Science - November 13, 2008

STUDENTS SHOULD BE ENTREPRENEURS TOO

Traditionally, a scientist generates knowledge and publishes it. ‘But a university is also responsible for making science applicable’, says Hans Dons, Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Life Sciences. It is partly thank to his initiatives that Wageningen UR offers more and more courses that will make entrepreneurs of its students.

Students of Van Hall Larenstein present their plans at a business fair.
In the forum, Jeroen de Vree, who’s been at the WUR for two months now, nods in agreement with 75 year-old Emeritus Professor Marc van Montagu’s impassioned account of the blessings of plant biotechnology. Back in the late nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties, Van Montagu laid the foundations for a sound scientific and – through the company Plant Genetic Systems – commercial basis for the genetic modification of plants. Now, in the first of the Schilperoort Lectures, he describes this combination of science and entrepreneurship to an audience of at least eighty people, including Jeroen.

‘I’m doing my Masters in marine biotechnology here in Wageningen’, says Jeroen. ‘…I think it would be great to have my own company – in the field of algae, I think – mainly because of the freedom it gives you. No, it’s not for the money, I have a more social goal in mind: solving real problems in the world, just like Van Montagu.’

Once in Wageningen, Jeroen fell straight into the welcoming arms of Dafne – just a few months old but an ambitious lady! The Dutch Agro-food Network of Entrepreneurship (www.dafne-entrepreneurship.nl) is a collaboration between the university and three agricultural institutions of higher education: VHL, Dronten and Den Bosch. Its main aims, in ‘entrepreneurspeak’, are to improve the entrepreneurial mindset, raise awareness and develop competences and skills. Funding to the tune of 3.4 million euros has been made available for this purpose, of which 1.5 million comes from central government (the Ministries of Economic Affairs and of Education, Culture and Science) because Dafne is one of six Dutch Centres of Entrepreneurship.

The aim, says initiator Professor Hans Dons, is to teach students entrepreneurial skills. ‘It’s not primarily about targeting people who want to start their own business, but about developing a spirit of enterprise, teaching students how to apply knowledge in society. These are skills that are needed anyway in professional practice. The spirit of enterprise is simply an important competence nowadays’, says Dons, who takes Cornell University as an example. ‘It’s buzzing with enterprise there. Publishing is important, of course, but a university is more that just a generator of new knowledge, it is also responsible for making it usable.’
Dafne offers a broad and coherent package of fourteen activities, mainly educational and including the Schilperoort lectures and a Minor in the Bachelor’s degree.

According to Dafne coordinator Ingrid Hijman, though, the programme hasn’t really taken off yet. ‘I still notice resistance from people who think that publishing is the ultimate academic goal. But there’s a lot more you can do with knowledge. And it can’t be expressed in money terms alone. Knowledge can also contribute to societal debates.’
Professor of biotechnology René Wijffels supports this kind of attention to entrepreneurship, but not at the expense of subject knowledge. ‘Because without that, you can never get innovative ideas’, says Wijffels. Others, like Dr. Lucas Noldus, founder and director of Noldus Information Technology, and Onno van de Stolpe, founder and director of the indexed pharmaceutical company Galapagos, would have liked to follow courses like these when they were students. But can such courses turn you into an entrepreneur? Van de Stolpe wonders: ‘Is it nature or nurture? Perhaps such courses can spark off something in the students, but you certainly need a lot of innate drive.’

Isabella van Rijn, student of nutrition and health, tells us how her enterprising spirit was fired up through writing a business plan for a course in marketing during her professional degree course in nutrition and diet. ‘Since then I have started a company that intermediates in agricultural development in new and candidate EU countries.’

Yet Robbert Kleiren, student of Management, Economics and Consumer Studies and a coordinator at Wageningen’s Student Entrepreneurial Centre, doubts whether Dafne will be able to change the Wageningen culture. ‘Entrepreneurship is still a bit of a dirty word in Wageningen. It is associated with money-grubbing, whereas it is really all about innovative thinking, creativity and seizing opportunities. You can be an entrepreneur in an NGO too.’

MORE AND MORE ENTERPRISE
Research by Alumni Association KLV in 2006 revealed that more and more Wageningen graduates opt for their own business, if only at a later stage in their careers. Of those who graduated within the last five years, only four per cent are entrepreneurs, but of the total number of alumni, ten per cent have their own business, compared with eight per cent in 2001 and only five per cent in 1983. Nowadays, entrepreneurship is promoted right from the undergraduate years.
A starter can apply to the Student Entrepreneurial Centre for microcredit ofup to ten thousand euros. Go to www.stocwageningen.nl for information and the programme of the Global Entrepreneurship Week (18 to 20 November), including the XLX Entrepreneurs game, a Dafne party and the first Young Entrepreneurs’ Business Café.

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