ll find they grow organically out of a couple of founders building something that starts as an interesting side project. Universities are great at bringing together founders, but beyond that the best thing they can do is get out of the way. For example, by not claiming ownership of “intellectual property” that students and faculty develop, and by having liberal rules about deferred admission and leaves of absence.
A very interesting piece, throughout and a must-read.