The Role of Research Universities in U.S. College-Town Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

63 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2017

See all articles by Haifeng Qian

Haifeng Qian

University of Iowa

Xin Yao

University of Colorado at Boulder

Date Written: March 20, 2017


This project focuses on the role of research universities in U.S. college-town entrepreneurial ecosystems. Combining regression analysis and in-depth interviews, we systematically evaluate various roles that anchor research universities can play both in assisting entrepreneurs and in building regional entrepreneurial ecosystems.

In the quantitative part of the project, we examine factors associated with the entrepreneurial activities of 53 U.S. college-town metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). We find no evidence that the presence of university entrepreneurship programs such as entrepreneurship degrees or certificates, incubators, research parks, or Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) significantly improves the startup rate of college towns. Similarly, the number of college graduates relative to the metro size and the university research and development (R&D) in science and technology fields are not significantly associated with startup activities. In the qualitative part of the project, we compare and contrast the cases of two college towns — Boulder, CO and Iowa City, IA — through information gathered from semi-structured interviews. We report both similarities and differences in the entrepreneurship efforts of the two anchor universities. We find that, facing a much less entrepreneurial environment, the University of Iowa plays a more visible role in its regional entrepreneurial ecosystem than the University of Colorado.

Based on our results, the following practices emerged as desirable ways that research universities can effectively participate in an entrepreneurial ecosystem of a college town:

• Cultivate the talent pipeline

• Utilize nationwide resources and best practices in entrepreneurship support

• Serve as brokers/connectors

• Raise awareness and change mindsets by building an on-campus entrepreneurial ecosystem embedded in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem

• Market both university entrepreneurship efforts and the entire regional entrepreneurial ecosystem

• Promote diversity

• Remove internal barriers, such as: bureaucracy and tardiness inherent in large organizations such as public universities; the culture of risk aversion and the lack of an entrepreneurial mindset; the “silo” university structure and subsequent fragmented on-campus entrepreneurship services; tenure policies that discourage — or at least do not encourage — faculty startup activities; technology transfer agreements that do not give inventors sufficient credit or incentives.

Keywords: Universities, Startups, Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, College Towns, Regional Development

Suggested Citation

Qian, Haifeng and Yao, Xin, The Role of Research Universities in U.S. College-Town Entrepreneurial Ecosystems (March 20, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Haifeng Qian (Contact Author)

University of Iowa ( email )

338 Jessup Hall, University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

HOME PAGE: http://

Xin Yao

University of Colorado at Boulder ( email )

1070 Edinboro Drive
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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