Many Ontario universities have struggled to design effective entrepreneurship programs for students, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show, raising questions about how institutions can meet the government’s hopes for an increase in such strategies.

Support for entrepreneurs is key to Ontario’s future, the auditor-general’s report released in the fall said, pointing out that small and medium-sized businesses can be key drivers of competitiveness. And a review of public funding for the province’s universities released in December said schools should consider bolstering their entrepreneurial and experiential courses.

But the documents provided to The Globe through an Access to Information request reveal that some institutions are still figuring out how entrepreneurship fits into their academic mission. Others are not clear about the goals of the programs they offer. The documents chronicle how 10 universities won one-time grants ranging from $950,000 to about $1.6-million from the Campus-Linked Accelerator program (CLA), a $20-million entrepreneurship program the province launched in 2013.

The proposals went through a three-stage review, first rated by external assessors, vetted by civil servants in the Ministry of Research and Innovation, and then resubmitted. Ministry sources said the goal of the grants was to use the money as an incentive for universities to pay more attention to entrepreneurship.

Others in government were skeptical.

“What are we trying to do? New enterprises? New exposure/experiences? Where does the money go?” one civil servant said, according to minutes of a meeting included in the documents.

Many external reviewers gave the initial proposals low marks, questioning excessive spending on salaries for staff and mentors, lack of interest from faculty, and seemingly exaggerated claims of the programs’ impact.

Yet, getting university-linked entrepreneurship programs right can drive regional innovation.

“If we don’t include an entrepreneurial mindset in university education, we are missing the boat,” said Judith Cone, the vice-chancellor of commercialization at the University of North Carolina, a school that has been recognized as driving innovation in the surrounding area. “We feel that we want all students to understand the world they’re going into. It’s a different economy that is very dependent on the startup sector.”

Closer to home, Communitech, a collaboration between government, the tech industry, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, has seen a quadrupling in the number of startups it has helped launch.

The Ontario government wanted to replicate that type of success, looking for plans that drew entrepreneurs from the communities around each university.

But in many cases, institutions wanted money for office space, equipment such as 3-D printers, marketing, seed funding for student companies and staff to help draft business plans and steer startups to viability.

The expert external reviewers often questioned those plans, arguing that part of becoming an entrepreneur is raising money. Some resources – such as mentorship – can be had for free in other ways, they also said. Different reviewers also gave the same proposal wildly different marks, with one strategy receiving a low of 37 and a high of 77.

At times, expert reviewers recommended funding in spite of their misgivings.

“Not even sure that the demand warrants this magnitude of investment but recommend support,” one reviewer said of a proposal from the University of Western Ontario, adding: “This gives the government what it needs in this community, a very big win here.” The plan eventually received $1.45-million in a partnership with London’s Fanshawe College.

Some of the universities said they also educated the government.

“We are not a for-profit incubator, we are an educational institution,” said Greg Bavington, the head of the Queen’s Innovation Connector (QIC), the entrepreneurial centre at Queen’s University.

Queen’s proposal was one that faced many questions in the vetting process, the documents show. Lack of faculty support was considered a weak area. And its $7,000 stipend for students in the summer QIC program was considered too high. The university persuaded the government that the stipend increased accessibility and was funded by alumni donations, not public grants.

Without the stipend, some students said they could not have participated.

“It’s tough to be an entrepreneur, you have hungry nights, you go to bed without food,” said Ahsen Basit, a commerce student who started a company through the Queen’s program. Mr. Basit came up with a location-based retail app that features small businesses in Kingston, Ont.

“With the money from QIC, you’re not going hungry. It was a great sandbox for me to figure out that I’m an entrepreneur.”

If individual successes are to translate into large-scale economic growth, however, employment and training programs need to set goals and evaluate if they have been met, the Ontario auditor-general’s report said.

It’s a conclusion that other innovation experts support.

“We have to look and see how much of a difference funding actually makes,” said Josh Lerner, a Harvard University professor of investment banking and the author of The Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed – and What To Do About It.

Dr. Lerner points to new assessment methods that compare companies or projects that received funding with those that barely missed the criteria.

Still, even if they are in the early stages, university entrepreneurship programs give students and community members a flavour of what it’s like to follow the market rather than just academic curiosity, said Mr. Bavington at Queen’s.

“A failure would be if at [the end of a program] we heard, ‘Well, that sucked, it blew up in my face,’” he said. “We have not heard that yet.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jan. 01, 2016 8:27PM EST
Last updated Friday, Jan. 01, 2016 8:27PM EST