2021 Ecosystem Predictions —What to Expect from Research Universities in 2021 and Beyond

There is nothing like a crisis to bring entrepreneurs out of the woodwork. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered thousands of existing small businesses and startups, with the service sector taking an especially devastating blow. Yet another historic phenomenon has begun to show: energized by new problems and market opportunities, entrepreneurs are forming new businesses at a record pace.

A similar tide is rising inside higher education, as the challenges of the last year have demanded our creativity and innovation. From teaching through new virtual learning formats to the rapid adoption of digital collaboration tools to sustain experiential learning, sometimes it has seemed that it is not only the classroom, but the entire campus, that has flipped. Student entrepreneurs are especially energized; across programs offered by the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Arkansas, from workshops to our design teams programs to the incubator-like Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship, we saw record participation in 2020. Motivated by societal problems and equipped with new pockets of free time, students created new products and businesses from their dorm rooms and parents’ basements.

Meanwhile, faculty researchers and, in some cases, entire academic departments retooled to focus on the creation and distribution of PPE, ventilators, and resources for people and businesses affected by the economic crisis. We moved so much more quickly. We focused so much more clearly, especially on what we – the state’s flagship, land grant institution – uniquely can do. Other universities reported the same effect. This improved institutional agility will power the following trends in 2021 and years to come:

1 Asynchronous, lifelong learning through one’s home university will become the norm. In other words, the “materials” of a class – lectures, readings, videos – will be available to a student on their own schedule, on-demand. And irrespective of the pursuit of a formal degree, students will access university coursework and programs frequently, or even continuously, over their careers – possibly through membership or subscription models.

Entrepreneurs from the community will look to the university to identify complementary co-founders, bringing industry problems to the people who are best equipped to solve them. In-person class time will often look more like a peer learning lab than a traditional instructional setting.

2021 Mantra

“What is not started will never get finished.”

Entrepreneurial students have always been impatient with curricular timelines – ideas move at their own speed, and so do businesses – but this is now the case for a great many more students. Serving them well requires being creative not just with the extracurricular incubation and training programs that help them define problems, create products, and launch companies…but also with the classes and degree structures at the heart of their academic lives. Our Innovation Toolkit course, which allows students to pick and choose from a large assortment of workshops to move their ideas forward, is one example of this.

2 The distinction between startups and “social ventures” will blur, and eventually disappear. This will happen first inside universities. As an almost universal rule, Generation Z has lost trust in conventional startup economics; many are allergic to the very idea of venture capital and any model that values value rapid growth above all else. They want to bootstrap their companies and grow them sustainably.

If they are in software or the “deep tech” domains, they demand new models for financing the research and development needed to reach the market. The latter trend can be challenging for entrepreneurship educators, because alternative financing models are proliferating so quickly that the textbook quite literally has not been written. The best educators will get in the fray with their students, admit their uncertainty about emerging models, and enjoy the opportunity to question the system while helping students understand its realities.

3 Studying abroad won’t require a passport. Faced with a global pandemic and too many student retention and engagement problems to count, most universities simply cancelled their study abroad programs. But a few creative people looked with fresh eyes at those programs and understood that study abroad – particularly in the context of innovation and entrepreneurship – is, at its heart, not about the travel but about the human connections across cultures and markets. Dr. Rogelio Garcia-Contreras and Dr. Raj Rao at the University of Arkansas reimagined a “Global Changemakers” study abroad for the pandemic era, creating a virtual environment where students enrolled in their course at the U of A worked collaborative with students at a partner institution in India. They reengineered the hands-on part of the study abroad to focus on problem-solving and innovation related to COVID-19.

The students met weekly, compared the results of customer discovery in their respective environments, and developed ideas and prototypes together. Reports I’ve heard from their mentors and the students themselves suggest this class was every bit as meaningful as a trip around the world, and without the barriers of cost, the study abroad experience can be made accessible to any student innovator.

4 Finally, as a society, jarred awake by the specter of COVID-19 at all our doorsteps, we will finally reinvest in basic research. For decades, national and state-level investment in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has been on a downward trend. Industry-sponsored research has grown, which is good, but these are not net neutral trends. Companies understandably support research that tackles known problems or advances technologies toward market readiness. Basic research, on the other hand, explores the unknown to advance our fundamental understanding of the natural, physical, and human world. When I was in high school in the early 1990s a little-known Hungarian scientist worked furiously to understand the mechanics of messenger RNA – the bridge molecule between DNA and the proteins that drive biological systems in the human body and everywhere. Her name was Katalin Kariko, and her work was deemed unfundable by all but the National Science Foundation. Yet what she discovered—in essence, that mRNA could be employed to create any protein you might desire—was a necessary piece of the scientific foundation that allowed the eventual development of the two COVID-19 vaccines that will soon unshackle us from the pandemic so that we can return to the business of everyday life. Without re-invigorated investment in the bedrock science that makes innovation possible, not only will we fail to equip ourselves for future pandemics, but also for climate change, water scarcities, food systems repair, floods, or any number of other crises that bear down upon the 21st century. Universities are stubborn institutions, and for all the change we are creating to better serve students in an uncertain future, one constant is the refusal to yield the academic freedoms and structures that make the discovery of new knowledge possible. Sometimes it takes a wake-up call for the world to understand why.

About Sarah Goforth

As Executive Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Sarah Goforth trains student-entrepreneurs and oversees the team responsible for the development and execution of innovation and entrepreneurship programs for students, faculty, and alumni of the University of Arkansas, including the McMillon Innovation Studio and Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub.