The current global crisis has had a significant impact on both businesses and universities, and during this period of high unemployment, particularly for those aged 16-24, innovative and experimental new measures are needed to support economic recovery.  This has heightened the need to maximise research potential for economic recovery by supporting entrepreneurship and the commercialisation of research activities.

The full extent of the economic damage caused by the pandemic is yet to be understood, but it is clear to see the significant impact on the labour market for young people. The number of young people aged 16-24 in employment fell by 167,000 from the previous year, and fell a further 220,000 from the previous quarter to 3.54 million. In terms of unemployment, the proportion of those who are unemployed for 16-24 year olds was 14.1% in June-August 2020.

With the possibility of further lockdowns and economic recession impacting hiring, we should think of other innovative ways to tackle unemployment. Encouraging more entrepreneurism, especially for those under 25, has recently been called for by former Employment Secretary, Lord Young.

A 2019 report published by Advance HE entitled, “Engaging Students in Entrepreneurship Education” stated that Universities are increasingly expected to contribute to wider society. As part of this growth, there has been shifting policy emphasis, ranging from the 2014 study ‘An Education System Fit for an Entrepreneur’ and Lord Young’s ‘Enterprise for All’ report. In addition, there have been calls for more entrepreneurship education for STEM undergraduates which, it was argued, would lead to more innovative, science-based companies being created, and the various Industrial Strategy reports have communicated government aims to support the next generation of entrepreneurs.

The Advance HE report shows that in many universities, entrepreneurship topics are now mandatory or at least available to all students regardless of the degree discipline. Advocates of this expansion of entrepreneurship education state that students are increasingly interested in self-employment as a career option, and that careers are nowadays flexible and changing – people move between jobs more readily. As such, entrepreneurship education is required not simply to assist those in navigating the business start-up process, but also to provide them with creative skills that can be applied in a number of contexts. Universities can, therefore, provide their students with employability and entrepreneurial skills so that they can manage their careers in a changing landscape.

For postgraduates, the pioneering research being undertaken at universities offers a unique opportunity to create an innovative ecosystem that utilises their technological advantage to enable fast growth and the generation of high-quality jobs. Universities across the UK have launched 13,000 new spin-outs between 2014-15 and 2018-19, which has in part been credited to an improvement in an entrepreneurial infrastructure. Maximizing this opportunity should be fundamental to the economic recovery.

The UK could learn from Germany in this space.  The EXIST initiative, set up by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, offers grants to turn the work of researchers into innovative start-ups. It also fosters entrepreneurship through workshops, consulting services and introducing researchers to industry connections. Through providing one year of subsistence and maintenance support for innovative researchers wanting to commercialise their research, the risk of setting up a business has been minimised. As of May 2019, the programme had launched over 2,300 start-ups across sectors and universities.

Similar initiatives in the UK like the Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES), aid in fostering a culture of entrepreneurship amongst early career researchers by raising awareness of how novel ideas can be commercialised to address environmental and societal challenges. It is an innovative competition where teams collaborate to develop a business plan for a viable start-up during an intensive three-day residential workshop. Since 1995, the programme has provided entrepreneurial training for over 6,000 researchers making significant contributions to their skillsets and career prospects. Over the years, the competition has also extended into different academic disciplines accelerated by wider industry partnerships.

The programme is financially efficient, and for every £1 of Research Council funding, it is matched by £2.89 from other sources. Their estimates also suggest that YES has contributed to an economic impact through salaries alone of over £1.8 billion.

The YES programme has not only aided the success of spin outs, but has provided further opportunities for researchers year on year.

Universities have a key role to play in fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems: to provide a platform for the commercialisation of innovative research. Through training and supporting researchers to commodify their research, universities have the opportunity to become a driving force in fostering a culture of entrepreneurship.

Supporting entrepreneurism is crucial to ensuring the UK’s economic recovery and part of improvingyouth unemployment. The UK Government would be wise to celebrate, support and build on the success of schemes like YES.

This article was first published as part of the State of the Relationship 2020 report.