Business incubators are a particular form of organisation that aim at developing clusters of connected businesses. Business incubators came into the scene in the 1950s and they have played a vital role in boosting the innovation and growth of some advanced economies in the world. In the United Kingdom for instance, there are over 300 incubators and they have succeeded in supporting over 12,000 businesses which translate to more employment.
The university campus is the playground for students who are entrepreneurial and willing to test their knowledge and skills. Nigerian universities ought to rise up to the challenge of setting up business incubators to help and support these students take their innovative dreams to reality. The incubators can be set up as research labs with links to business experts in the industry. Also, the university should be able to link these students to investors some of which can be alumni.
Some of the benefits of business incubators to students and universities include
You can't teach entrepreneurship; no matter how great a lecturer you are. The realities of creating and running a business is not something that can be easily taught in a few hours of class sessions. Simply put, your business is the best case study. Incubators provide students with the opportunity to put the lessons they've been taught to practice. and with the right support and resources, a ‘trial’ can become the next unicorn.
In Nigeria today, the average company wants a fresh graduate who has at least 2 years experience and that's putting it mildly. Some go as far as insisting it must be post NYSC (which I think should be scrapped ). University incubators can fill this gap by providing real working experience on an actual company for students who are willing to get their hands dirty.
We can disagree to agree that there is a skills gap in the workforce of the country. Many graduates particularly in the sciences are not equipped with the practical skills needed to get actual jobs done. Most students just cram those few lines of codes just to pass the exam or learn the technical jargons for the grades (I've done it too). University incubators can provide the practical training on skills needed for the workplace. They'll also get the chance to use these skills to create products or features or enhancements.
Suggested Read: Of certifications and Nigeria’s problem of unemployable graduates.
In Nigeria today, who you know determines how far you go. We call it ‘connect’ or ‘connections’. Well it's nothing unique to Nigeria. It happens everywhere else (maybe not as bad) but it is called networking. Incubators create an environment that brings the best minds together. Collaborating with another venture working on a cool project can eventually land you a better paying job one way or the other. It is also possible that one of the founders you had a quick chat with by the cafe at the incubator just raised a big round. Just remember the rule of thumb for networking - be interesting and have something to offer. Incubator programs provide you with the relationships relevant to your field.
Universities can help bring jobs to their local community by leveraging on incubators to build successful companies.
The cliche example is Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley in the San Francisco area is home to some of the well known technology entrepreneurs and businesses. As a result, the San Francisco area has seen a huge rise in its economy. For instance, since 2010, San Francisco private-sector employers have added more than 67,000 jobs for a 15 percent gain. That made San Francisco the second fastest-growing large county in the U.S as measured by private sector employment. The tech-driven growth helped generate total business tax revenues of $480 million in the 2012–2013 fiscal year, exceeding 2009–10 levels by $126 million, or 36%. These gains helped to maintain and grow services.
Although the success in the Bay Area (Silicon Valley) is not attributed to technology incubators, they can act as a channel through which such success can be repeated. Evidence from the US suggests that the proportion of university spin-off companies is higher in research parks (incubators) that are older and closer to the university main campus.
Whichever way you look at it, it is a big deal to be the institution that gives birth to most of the successful technology companies in the country. Everybody wants to associate with the Harvards, Stanfords, MITs, Oxfords and Cambridge because they are one of the universities producing some of the world's most valuable technology companies. There are many factors that contribute to this success: curriculum, location, entrepreneurship programs, etc. But the most important factor is the community or networks that graduates can access.
There is a debate on the value of university education for aspiring entrepreneurs; the fact that some of history’s most successful startups – IBM, Apple, Facebook – were all founded by college dropouts is enough to spark that debate. However, it is important to be reminded that these entrepreneurs first got into prestigious institutions and were always surrounded by innovators.
Universities in Nigeria can learn a thing or two from this. Including entrepreneurship into university curriculum is a step in the right direction which many universities have taken. A step further from this is creating enabling environment for the startup culture to thrive and one way of doing this is setting up a university business incubator.