Small Business Economics

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 75–95 | Cite as

The campus as entrepreneurial ecosystem: the University of Chicago



This paper employs Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis of American democracy to construct a framework for understanding the U.S. university campus as an entrepreneurial ecosystem. One question that immediately comes to mind when studying ecosystem performance is what the proper unit of analysis is: the country, the state, the city, the region, or something smaller, like an incubator or accelerator? This paper suggests that the open, innovative American frontier that closed at the end of the twentieth century has reemerged in the entrepreneurial economy on the U.S. campus. The contemporary campus entrepreneurial ecosystem offers the characteristics of Turner’s frontier: available assets, liberty, and diversity while creating opportunity, and fostering entrepreneurship and innovation. A case study of the University of Chicago explores governance of the campus as an entrepreneurial ecosystem and the output produced by that campus ecosystem.


Frontier Frederick Jackson Turner Growth Campus Ecosystem Higher education Unicorns Innovation American exceptionalism New venture creation 

JEL classification

B1 B2 I2 L26 M1 

1 Introduction

In March 2016, Forbes Magazine released its list of the world’s billionaires. Simply perusing the 100 richest people in the world suggests that student entrepreneurs from U.S. colleges and universities have impacted the world as much as any cohort on the list. The outsized impact of students that began the firm formation process on campus is glaring. Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, is #1 in the world, with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook at #6 while the Google founders come in at #12 and #13 (“The World’s Billionaires” 2016). Just a short leap away is Phil Knight of Nike at #24 and Michael Dell at #35 with Paul Allen, who left Microsoft in the early 1980s after cofounding the firm with Gates, at #40 spot globally (“The World’s Billionaires” 2016). There are many others on the list that trace their wealth to student created firms at U.S. universities. While there is a diversity of founders and fields of studies from a range of years and universities, their ventures were begun on a campus entrepreneurial ecosystem in the USA.The massive wealth these founders, their investors, and company leaders have accumulated is amazing, but as importantly it represents wealth many times that earned by employees, institutional and individual investors. Venture and angel investing also follows much of the student entrepreneurs’ successes, as accumulated wealth is put to work supporting the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. Marc Andreessen, creator of Netscape and cofounder of Adreessen Horowitz, a leading venture capital firm, is a very high profile example of such a student founder). The impact of the billionaire student founders includes jobs for thousands, millions in recurring revenues for tax collecting authorities, and work for professional service providers, suppliers, and partners. Not to mention many satisfied customers whose patronage led to their growth (Acs, Parsons and Tracy, 2008).

A recent study by Henrekson and Sinandaji (2013) suggests that using billionaire entrepreneur data from Forbes Magazine is a better indicator of the strength of entrepreneurial ecosystems than traditional measures such as income, self-employment, and new business formation. In exploring entrepreneurial ecosystems, Stam (2015) makes the point that they should produce successful entrepreneurs and firms. On this import measure, the U.S. campus has been very productive in recent decades (Miller 2015), appearing to offer a conducive environment for opportunity recognition and the beginning of the firm formation process.

Higher education and entrepreneurship are seen by researchers, policy makers, and members of the media as two societal institutions crucial to economic growth, job creation, and increased standards of living in the USA. While economists, sociologists, management thinkers, and others have weighed in on these two fields in increasing numbers, policies intended to spur high impact entrepreneurship and improve higher education output are difficult to validate. In many of the studies, the agents (entrepreneurs) and their interactions with institutions and other agents are keys to the successful functioning of the model. Whether the highly educated creative class in Florida’s (2002) work or the attitudes of individuals in Acs, Autio and Szerb’s (2014) Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, bringing the individual/entrepreneur directly into the model has become more the norm than the exception in recent research around sustainable, innovation led growth. This is an important advance that mirrors the increasing power of individuals in society and the economy more broadly.

The centrality of the entrepreneur in name and operational definition is what makes this new line of inquiry most exciting, regardless of which of the concepts of entrepreneurial ecosystems one subscribes to. Moving beyond systems theories and bringing the entrepreneur directly to the center of the framework is an important direction for research on ecosystems and sustainable economic growth. Multiple studies and authors (Isenberg 2014; Stam 2015) have made clear arguments that entrepreneurial ecosystems are a crucial line of inquiry given that we live in an entrepreneurial economy (Audretsch and Thurik 2000).

This paper will push the emerging discussion on entrepreneurial ecosystems in a new direction, exploring the U.S. college and university campus as an entrepreneurial ecosystem of its own. First, this paper will explore Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis (1894) and the process of the frontier and then will propose the campus a frontier which has developed into an entrepreneurial ecosystem as the contemporary campus entrepreneurial ecosystem appears to maintain the Turnerian characteristics of the frontier (available assets, liberty, and diversity) while creating opportunity and fostering entrepreneurship and innovation (Turner, 2008). Additionally, a visual representation of the campus entrepreneurial ecosystem will be presented with agents, institutions, assets, and culture. Next, a case study of the University of Chicago, a private research university, will be presented in order to better understand how one university has established an entrepreneurial ecosystem with global impact. The case study explores the governance of the campus as entrepreneurial ecosystem and the output produced by the ecosystem. In the final section, we hope to provide policy makers, researchers, local leaders, entrepreneurs, and others a frontier-based framework that provides value as they engage and build entrepreneurial ecosystems.

2 Turner and the frontier

In 1893, the American Historical Association held its annual meeting at the Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Colombian Exposition. The event, held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in North America, was also celebrating the arrival of the industrial era. No city better represented the dramatic change that was sweeping across a growing USA than Chicago.

While the fair introduced Cracker Jacks, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and countless marvels of science and culture from around the world, it also introduced the University of Chicago, founded in 1892, to the world. The World’s Fair in fact shared its grounds with the new university. The campus midway served as a border of the exposition, and the world’s first Ferris wheel was erected within sight of the newborn university’s first buildings.

Frederick Jackson Turner, a young historian, presented his paper, The Frontier in American History, at the AHA meeting taking place at the fair. Turner’s ideas would forever change the field of American studies and deepen various strains of American exceptionalism (Lipset, 1996). While most visitors to the fair looked to the future with wonder, Turner spoke of the United States’ frontier past and the outsized impact it had on developing American democracy, culture, and economy. Turner argued that the American frontier experience, which lasted nearly 400 years, provided periods and places for the continual renewal of politics, culture, and economics. Through those centuries of change and renewal, the USA became a new kind of nation with a new kind of citizen, both of which broke farther away from Europe as each successive frontier was breached. As Turner wrote, “Each new frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past” (Turner 1920, p. 38).

Turner the historian argued that the American people came out of the frontier, a dynamic, hybridized, innovating people who broke from European standards and, by choice and necessity, adapted to new conditions. Turner’s (1894) basic theory was that the unregulated, asset-rich areas known collectively as the American frontier, settled by a diverse lot of people, forged the unique American character, political entity, and institution-building process that holds liberty and economic self-determination as its ideal. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the frontier era ended in 1890, and Turner (1894) openly worried that the nation’s unique frontier character, society, and political system would be challenged by the industrial era it had entered.Turner argues that three main attributes of the frontier interacted to create an exceptional and egalitarian type of person, society, and set of institutions (Turner, 1894, 1920), which provided the unique institutions and national character that distinguished the USA from Europe.

First, Turner’s frontier offered great economic opportunities and available assets. This, of course, was a central reason some of the American colonies were founded, and the commercial opportunities of the frontier beckoned in a similar manner. During the colonial period, indentured servitude was the most popular method to get to the colonies (Galenson 1984). As the early colonies survived and eventually prospered, people began to push beyond the original colonies and settlements near the East Coast. Opportunities were available in all directions, from fur trapping and trading to fertile lands and mineral deposits. As successive waves of settlers arrived and moved further inland, they exploited timber, land, game, the rivers, mineral wealth, and other available economic assets. According to Turner (1894), the economic opportunity offered by the frontier lasted almost 400 years. Moreover, the waves of pioneers and the settlers who followed created huge and continually refreshing markets. Many fortunes were made “mining the miners.”

The second frontier attribute critical to shaping the American character and institutions was the fact that the frontier was what Turner referred to as “savage land,” well beyond the control of traditional European and coastal institutions, norms, and ways of life (Turner, 1894). Being beyond the reach of institutions on the coast that were modeled on European power centers gave people of the frontier greater control in shaping their own destinies. European institutions had few advocates on the frontier. Describing life “beyond the Alleghenies,” Turner wrote,

The pioneer was taught in the school of experience that the crops of one area would not do for a new frontier; that the scythe of the clearing must be replaced by the reaper of the prairies. He was forced to make old tools serve new uses; to shape former habits, institutions, and ideas to changed conditions; and to find new means when the old proved inapplicable. He was building a new society as well as breaking new soil; he had the ideal of nonconformity and of change. He rebelled against the conventional...Besides the ideals of conquest and of discovery, the pioneer had the ideal of personal development, free from social and governmental constraint. (1920, p. 228)

Not only was “the establishment” not dominant or even physically present on the frontier, the pioneers dealing with the reality of frontier life would not have benefited from European institutions and customs (Billington, 1966; Turner, 1920). In explaining how the nature of the frontier was inhospitable to established norms, Turner (1896) wrote, “The separation of the Western man from the seaboard, and his environment, made him a large degree free from European precedents and forces. He looked at things independently and with small regard or appreciation for the best Old World experience” (p. 5). Turner saw the frontier as a place of experimentation and independence—the new space for providing liberty.

It should be noted that, as new frontiers were pierced, institutions (political, educational, civic, economic, etc.) would be established and in many cases become hybrids of European institutions combined with frontier needs and practicality (Billington, 1966; Turner, 1906). Higher education was one such institution impacted by this process (Rudolph, 1990; Slosson, 1910). Early institutions would be modeled on the British college with a local influence, often the church, while in later years, the German research model would be imported, merged with the Americanized college, and further influenced by local economic and cultural norms and needs. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1861 is one such example of specific localities building to meet their local needs (Rudolph, 1990).

The third significant attribute that Turner highlights is the diverse group of people who settled in the American frontier (Turner, 1894). This diversity helped create a unique national identity, and supported the development of hybrid institutions and an evolving political and economic structure that deviated from European norms (Turner, 1894, 1920). In presenting his theory, Turner notes the basic diversity of the frontier versus the East Coast, even during early colonial times:

First, we note the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. The coast was predominantly English, but the later dies of continental immigration flowed across the free lands. This was the case from the early colonial days. The Scotch-Irish and the Palatine German, or “Pennsylvania Dutch,” furnished the dominant element in the stock of the colonial frontier. With these people were also freed indented servants, or redemptioners, who at the expiration of their time of service passed to the frontier. Governor Spotswood of Virginia wrote in 1717, “The inhabitants of our frontiers are composed generally of such as have been transported hither as servants, and, being out of their time, settle themselves where land is to be taken up and that will produce the necessary of life with little labour... Very generally, these redemptioners were of non-English stock. In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed-race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics. (Turner, 2008, p.27)

This diversity of population would continue for centuries through various waves of immigration and a mingling of peoples across the expanding nation. When mixed with the economic opportunity and lack of institutions on the frontier, the diverse population led to the exceptionalism that Turner writes about: a political, social, and economic culture that dramatically differentiated the USA from Europe.

Turner’s theory on the frontier’s crucial role in creating a new democracy and a new kind of person was meant to separate U.S. history from Europe (Hofstadter & Lipset, 1968; Turner, 1894, 1920). Turner argues that something truly unique had been created in the USA via the frontier experience. This was in stark contrast to the leading theories of his time, which argued that European philosophies (as evidenced by the “founding fathers”) were responsible for U.S. social and political development (Elkins & McKitrick 1968). Turner supported a more muscular and independent history:

American democracy came from the forest, and its destiny drove it to material conquests, but the materialism of the pioneer was not the dull contented materialism of an old and fixed society. Both the native settler and the European immigrant saw in this free and competitive movement of the frontier the chance to break the bondage of social rank and rise to a higher plane of existence. (1920 p. 132)

For Turner, and a generation of scholars to follow, the American frontier was the open space that supported liberty across the economic, social, political, and religious spectrum and created a unique country and people. While Turner acknowledges native people and other challenging issues of U.S. frontier history, his writings are often criticized as a selected version of a fuller history.

3 The process of the frontier

A crucial reason that the frontier impacted American character and social institutions was that it lasted for nearly four centuries. New fields of opportunity arose for generations, as great numbers of people helped forge the unique American character Turner argued for. Slaves, most native peoples, and the environment would pay a price for this great mix of frontier attributes.

In his remarks at the 1893 World’s Fair, Turner stated,

Thus American development has exhibited not merely an advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. (1920, p. 14)

For Turner, the frontier was to be understood more as a recurring process than as an actual physical or geographic location or definition (Billington, 1966; Madsen, 1993; Turner, 2008). His frontier ecosystem took a diverse assortment of “hungry” people, presented them with liberty and readily available assets, and, as the frontier closed, delivered an ambitious and emerging people, economy, and democracy to the twentieth century.

In Turner’s view, the frontier ecosystem led to the rugged, pushing, egalitarian, and expanding American. He writes:

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are the traits of the frontier. (1920, p. 497)

Turner’s thesis set off a flurry of activity in American studies and would dominate the field of U.S. history for decades before failing out of favor (Billington, 1966; Elkins & McKitrick, 1968; Higham, 1968). The idea of the frontier and the pioneer has been picked up repeatedly in popular culture, policy, and economics from Turner’s time to today. Pioneer and frontier imagery is still a regular feature of American society in advertising, public policy, and popular culture.

For example, in laying out a national science policy for the USA after World War II, Vannevar Bush, a one-time dean of engineering at Stanford and the architect of U.S. science efforts during the war, used the frontier metaphor in shaping U.S. scientific research policy. As the war ended, Bush released a report, Science: The Endless Frontier (1945), which was a blueprint for a national science and technology innovation system. Bush’s use of frontier imagery and ideas is not uncommon in U.S. society, policy, and culture.

3.1 The campus as frontier

Stam (2015) states that, at its most basic, “an entrepreneurial ecosystem is an independent set of actors that is governed in such a way that it enables entrepreneurial action” (p. 1). Stam, Feld (2012), and others go much deeper in developing these concepts, as will this paper, but at its core, an entrepreneurial ecosystem and its output relies on a variety of voluntary relationships among independent agents with some form of agreed upon and acceptable governance.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem approach supports Schumpeter’s (1942) claim that entrepreneurs are change-makers in capitalist economies, and that their actions and ability to create new combinations of economic assets are what lead to improved standards of living. Of course, entrepreneurship is a social activity (Aldrich, 1990; Baumol, 1990; Gartner, 1985), and this paper is influenced by a series of papers by William Gartner and colleagues (Gartner, 1985, 1988; Katz & Gartner, 1988) that argue that our understanding of entrepreneurship will be limited if we observe only the entrepreneur and not their actions and social interactions.

Gartner (1985, 1988) argues that we must consider four levels of analysis when attempting to understand entrepreneurship: the entrepreneur(s), the firm, the environment, and the processes through which the entrepreneur(s), the firm, and the environment interact. While Gartner (1985) does not use the words “system” or “cluster” or “ecosystem,” it is clear that he sees entrepreneurship as a result of multiple agents and institutions impacting one another within a given context. As we explore the campus entrepreneurial ecosystem, the elements of Gartner’s framework (1985) are observed in the behaviors and actions of student founders of high-growth firms.

While there are various concepts of entrepreneurial ecosystems and many of the agents and institutions have been identified—including entrepreneurs, local governments, culture, financial capital—diversity of thought leads the way at this point. Stam (2015) offers a simple, broad definition of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that leaves room for many of the questions that researchers, policy-makers, entrepreneurs, and others have.

In considering the campus as an entrepreneurial ecosystem, we use Turner’s framework. We observe that diverse agents appear to use liberty and readily available assets to innovate and create high-impact firms. As Jacobs (1961), Florida (2002). and Lee et al. (2004) highlight, locations with diverse inhabitants are likely to see an increase in innovation and entrepreneurship and new firm formation. While most analysts explore unites such as metropolitan statistical areas, states, cities, or countries, these principles should hold consistent in a campus environment. Additionally, the diversity expected and often touted on the “campus frontier” is likely broader than the diversity measured in the aforementioned works. The diversity of agents on U.S. campuses can be measured by age, motivation for attending, country of origin, field of study, religion, political preferences, and other characteristics that most studies on diversity and economic growth do not include.

The liberty U.S. college students enjoy does vary by institution and field of study, but the evolution and ethos of freedom on U.S. campuses is clear from the history of higher education, and most participants in higher education today have great freedom in choosing and executing their own path on campus (Rudolph, 1990; Thelin, 2004). The data collected and presented in this paper highlight the choices that students who founded companies have had on campus—from their field of study and concentration to extracurricular and summer activities.

Today’s U.S. campuses are asset-rich environments: students with disposable cash (often from loans, scholarships, and grants), advanced research and technologies, talented people (professors, alumni, etc.), and extensive extracurricular and cocurricular options. As this paper will highlight, student founders of high-growth firms leverage various campus assets during the firm-formation process, although different ventures will of course use different assets in different ways, which harkens back to the basic notion of entrepreneurship as the ability to put assets to work in new combinations to create value. For example, student founder A may take entrepreneurship courses and join an entrepreneurship club as part of their firm-formation process, while student founder B may work with roommates to develop an early product and use cocurricular university clubs to distribute the said product for feedback.

The idea of a campus as a village or a distinct entity of its own is not new, and multiple higher education leaders (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) and analysts (e.g., Veysey, 1965) have made this argument when creating and assessing higher education institutions. The proposed frontier framework offers a simple organizing principle that enhances understanding of the role the campus plays in the current phenomena of high-growth ventures created by students. Table 1 highlights the campus ecosystem and the frontier system Turner laid out.
Table 1

Turner’s frontier and the modern U.S. campus entrepreneurial ecosystem

Turner’s theme

Turner’s frontier

Modern U.S. university and college

Available assets

Land, mineral wealth, water, game, burgeoning populations, growing transportation, communication and financial networks, growing markets

Courses, extracurricular and cocurricular options, peers, faculty, alumni, networks to other institutions, research, labs, and libraries

Liberty (freedom)

No early governments, no established social institutions or conventions, no incumbent economic power, evolving European, Native, American battles

Dispersed decision-making for administration and faculty, freedom of research and field of study, extracurricular choices, part-time/full-time/executive options, transfer system

Diverse populations

Changed over time, nationality and place of birth, wealth, method of arrival, place of, Native, European, American, Canadian

Ethnicity, place of birth, field of study, age, education levels, political ideologies, regenerating youthful populations, visiting scholars and students; full time/part time; adjuncts/research faculty/teaching faculty

The campus as frontier framework highlights the core attributes of Turner’s frontier and how they might be used to better understand the phenomena of high-growth firms created by students at U.S. colleges and universities. Taking these concepts one step further, we have developed diagram 1 to communicate how the campus frontier can be understood as an entrepreneurial ecosystem of its own, not just part of a broader ecosystem or cluster.

3.2 The campus and the ecosystem

Note that in diagram 1, the boundaries around and within the campus are represented by dotted lines. This is meant to highlight the permeability of the U.S. campus. From transfer students and research collaborations to public lectures and museums, modern U.S. research universities are open institutions. It should also be noted that the borders of the non-campus world are filled lines, which highlights the fact that permeability and openness are not always the calling cards of off-campus institutions, such as corporations, government entities, and financial firms.

In diagram 1, the student founder(s) inhabit the center of the research campus entrepreneurial ecosystem; no distinction is made between their field of study or level of study (graduate, undergraduate) or the industry they enter. Their efforts as founders of high-growth firms is what places them at the center of the research university entrepreneurial ecosystem, as other authors have suggested (Feld, 2012; Stam, 2015) and was discussed earlier in this paper. Surrounding the student founder(s) is the campus and its Turnerian frontier attributes of liberty, diversity, and readily available assets, as well as the agents, institutions, and processes that allow them to begin the firm-formation process. We see the diversity and readily available assets in such things as courses, laboratories, alumni, a range of schools and fields of study, etc. The various elements of the campus ecosystem represent the freedom for students to choose their own pathways, to decide which elements of diversity and which assets to engage in building a new venture. Although the assets, population diversity, and liberty will vary across U.S. campuses, student founders of high-growth firms exploit them in building their unique ventures appears to be present at major U.S. research universities (Miller, 2015).

The regional polity and economy that the campus resides in play an important role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. However, the boundaries of the “real world” ecosystem are more fixed, hence the full line encircling the region/city portion of diagram 1. For example, because a university partner at a regional economic agency represents a specific polity, their ability to act is often constrained by borders policy or local budgeting rules, thus denying them the liberty and freedom that student or faculty members enjoy as full members of a campus. One of the reasons non-campus actors and institutions often choose to engage with the campus is the liberty and openness available there (Miller, 2015).

4 Campus as entrepreneurial ecosystem

In November 2011, online coupon company Groupon completed an initial public offering on the U.S. NASDAQ exchange (Raice & Smith, 2011).1 Groupon was created in 2008 by Andrew Mason, a graduate student at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and was initially funded by Chicago entrepreneurs and University of Chicago Booth School of Business adjunct faculty members. Mason had come to the Harris School to work on an online public policy tool called Policy Tree, but he soon iterated his idea into a collective social action website called the Point, which would eventually evolve into Groupon.2

In 2011, the year Groupon went public, 11 other startups created by students at the University of Chicago raised more than $85 million dollars in equity investment (Polsky Center, 2011b). Braintree Financial, one of the firms receiving investment, would be acquired by eBay in 2013 for $800 million in cash. Another student-created firm that received investment in 2011 was online food delivery platform GrubHub, which completed an IPO of its own in April 2014 (Calia, 2014; Chowdhry, 2013); it is currently a multibillion dollar firm. In less than 20 years, the University of Chicago, and its graduate school of business in particular, have become a regular source of high-growth firms created by students. Table 2 highlights some of the high-growth ventures created by students at the University of Chicago.
Table 2

Select high-growth student startups from the University of Chicago

Firm name

Year founded


Additional information



Jake Crampton/Booth School of Business/Graduate 1999

Started as class project; won 1998 NVC; early investors were Booth alumni; over $10 million in revenue annually and 300 employees



Sean Mahoney/Booth School of Business/Graduate 2010

Won 2006 NVC; raised $34 million in venture financing; completed IPO April 2014

Braintree Financial


Bryan Johnson, Booth School Executive MBA, completed program

Won 2007 NVC; $85 million in venture funding in 2012, acquired by eBay for $800 million in cash in 2013



Andrew Mason, Harris School of Public Policy, left school

IPO 4 November 2011, Founder, Andrew Mason fired in 2013

Bump Technologies


David Lieb, Jake Mintz/Booth School of Business/Lieb & Mintz both left school

Founders met at Booth, won 2009 business plan competition; participated in Y Combinator accelerator program, Google acquired in 2013

All Tuition (formerly edulender)


Sue Khim/College/Leave of absence 2010

Khim participated in NVC as an undergraduate; raised money; left school and lives in Silicon Valley



Umar Khokhar MD/PhD and Imran Ahmad MBA (2013)

Won 2013 NVC; won $100K investment at 2014 Rice Business Competition; raised over $750K in financing

Simple Mills


Katlin Smith MBA (2015)

Won 2014 NVC; raised more than $4 million in equity financing

4.1 Case selection, research design, and methodology

According to Yin (2009), “case studies arise out of the desire to understand complex social phenomena,” and case methodology allows research to “retain holistic and meaningful characteristics of real life” (p. 2). From Gerring’s (2004) perspective, a case study is “an in-depth study of a single unit (a relatively bounded phenomenon) where the scholar’s aim is to elucidate features of a larger class of similar phenomena” (p. 341). In the case presented, the research university will serve as the primary unit of analysis so that various features of this contemporary experience may be explored.

While case studies are said not to be generalizable, they can provide useful frameworks and are often used in theory-building. We hope that this research will serve both purposes. Yin (2009) explains that “a case study is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon in depth and within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between the phenomenon and the context are not clearly evident” (p.13).

Once the case method was chosen to explore the entrepreneurial ecosystem of higher education, there were many campuses to choose from. Most important was to choose a university where entrepreneurial opportunities had been identified and/or the process of firm-formation had begun by multiple founders of high-growth ventures. We visited multiple research universities and colleges before choosing one campus as the primary unit of analysis; these included the University of Maryland College Park, the University of Chicago, Arizona State University, American University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. We also explored hundreds of university, entrepreneurship, and general news websites, from the Stanford Business School and Inc. magazine to USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, and searched for mentions of high-growth firms created by students at U.S. colleges and universities.

The University of Chicago, a private research university of the highest caliber (“Very High Research” category in the Carnegie Foundation’s categorization of institutions of higher education in the USA), is located in an urban setting. It was selected for this case study because it was the birthplace of multiple high-growth firms and was accessible to the researcher via professional networks and geography.

While the University of Chicago is highly rated for its faculty, research, and many of its schools, it is not commonly thought of as an entrepreneurship powerhouse in the mold of Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Moreover, while the city of Chicago has a large, dynamic economy, it is not seen as a model for innovation, as are Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, or the Research Triangle in North Carolina (Florida, 2002; Saxenian, 1996). These factors put the University of Chicago outside of the purview of many researchers and policy-makers in the innovation and entrepreneurship space.

While the Chicago case study is not meant to be generalizable, it does provide a look into an important contemporary phenomenon and the context in which it is occurring. The case used three primary methods for data collection:
  1. 1.

    Semi-structured interviews with student founders of high-growth firms and non-founders who worked for high-growth firms. These interviews included informants from the case campus and multiple other campuses across the U.S.

  2. 2.

    Participant observation at public events on the case campus, other campuses, and at non-campus events related to entrepreneurship, including visits with entrepreneurs and others

  3. 3.

    Document and media analysis, including media accounts, speeches, startup pitches and presentations, websites, business documents, videos, blogs, Tweets, LinkedIn feeds, etc.


Semi-structured interviews were completed with 32 individuals. The sample included adults (over age 18) who have played a role in creating a high-growth firm started by students at a U.S. college or university. No targeting of gender, ethnicity, or health status occurred, other than an attempt to reach a representative sample of those involved with entrepreneurship at U.S. universities. Student founders of high-growth firms were interviewed, as were others who played a role in identifying the opportunity and the process of forming a new firm on campus, including faculty, investors, employees, mentors, philanthropists, and alumni. Interviews were continued until a saturation of themes was achieved. Additional informants, both founders and non-founders who were not directly related to the case study campus but were involved with high-growth student entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship programs, were also interviewed. Some non-student founders were investors, faculty members, and advisors.

Document and media analysis were collected from the case study campus and other campuses, from high-growth student startups from across the USA and from student founders and their firms. As Schramm states (1971), “Perhaps the most undervalued source of data for case study is documents” (p. 18). This research makes extensive use of documents in both the traditional and multimedia sense of the word, including publications, videos, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and public databases such as TechCrunch and Angelist.3 Many student founders of high-growth firms, the firms themselves, and U.S. universities have an active online presence and make a great deal of data publicly available. Whenever possible, digital copies of such documents were collected and stored.

Finally, participant observation was employed in completing the qualitative portions of this research. The researcher attended many entrepreneurship-related events and activities on the case campus, other campuses, and at off-campus locations. Multiple campus business competitions, including the University of Maryland College Park’s Cupid’s Cup Business Competition (multiple years), the University of Chicago’s Edward L. Kaplan New Venture Challenge (multiple years), the University of Chicago’s Social New Venture Challenge, and other similar events were attended. Additional entrepreneurship events and campus programs, such as entrepreneurship club meetings, pitch events, and entrepreneurship office hours, were attended and observed at multiple campuses and universities. Finally, the researcher visited the workspaces of more than 40 student and alumni firms, including on- and off-campus incubators and accelerators, government entities, and campus organizations with links to the case campus and other U.S. campuses. Data collected during these visits include pictures, documents, videos, and many informal interviews.

4.2 The history of the University of Chicago

The first thing to catch the visitor’s eye as they enter the campus of the University of Chicago is the inspiring gothic architecture that forms classic campus quadrangles. When John D. Rockefeller originally agreed to fund the University of Chicago, his intention was that it would be a national Baptist College (Storr, 1966). However, through the concerted effort and leadership of a handful of Baptist leaders, academic innovators, and Chicagoland leaders, it would instead become one of the most respected and productive research universities in the world (Slosson, 1910; Storr, 1966; Thelin, 2004). The University of Chicago is consistently ranked among the world’s top ten universities, and leads higher education across a variety of specialties.4

The University of Chicago was born in an era when American higher education leaders were experimenting with the German research model (Rudolph, 1990; Thelin, 2004). This era would lay the groundwork for nearly a century of U.S. leadership in higher education, research, science, and sustained economic growth (Rudolph, 1990). Like the closing of the American frontier, this era was tied to a growing and industrializing country.

In describing the era of building the research university, historian Frederick Rudolph argues that

no episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations of American higher education during these years than the founding of the University of Chicago, one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of the age. The cast of characters itself was remarkable: John D. Rockefeller, now busily engaged in good works, in 1888 having come to the conclusion that he would like to found a new college in Chicago, but waiting for the voice of his Baptist denomination to call upon him to do so; Thomas W. Goodspeed, secretary of the Baptist Union Theological Seminary in Chicago, using his influence to shape a decision for Chicago: Augustus H. Strong of the Rochester Theological Seminary, using his influence to shape a decision for New York; the Reverend Frederick T. Gates, secretary of the American Baptist Education Society, holding off the small and hungry Baptist colleges throughout the land; and William Rainey Harper, young Baptist layman and Hebrew scholar, in 1888 in his thirty-second year the holder of three professorships at Yale, one of the most incredible men to move across the university scene. (1990, pp. 349–350)

Many of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, whether Baptist or not, participated in a fundraising program with Rockefeller in which they matched Rockefeller’s initial million dollar contribution with a million of their own (Goodspeed, 1916).

In planning, leading, and launching the newly built University of Chicago, Harper, the fnding President, would oversee a flurry of educational innovations, including creating the academic publishing industry by founding the University of Chicago Press (which has published the Chicago Manual of Style since 1906), the rethinking of academic calendars, and the introduction of multiple new fields of inquiry.5 Harper was building an early prototype of the multiversity concept that University of California chancellor Clark Kerr would write about more than 50 years later (Kerr, 2001). The multiversity was an institution deeply engaged across society and continually changed and evolved with it.

In 1910, after touring America’s top universities, professor-turned-journalist Edwin Slosson published the book, Great American Universities. His work was full of quantitative and qualitative insights on 14 of the top universities in America and was the forerunner of the modern university ranking industry, which is truly a global marketplace just over 100 years later. “In our time, three universities have been raised from the seed: Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Chicago. The youngest, and greatest and most original of these is the University of Chicago. Scarcely had it cotyledons appeared above the service of the midway soil when it was seen to be a new species, a mutant,” wrote Slosson (1910, p. 405). “The University of Chicago achieved its success, first, by manifesting a still greater originality and adaptability, as in summer work, extension courses, and the use of print, for example, and second, by rising above the zone of competitors in giving more advanced work in pure science and the humanities” (p. 434).

In The Trend in Higher Education, Harper (1905) states that “the true university, the university of the future, is one the motto of which will be; Service for mankind wherever mankind is, whether within scholastic walls or without those walls and in the world at large” (pp. 27–28). While it focused on research and graduate work, Harper’s university represented, supported, and engaged Chicago as it transitioned from frontier capital to become a densely populated, muscular, urban industrial power (Rudolph, 1990). Harper went out of his way to connect to the world beyond the campus and used various methods to make the University of Chicago a rallying point, representative of the strength of an emerging Chicago, especially in light of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Harper built bridges to the city and the region through various academic innovations, such as the creation of a junior college, extensive summer school offerings, a powerhouse football team, and equal opportunity at a time when East Coast Ivy League schools were not as welcoming to women and minorities. For example, by 1902, 48% of the University of Chicago’s students were female, and by the mid-1930s nearly one-third of the undergraduates were Jewish (McNeil, 1991; Thelin, 2004).

McNeil (1991), relaying his experience as a student in the 1930s, stated, “The University of Chicago became a place to rise in the social scale, where old ideas, old habits, and old prejudices were left behind and where secular thrusts, tested by reason and embodied in science, could be counted on both to liberate the mind and prepare a self-selected body of students for successful professional careers” (p. 54). This description sounds similar to Turner’s explanation of the liberty of the frontier.

The University of Chicago became an innovative, open place that would influence and in many ways represent the city that was its home. In explaining Harper and his university, Slosson (1910) stated, “For the new projects were not merely broad; they were iconoclastic. Though varied in their character, most of them had the same aim, the breaking down of barriers between the life of the university and the life outside, barriers which six centuries of scholasticism had erected, buttressed, and adorned” (p. 406). Harper’s University of Chicago was built to engage the world at all levels.

4.3 Business education and entrepreneurship

Many of the early buildings that formed the campus in Harper’s era are still around today; gothic structures with gargoyles, wildlife, and other creatures adorning the rooflines and peering down on the students, faculty, and staff as they race across campus. In 2004, a massive modern glass and steel building, bearing the name Harper Center, was opened on campus under the watchful eyes of the gothic buildings.6 The structure, the new home of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, is a break from the gothic style dating to the university’s founding.

The Harper Center, whose immediate neighbors include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the massive Rockefeller Chapel, is a fitting home for the Booth School of Business, which is often ranked number one (BusinessWeek 2012, 2010). Its modern style represents the sea change that has occurred as the school has become a key point of passage for many high-growth startups created by students. Although the Harper Center may be one of the newest and most modern on campus, the business school itself was founded in 1902 and is the second oldest in the USA (Daniel, 1998).

In 1898, when the University of Chicago began teaching business, the field clearly fit with the mission of supporting the city as it grew. Harper and others had engaged the powerful Chicago business community in founding the university, so it was no surprise that professional education offerings would cohabitate with researchers, scientists, and American football champions (Daniel, 1998; Storr, 1966).

The business school has always shared the trait of innovation that Harper instilled across the university at its birth. For example, it was the first school to offer a PhD in business, it published The Journal of Business, the first academic journal in the field, and by the 1930s its downtown campus offered evening classes to extend opportunities to the working professionals of Chicago. Additionally, the school’s research has been instrumental in the fields of finance and economics, and in 1997 the business school counted six Nobel Prize winners on its faculty.7

Chicago, its faculty, and its graduates became an important part of the financial infrastructure of the global economy as it grew through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Each year, research from Chicago would influence Wall Street, corporate America, and policy-makers, while hundreds of Chicago MBAs would make their way to Wall Street, and to top consulting firms, leading corporate offices, and government agencies. The aim of the modern business school—to get graduates good jobs and provide high-level research—functioned well at the University of Chicago, and the school met the demands of its students, their employers, and various other stakeholders through the 1990s. Known for its deep theoretical work in fields such as finance and economics, the business school’s rise as a center of high-growth entrepreneurship is noteworthy. Moreover, and importantly, the entrepreneurial impact of the Booth School has spread across the campus and beyond.

5 The seeds of an entrepreneurial ecosystem

In the mid-1990s, Robert Hamada, then dean of Chicago’s Graduate School Business School (it would not be named Booth until 2008), charged a young, newly tenured finance professor name of Steven N. Kaplan with building a leading entrepreneurship program. Joseph Neubauer, a 1965 graduate, made a $1.5 million gift to establish the Neubauer Family Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies in 1994, due to his belief that entrepreneurs create wealth for others and that their behavior is not random (University of Chicago Chronicle, 1996). Kaplan’s research in private equity placed him closest to entrepreneurship of the faculty according to Kaplan and he was tapped to fill the chair and build a program (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011).

According to Kaplan (personal communication, July 27, 2011), there were a handful of entrepreneurial offerings and activities on campus, but they were limited and uncoordinated. The school offered only a few entrepreneurship classes (there was no concentration), the New Venture Challenge (NVC)—a business competition for students—had been created in 1997, and ARCH Ventures—a venture fund associated with University of Chicago research and intellectual property—was just a few years into its existence.

According to Kaplan, the initial vision for a program was that students would learn about entrepreneurship and develop a basic skillset and set of experiences to draw from if they became entrepreneurs. There was no notion in the early days of a program in which students would actually launch and build high-growth companies (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). That evolution would begin rather quickly after introduction of the NVC, and the entrepreneurship program would soon present to the world new ventures with the potential to have a serious economic and social impact. Since the late 1990s, Kaplan and others have worked effectively with students, faculty, staff, graduates, and donors to create a top entrepreneurship program and campus entrepreneurial ecosystem that has produced multiple high-growth firms.

By 1998, with two NVCs completed and growing student and donor interest in entrepreneurship, it became obvious that classes and a contest were not enough to satisfy demand. Plans for an entrepreneurship center were put together with the goal of making Chicago “the premier business school in the Midwest for entrepreneurship and venture capital” (Holroyd, 1998, p. 1; Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011).

According to Kaplan (personal communication, July 27, 2011), it was crucial from the start that whatever program the school built it would be student facing and experiential in nature, and would include fellowships, contests, conferences, and work with ARCH Ventures, the intellectual property venture firm associated with the University of Chicago (Holroyd, 1998). The pedagogical choice of practical coursework and experience is consistent with the history of the University of Chicago and U.S. higher education more generally, dating back to Jefferson’s University of Virginia, Franklin’s University of Pennsylvania, and Harper’s vision of the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem would grow from its modest start to one of global impact in a short period of time, spurred on by a talented student body and supportive faculty and alumni.

5.1 Entrepreneurship center, classes, and more

In 1998, just 2 years after the University of Chicago initiated the entrepreneurship program and a year after the first NVC, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation was created at the Booth Graduate School of Business (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). An entrepreneurship concentration was introduced at the same time. Ellen Rudnick (MBA 1973) was named executive director of the center and a clinical faculty member. The school leadership made a conscious decision to have a non-academic at the helm with Professor Kaplan to ensure balance and connectivity to the marketplace and agents and institutions off camps. In 2002, 4 years after the center’s creation, Michael Polsky (MBA 1987) endowed the center with a $7 million donation, which he doubled in 2012. In 2016, Polsky obviously happy with the output of the center, committed another $35 million to the center bringing his total support of the center to $50 million (Daniels, 2016).

The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation boasts impressive statistics in their annual reports, news coverage, and websites, which highlight an array of courses, world-class research, and extensive programming. According to one recent report (Polsky Center, 2011a), the center’s mission has four parts:
  • Develop experiential learning programs to complement traditional classroom learning.

  • Sponsor and promote cutting-edge research.

  • Support students, faculty, and alumni who are creating and growing new businesses.

  • Develop both the local and global entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This mission is broad yet precise, and more aspirational than that which Professor Kaplan, Dean Hamada, and the initial funders envisioned in their early work and public statements about the program they were establishing. The early goals included institutionalizing courses and the experiential aspects of entrepreneurship, as well as private equity education and supporting faculty via chairs and research and programming support (Holroyd, 1998; Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011).

In 1998, the year the center was created, the school offered four courses in entrepreneurship, with two additional courses planned. Ten years later, 24 courses were being offered, and 27 were available by 2012 (Holroyd, 1998; Polsky Center, 2008, 2012).8 In many of these courses, students are matched up with startups, scientists, and senior leaders of corporations and social ventures. Each year, hundreds of students engage with hundreds of leading innovation and entrepreneurship organizations in this experiential coursework (Polsky Center, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011a). Many of these courses require students to go through a competitive application process before being offered a seat and a laboratory placement.

The expanding the list of courses has been important to creating a landscape full of hands-on entrepreneurial opportunity, which is a change for this business school that was long oriented toward traditional business careers, such as sales and trading, investment banking, and consulting. Moreover, the laboratory courses give students the opportunity to perform the functions of the entrepreneur and to interact in real entrepreneurial ecosystems while working on their academic programs.

For example, the Entrepreneurship Internship Program provides students with a stipend either to work for an entrepreneurial venture or to work on their own idea for a period of time (Weiss, personal communication, July 22, 2011). In the course meetings that take place after the students complete an entrepreneurial summer experience, they come together to share their experiences and provide feedback and support to one another as they attempt to build their venture or chart their path in the entrepreneurial segment of the economy (Weiss, 2011). This helps students expand their skillset and build a portfolio, and also introduces them to networks and direct sources for information on the new ventures, investing, and related opportunities.

By expanding the courses dramatically and allowing certain ones to fulfill the requirements of various concentrations, entrepreneurship has become the most popular concentration at Booth in less than 10 years, with more than 50% of all students at Booth completing an entrepreneurship concentration (Polsky Center, 2008; Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). There are currently 14 concentrations at Booth, so it is quite dramatic for this new concentration to grab such a large market share so quickly.

The breadth of Booth’s offerings of entrepreneurship and innovation courses provides students with many gates of entry to the school’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. In addition, the experiential nature of the courses allows students to interact with a diverse group of people and institutions on campus and off, and to gain entrepreneurial experience while in school. The experience is much like a medical residency or apprenticeship.

With its broad course offerings, Booth brings more than 20 faculty members to its entrepreneurship and innovation program. In reviewing the roster of instructors, it is evident that many are adjuncts or “clinical” faculty, which underscores the experiential nature of the program. For example, Groupon cofounders Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkowsky are on the Booth faculty, and their investment firm, Lightbank, has a record of investing in University of Chicago startups.

In addition to the NVC and extensive coursework, the Polsky Center coordinates other opportunities and resources for students interested in hands-on entrepreneurship experiences. Booth participates in the Kauffman Entrepreneurial Internship Program, supports students entering off-campus business plan contests, and offers multiple student groups that hold conferences such as SeedCon: Annual Chicago Booth Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Conference, the Midwest Energy Forum and Clean Energy Challenge, and the Innovation Showcase (Polsky, 2009, 2010; Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). Many of these programs run in concert with related groups, such as UChicago Tech and Hyde Park Angels; off-campus partners, including the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, 1871 (an innovation hub in downtown Chicago), and various investment firms and funds throughout the U.S. (Weiss, 2011; Polsky Center, 2012, 2013). This landscape of programming highlights the fluid, open governance of the University of Chicago’s campus entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Hundreds of guest speakers, judges, and mentors fill out the notes at the back of the Polsky Center’s annual reports, which highlights the core strength of the university’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The ability to bring talented and well-connected people to the campus for classes and events enables students to leverage the diverse people, talents, and networks when setting out to build a high-growth firm. While many speakers and donors are alumni, it is clear that many are friends of the school who value the opportunity to engage with University of Chicago students and faculty members. This direct relationship with the broader community is true to Harper’s ideals and congruent with the literature on the firm-formation processes. It is evident in the data collected via interviews and ethnographic observation that this talent pool, which comes from a broad range of industries and sectors, offers great value to the student entrepreneurs through the opportunities it makes available on campus.

The steady barrage of courses, activities, speakers, and networking opportunities, combined with connections to the venture investment system and the third largest metro economy in the USA, provides University of Chicago students who are would-be company founders with a wealth of choices, assets, and diverse people to engage with in pursuing an entrepreneurship path. This entrepreneurial ecosystem, with its on campus and off campus agents and institutions, has supported the development of many high-growth ventures in the last two decades.

5.2 The Chicago new venture challenge

The Polsky Center hosts the New Venture Challenge each spring in the Harper Center. This business contest dates back to 1996, and it has grown to include four distinct tracks or divisions, as well as a variety of other contests and related events. The first NVC was held with the support of successful entrepreneur alum Edward L. Kaplan. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Kaplan, who revolutionized the barcode industry with his company Zebra Technologies, worked with Professor Steven Kaplan and Dean Hamada to establish a leading entrepreneurship program in Chicago (Kaplan, E., personal communication, July 24, 2011; Kaplan, 2013).

In the early days of planning and building the program, Ed Kaplan, an engineer who earned his MBA from the University of Chicago in 1971, began to collect data on experiential entrepreneurship programs (Kaplan, E., personal communications, July 24, 2011). He spent a great deal of time visiting the University of Chicago’s crosstown rival, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Kellogg, an affiliate of the University of Texas’s MOOT Corp., business competition was active with case competitions at the time. Ed was convinced of the value of such programming, and began to support and encourage the growth of a similar program for University of Chicago students (Kaplan, E., personal communications, July 24, 2011).

Although the NVC culminates with business presentations and an innovation expo in the Harper Center each year, it is actually a year-long process that begins in the fall with multiple public events that explore entrepreneurship and allowing potential participants to meet, discuss their ideas, and form teams. While the competition and corresponding course are run by the Polsky Center, the NVC attempts to attract people from across the campus and from its affiliates, including researchers/scientists at federal labs managed by the University of Chicago, researchers from the campus, medical school faculty and staff, and off-campus innovators.9 Since the earliest days, students, faculty, and staff from the Illinois Institute of Technology (where Edward Kaplan earned his engineering degree) have been part of the events at the University of Chicago, as it does not have a college of engineering (Kaplan, E., personal communications, July 24, 2011; Holroyd, 1998).

Past participants, faculty, alumni judges, NVC coaches, and mentors attend and lead the early public events, giving potential participants insights into the program and the opportunities and challenges it provides (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011; Polsky Center, 2009; Stopper, A., personal communication, 2012). The NVC is meant to be open and engaging, and the early events draw in students from across the campus, as well as professionals from throughout the region.

The NVC rules support openness and choice. They allow teams to have any number of members from anywhere, as long as at least one is a Booth MBA candidate (Polsky Center, 2010). This open approach casts a very wide net, as the Booth School of Business full- and part-time programs are among the largest in the USA, and it is one of the longest running executive MBA programs in the world. This open call for participants is not surprising, given Harper’s early ideas about having an open, engaged campus, his support of professional schools, and the fact that Chicago’s was one of the first business schools to offer an evening program and a downtown campus for working professionals.

The NVC’s fall announcement, kickoff, and team-building phase is followed by a period in which those who enter produce feasibility studies, with a typical deadline of late February. Public sessions are held at which faculty, alumni, practitioners from startups, service providers, and others from the entrepreneurial ecosystem provide insights and tools that help participants create successful feasibility studies. Some of these events now take place online, further extending the reach of the NVC.

Every year, the NVC platform at the University of Chicago generates hundreds of innovative ideas for student-created firms. Around 30 teams submitted applications in the early years of the competition, while recent NVCs have garnered well over 150 submissions annually (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011; Polsky Center, 2013; Truong, 1998). The early parts of the NVC require teams to identify and validate an opportunity—the first stage in any new venture creation (Bhave, 1994). This round supports exploring new ideas and identifying problems worth solving. Moreover, as Van de Ven (1984) and Carter, Gartner, and Reynolds (1996) suggest, potential ventures that eventually launch are to have exposed their ideas, intentions, and actions to outsiders than those that to new startup.

After the feasibility summaries are submitted, 25–30 teams are selected, and the MBA team members enroll in the NVC course for the spring semester; according to Steven Kaplan (personal communication, July 27, 2011), student demand after the first year of the competition led to the creation of the course. In the course, the teams are bombarded with attention from mentors from Chicago’s venture community and the school’s vast alumni and other networks (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). In recent years, the Polsky Center’s annual reports have listed hundreds of entrepreneurs, financiers, lawyers, and others who come to campus to work with students during the NVC process (Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, 2011a, 2012; Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). The resources offered in terms of human capital and networks are hard to quantify, but they clearly are available to those who show some potential during the process.

Each team that participates in the course is matched to an experienced startup professional who serves as a coach and provides access to networks beyond the campus (Houlihan, 2006; Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). The teams are also connected to people with domain expertise, usually the course instructors, team coaches, alumni, or friends of the school (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011).

Exposure to and engagement with off-campus contacts is an important part of the NVC process. The 30 or so teams that make it to the class receive 3 months of constant feedback, make repeated presentations to their coaches and mentors, and experience a curriculum that supports the continual improvement of the business model. Bhave’s (1994) process model, developed through an analysis of the INC 500 list of fastest growing startups, points to constant iteration and refinement of the business model as the norm for successful firms. The outside influences and repeated interactions provided by the NVC help the participants refine their ideas in important ways.

Larson and Starr’s (1993) networked model of firm development argues that, as a startup moves through the firm-formation process from nascent idea to actual entity, it must expand its layers of networks. The year-long NVC process offers just such an opportunity, especially for the 30 course participants and 10 finalists. The campus entrepreneurial ecosystem and the engagement of outsiders from related industries and service providers delivers direct and timely information to NVC participants as they attempt to develop their ideas into successful firms. This environment is similar to the ecological approach Aldrich (1990) outlines, in which the marketplace and current population of firms provide information to would-be market entrants about what is needed, successful, and growing. In the case of Chicago, the speakers, mentors, and coaches brought into classes and into the NVC process ensure that information from the marketplace is flowing directly onto campus. The quality people, the school, the entrepreneurship center, and the broader university have access to ensure that NVC participants are getting current information—although of course, it is up to the teams to figure out how to apply it.

Steven Kaplan stated that the program is basically an accelerator, a model the Booth School kind of “stumbled into before others such as Y Combinator, Tech Stars, and eXclerate Labs discovered it years later and commercialized it” (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). Like an accelerator, the NVC starts off with a large pool of applicants that it whittles down to a small group of teams to work with over a short, intense period of time. The NVC connects with would-be participants through courses, events, and other extracurricular programs as they sift through and develop ideas. Eventually, 30 teams are chosen, and they are given access to resources such as time, human capital, intellectual property, networks, and presentation skills for a short period, after which ten are chosen to present to a world-class panel of judges, who question each team after they make their pitch.

Although the intense process involves presumably high-quality applicants and ideas, it does not always work. “At the end of the three months, some of the businesses will be dead on arrival, and others will find a market,” Kaplan acknowledged (personal communication, July 27, 2011). He added that the NVC/Polsky team has gotten better at matching teams and mentors over the years, which is crucial to the success the program and teams have enjoyed.

Over the 20 years, the NVC has been running, it has grown in virtually every way. The Global New Venture Challenge was introduced in 2008 to bring in students from the global executive programs Booth offers. It uses an online platform to connect members, teams, faculty, and mentors across the globe. The Global New Venture Challenge winner is invited to present at the NVC event held at the Harper Center each year. The Social New Venture Challenge, introduced in 2011, works in concert with Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative, focusing on ventures using innovation and entrepreneurship for social impact.10

In 2013, after observing that undergraduate students were participating in the NVC, the College New Venture Challenge was created for University of Chicago undergraduates. Participating students are able to audit the Booth School NVC course and to access the mentors, resources, and opportunities it provides. Prize money for the New Venture Challenge has also grown; the top prize in 2013 reached $30,000, while the Social New Venture Challenge awarded $35,000. The Global New Venture Challenge awards $5000 each year, and the winner has the opportunity to participate in the NVC finals.

In addition to the financial prizes, NVC finalists are offered space in the campus incubator sponsored by venture firm Arch Ventures, and many entrants earn donations of in-kind services from alumni and sponsors. Additional events such as app contests, online pitch fests, and innovation showcases have been added in recent years to extend the reach and networks of the NVC. For most of these events, Booth and Polsky partner with other units at the University of Chicago, local and federal government agencies, and investment firms and accelerators such as Tech Stars Chicago.11 The NVC program fits well with William Rainey Harper’s vision of a university that engages the world around it, and also seems to match with the Turner frontier framework that mixes diverse people and uses available assets to pursue opportunity along a chosen path. Data on firms that have come through the New Venture Challenge reveal that a key metric of success is participants’ ability to raise sufficient equity investments from accelerators, angels, and premier venture funds. According to the Polsky Center (Pletz, 2011), NVC companies have earned more than $3 billion from mergers and exits since 1996.

The goal of the NVC process—to support the development of fundable business models and startup teams—appears to strengthen the teams, helps them refine the products, and continually engage non-campus partners and institutions. The NVC finals regularly feature startups whose products and services are already in use and in some cases already generating revenue. The NVC startup process supports the firm-formation process with repeated opportunities to take tangible actions, iterate models, engage with talented people on and off the campus, and develop networks. The data suggest that Chicago students, the NVC process, and the University of Chicago environment and networks have played a key role in the creation of multiple high-growth student firms.

The 2010–2011 Official Rules and Guidelines for the 15th Annual Edward L. Kaplan New Venture Challenge state that the event aims to meet two main objectives:
  1. 1.

    Provide entrepreneurial services and education to a broad range of students. Along these lines, the Challenge offers a wide range of networking and team building events.

  2. 2.

    Provide financial support for those business plans that are best developed and show the most promise. The prize awards and donated financial services provided to the winner and finalists help fulfill this objective. (Polsky Center, 2010, p. 22)


The NVC, combined with the opportunities and assets provided by the University of Chicago and the Booth School, appears to have met these goals.

A range of ideas and teams make it to the NVC finals each year. Given the breadth and depth of applicants, the growing prize money, and the success of participating students and firms, the NVC has provided an open, diverse, and asset-filled opportunity for students and their partners at the University of Chicago.

5.3 Entrepreneurial networks

Reminiscent of the early days of the University of Chicago, the growth of the University of Chicago’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has been connected to the city itself. In the roughly 20 years since the Booth School committed to the entrepreneurship field, the university, the city of Chicago, its people, and its companies have become a regular features in Chicago’s economy.12 In addition to creating the NVC course and the processes that connect students directly to entrepreneurs, financiers, and firms in the Chicago area, the university has developed strong and evolving off-campus relationships.

In 2006, Hyde Park Angels, an angel investing group, was formed for investors in or with ties to Hyde Park. The group was created by Booth executive MBA students, who remained true to the idea of student-focused entrepreneurship and experiential learning (Weiss, 2011). The managing partner of Hyde Park Angels is Booth accounting professor Ira Weiss, and members of the group have invested in multiple Chicago student startups. Hyde Park Angels also engage Booth MBA students to work on due diligence, deal sourcing, and other activities related to new venture investing (Weiss, 2011). The involvement of these former executive MBA students with current students highlights the openness of the Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem and shows that support is available for ideas that have traction with the school and other stakeholders.

The leadership and students at Booth and the Polsky Center have an outward-facing approach, and their partnership with organizations in and around Chicago offer students multiple opportunities to engage. Not all programs are home runs or have the level of impact the New Venture Challenge has in terms of high-growth student startups, but they continue to engage people and students from across the school, university, city, and globe and bring them into the University of Chicago entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. These partnerships provide additional opportunities, diverse networks, and access to human, technical, and economic assets for students interested in pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011; Khokar, U., personal communication, June 6, 2013; Stopper, A., personal communication, July 2011).

6 Analysis

The search to identify and define entrepreneurial ecosystems has become a matter of great importance, as cities, regions, and nations grapple with the entrepreneurial economy. Scholars and practitioners have weighed in with various offerings, most of which identify universities as important institutions, but none sees the university as the entrepreneurial ecosystem the way this paper does.

Since the mid-1990s, the University of Chicago, led by its business school and its agents, has developed many assets, platforms, and networks that appear to have supported the emergence of high-growth ventures from the campus. While the results of case studies are not generalizable, the case of the University of Chicago offers insights into the types of agents, institutions, cultures, and resources an entrepreneurial ecosystem contains. Moreover, it highlights the diverse governance, openness, and decentralization of activities that have played a role in support student founders and their high-growth ventures. Clearly there is a selection bias, as countless other college and schools likely launched programs in the late 1990s that have not seen such success. It also is likely that the Booth School launched multiple other initiatives that did not survive. That said, there is value in exploring this successful outlier and the emergence of its entrepreneurial ecosystem, with student founders at its core.

From the beginning, plans for the entrepreneurship program at the Booth School of Business were focused on students’ actions and demands. This focus came from the top and was evident in the modest early goal of developing a curriculum that provided tools and opportunities for student participation (Kaplan, S., personal communication, July 27, 2011). As the school’s leadership became aware that students were launching firms and were interested in broader entrepreneurship offerings, the program grew faster and more in the direction of supporting entrepreneurs on campus. The University of Chicago eventually developed a broad and deep ecosystem; this ability take targeted action is one of the hallmarks of Kerr’s (2001) multiversity concept.

Fortunately for Chicago, multiple alumni wanted to fund this student-focused programming, and even more wanted to support students with their time and talents. Leveraging alumni talent is a traditional practice of higher education in the USA; in this case, rather than sports teams or hospital systems, the entrepreneurship ecosystem, its students and their firms benefitted. The open nature of entrepreneurial ecosystem governance (Feld, 2012; Stam 2015) likely would not work with university sports programs or hospital.

The expansion of courses and programs provided access, opportunities, networks, and resources to those interested in engaging in entrepreneurship on the University of Chicago’s campus, which included non-Booth students and non-students. The growth of the NVC to four tracks represents the diversity of students, ventures, and partners engaged in the entrepreneurial ecosystem at the University of Chicago.

Unlike the traditional focus on research, the Booth students’ focus appears to be on the regular creation of high-growth firms at the University of Chicago. This focus, a result of student action, demand, and leadership, is congruent with the university’s history, and that of success in U.S. higher education more generally (Rudolph, 1990).

As noted earlier, from its origins under the leadership of William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago has reached out to the world around it. The entrepreneurship program at the Booth School began doing this early in its existence. The 1998 appointment of Ellen Rudnick, an MBA alumni with a background in innovation, as codirector of the Entrepreneurship Center was an important act. Rudnick proved adept at navigating the off-campus world, rather than the faculty lounge and senate. Steven Kaplan and Rudnick have been codirectors of the program since her arrival.

Successful entrepreneurs and business leaders supported the Booth School’s entrepreneurship program, with Edward L. Kaplan and Joseph Neubauer taking the lead in the early days, just as Rockefeller and other wealthy benefactors stepped in to fund emerging university in Chicago in the 1890s. The engagement of philanthropists continues to be a core feature of the school, including Michael Polsky funding the establishment of the entrepreneurship center and John Edwardson, former CEO of Computer Discount Warehouse, supporting the creation of the social enterprise initiative. All the school’s major supporters are University of Chicago graduates, and as such have high expectations of the school leadership and the students in terms of putting their financial support to work (Kaplan, 2013).

Philanthropists’ contributions have been important to the growth of the entrepreneurship programs at Booth and across the university campus, but the strength of the program has been its broad engagement of off-campus individuals, institutions, and processes in creating an open culture with multiple platforms and countless classes to support high-growth student entrepreneurs on campus. Like any entrepreneurial ecosystem, its evolution was not preordained, and the classes, competitions, and other programs have evolved continually, based on demand from students and others.

Professor Steven Kaplan admitted that the coach and mentor portion of the process took many years to get right, but now it is a key part of the success of the University of Chicago’s entrepreneurship programs and entrepreneurs (Kaplan, S., personal communications, July 27, 2011; Kaplan, 2013). Recent results highlight the school’s ability to engage the world outside the campus and to connect those assets to the university. This includes engaging entrepreneurship faculty members such as Keywell and Lefkowsky, as well as institutions such as 1871 and Techstars Chicago. These entrepreneurial connections to the broader world have stayed true to the tradition of Harper, but more importantly, they have brought great assets and diverse people to campus to work with student entrepreneurs.

As the early leaders and funders of the entrepreneurship program at the University of Chicago recognized the demand for more offerings and found that the interest in creating high-growth firms was greater than expected, they responded by increasing the number of programs, courses, and people engaged. By dramatically expanding coursework, bringing in more faculty, coaches, and mentors, adding tracks to the NVC, partnering with other schools and regional institutions, and producing more events, the University of Chicago began to meet its students’ needs and created many points of entry to its entrepreneurial ecosystem.

With already high standards for entry, the University of Chicago ecosystem began casting a wider net to engage participants. With courses, clubs, laboratories, extensive NVC programs, and off-campus opportunities, the likelihood of high-growth student entrepreneurs emerging from its student body became ever more likely. The most likely pathway to a high-growth venture on campus will pass through the New Venture Challenge. While not all high-growth firms emerging from the University of Chicago have participated in NVC (Groupon is a notable example), and not all high-growth firms make the finals, many entrepreneurs have chosen to participate in the program and the process. It is impossible, as Gartner (1985) warned, to know what part of a firm’s success can be attributed to the process, but it is clear that many would-be company founders at the University of Chicago (including undergraduates) have participated in the NVC and made it part of their firm-formation process.

With a process in place, strong support, and connections off campus, and a clear student focus, the University of Chicago has developed many entrepreneurship assets for it students. However, despite its rich history of excellence, the University of Chicago does not have a school of engineering. This is a crucial point, as many argue that engineering schools are the key movers and shakers in entrepreneurship on U.S. campuses and in the entrepreneurial economy. From Bush’s Endless Frontier (1945) to Roberts and Eeslely (2009) on MIT and Etzkowitz’s (2008) triple helix, engineering, and laboratory science are often presented as the key to developing high-growth startups on university campuses, including in the form of spin-offs. University leaders, policy-makers, philanthropists, and others respond to that idea by attempting to build an engineering driven model like Stanford and MIT.

The University of Chicago has not taken this approach. Its high-growth firms and university leaders have supported the students by offering experiential learning and extensive engagement with the off-campus world, regardless of their field of study or chosen industry. This open, bottom-up approach has had tremendous results. With a broad pool of students from the business school and elsewhere, expanding assets and programs in innovation and entrepreneurship, and the freedom to pursue those assets, the University of Chicago has become a world-class entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The immediate connection to and guidance from the world outside the campus harkens back to the early ideas and actions of Charles Rainey Harper. While the business school has an extensive tradition of direct, intense market engagement through employment and world-class research, the entrepreneurship program appears to have immediately unleashed students into the innovation economy. The campus has provided its students with entrepreneurial opportunities and choices, useful and readily available resources, and access to a diverse group of talented people. The structures built around those attributes have grown and evolved in many directions, something Turner did not think possible as he watched the U.S. frontier close and the industrial era begin.

While each team of company founders and firms to emerge from the University of Chicago experienced the campus in a unique way, it is clear that the Booth School of Business landscape has many elements that can be combined by teams and entrepreneurs into a process. It also offers a clear mindset and culture of entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the growth of the concentration and expansion of the NVC across campus, just as Turner viewed the frontier as a qualitative process. However, in contrast to Turner’s closed frontier, the campus entrepreneurial ecosystem can expand without the wide open spaces that Turner’s frontier thesis demanded. It is constrained only by the creativity of the students, faculty, and staff, and their supporters and partners.


  1. 1.

    At the time this research was published (July 2015), GRPN had a market cap of more than $3 billion.

  2. 2.

    Online coupon service Groupon was dubbed the fastest growing company in world history by Fortune magazine in 2010. With Mason as CEO, Groupon went public in November 2011; by raising $700 million in 1 day, it became the largest IPO of a U.S. Internet company since Google’s in 2004.

  3. 3.

    Techcrunch and Angelist are two of the crowdsourced public databases on venture-funded firms, investors, and other information related to entrepreneurship and innovation. In most cases, these sites depend on registered members submitting information with citations and links to citations. For example, SEC filings on ventures included in this research were located via these types of public databases.

  4. 4.
  5. 5.

    The history of the University of Chicago Press is fascinating in its own right, as it is responsible for many firsts in academic publishing and various other fields. Basic information the organization can be found at

  6. 6.

    The Harper Center is named after a different Charles Harper. The namesake for the building is Booth graduate Charles M. Harper (‘50), former CEO of ConAgra.

  7. 7.

    The six Nobel Prize winners in residence at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 1997 were George Stigler (1982), Merton Miller (1990), Ronald Coase (1991), Gary Becker (1992), Robert Fogel (1993), and Merton Scholes (1994). See

  8. 8.

    Staying true to the original and current goals of experiential pedagogy for entrepreneurship, Booth offerings include the following courses: New Venture Lab, Private Equity and Venture Capital Lab, Social Enterprise Lab, Clean Tech Lab, New Venture Challenge, and Entrepreneurial Internship Seminar (Polsky Center, 2012). For a full list of the courses and labs that Chicago offers for students interested in studying entrepreneurship, visit

  9. 9.

    The University of Chicago runs the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab and comanages the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

  10. 10.

    The Social Enterprise Initiative was endowed in 2012 with a $5 million gift from former Computer Discount Warehouse CEO John Edwardson, MBA 1972

  11. 11.

    In February 2013, Accelerate Labs joined with Colorado- and New York-based venture accelerator Tech Stars. See The accelerator continues to work with the University of Chicago and Polsky on various programs.

  12. 12.

    According to the most recent Bureau of Economic Analysis Report in fall 2013, Chicago continues to be the third largest metropolitan region in the USA, behind New York and Los Angeles and ahead of Houston and Washington, D.C. GDP by Metropolitan Division, BEA 13–42, September 17, 2013. See


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.George Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA

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