Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

The Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University


The Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke, founded with a generous gift from David M. Rubenstein in January of 2013, helps convert the knowledge born at the university into tangible action that improves and enriches lives across all strata of society.  Our initiative is distinct among university entrepreneurship efforts in many regards, and offers a model and a rationale for entrepreneurship within the academy.  Here, we lay out the conceptual underpinnings of our Initiative and highlight activities that exemplify that ethos.

In recent years, entrepreneurship programs have proliferated at the American university.  While the popularity of such programs is clear, one might fairly ask how entrepreneurship fits the mission of the modern University. From the liberal tradition of John Henry Newman to the land-grant University of the 19th Century, the relationship of the university with society has changed continuously.  Today, most universities accept dual roles of the creation and dissemination of knowledge, in measures that vary as the specific institution.  Increasingly, though, the university seeks – and is under pressure – to engage the world around it, to use the University as a means to do well in the world.  Thus, for example, Duke University lists “Knowledge in the Service of Society” as an enduring value: “Our work forms an arc, spanning from inquiry through discovery on the one end and translation into practice on the other.”  That translation – converting the fundamental knowledge that grows at the University into real things and real actions that have real consequences for real people – is of growing importance to the modern university.  And the practice of that translation is entrepreneurship.

It is on this rock – the University as a catalyst that brings ideas to life – that the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke is built.  Our initiative comprises four themes, or pillars.  The Education Pillar offers programs for the entire Duke community – from undergraduates to alumni – that consider the nature of innovation and ideation in all fields, the technical aspects of creating and executing a plan for making ideas real, and reflection on successes and failures that enable learning for the future.  The Research Pillar considers how best to encourage and enable entrepreneurial activity, at the level of individuals, institutions, and ecosystems.  The Translation Pillar provides a host of tools and resources – mentoring and boot-camps, online search tools, legal support and advice, and seed-stage investments through the Duke Angel Network – that enable effective entrepreneurship.  And the Social Entrepreneurship Pillar uses entrepreneurship to provide durable solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.

Growth at the initiative has been extraordinary.  From our beginning in January of 2013 the initiative now employs 27 full- and part-time staff and lists nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate courses.  In only two years of operation our undergraduate certificate in Innovation & Entrepreneurship has enrolled nearly 200 students, making it the second largest certificate program at Duke; the program is on track to enroll on the order of 500 students at steady state.  Our program is exceptionally diverse, with an enrollment almost exactly 50% women and a racial distribution identical to that of the entire university, speaking to the broad appeal of entrepreneurship defined as we have.   A new graduate certificate program launches this coming year, providing both new training opportunities for our graduate students and new mechanisms to bring Duke ideas out of faculty research laboratories.  The Duke Angel Network now includes some 80 members and has closed several deals, providing seed-stage capital to the larger Duke family.  Our novel model of affinity angel investing recently attracted the attention of the United States Department of Commerce, who funded an effort to promulgate the approach to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and North Carolina Central University; together the networks comprise the Triangle Venture Alliance.  And the Bullpen, our award-winning space in Downtown Durham, serves as a nucleus and meeting place for the entire entrepreneurial community at Duke and beyond.

The 21st Century university will engage with society more fully than at any time in its past.  Our value proposition is that knowledge enables a better tomorrow.  We will realize that proposition through the translation of great discoveries in science, engineering, medicine and law into new cures, technologies and practices.  We will realize that proposition by training young men and women after the liberal tradition of Newman, but while instilling in them the notion that ideas have power in their application, and that knowledge enables progress through action.  Entrepreneurship – the translation of ideas into real and tangible products and actions – will live at the core of that University, exemplified and enabled by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative.

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