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Neesha Desai is one of a team of five that designed Alieo Games, a creative-writing program at the University of Alberta. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
Neesha Desai is one of a team of five that designed Alieo Games, a creative-writing program at the University of Alberta. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Is university the place to learn to be an entrepreneur? Add to ...

Neesha Desai is an award-winning entrepreneur with a problem. After designing a simple computer program to help her niece with math homework, she set to work on making a computer-writing program that encourages children to develop their vocabulary.

The idea won $20,000 in an innovation competition, and Ms. Desai and several partners spent most of the past year turning Alieo Games into a business that is launching this fall.

So, what’s the problem? She did all this while she was supposed to be finishing her PhD dissertation in computer science at the University of Alberta. “If you asked me a year and a half ago,” she explains, “I would have never said I want to start my own business.” Now, even with a supportive graduate-thesis adviser, she has to do a lot of juggling.

And she is hardly alone. Campuses across the country are racing to provide homes for budding entrepreneurs – incubators, labs, accelerators, and classes where students with business ideas can connect with others of their species, and receive mentoring and advice from senior business people. But as they do so, some observers are expressing caution, questioning whether the programs are proliferating before universities know how to teach entrepreneurship successfully, or even if it can be taught at all.

There is no doubt that Canada needs more entrepreneurs – both to drive productivity and to close the innovation gap. In its annual report on prosperity, the Conference Board of Canada compared the ability of 16 countries to create companies that demonstrate some of the basic building blocks of innovation: investing in R&D, gaining access to venture capital, and successfully taking their business global.

Canada ranked behind all but three countries (at the top of the list were Switzerland, Sweden and the United States). When it came to the venture-capital metric, we came in second-last. Universities are hoping they can improve those outcomes. And governments are keen to demonstrate that they are doing something about underwhelming labour-market outcomes for younger demographics: In its spring budget, Ontario found $51-million for student and youth entrepreneurship; and across the country, money like that is buying a lot of what prior generations would see as campus career centres on steroids.

Ontario is home to two of Canada’s most high-profile tech incubators: Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone; and the University of Waterloo’s Velocity lab. In recent months, the U of A has launched eHUB, a centre to help budding entrepreneurs; Ms. Desai went to eHUB often over the course of the summer, when she had questions about taxes, accounting and licensing. It is much like the University of British Columbia’s Entrepreneurship@UBC and the Imagination Catalyst at OCAD University in Toronto, which takes in recent graduates and entrepreneurs from the community. Many such programs are targeted at science, technology and the digital economy, which tend to incubate companies that grow their earnings and employee numbers quickly.

Do entrepreneurs go to school?

In virtual space, there are long lists of entrepreneurs who dropped out of college, giving rise to the trope that the most risk-taking among us are stifled by the classroom. (Dorm rooms are another matter: Facebook was conceived in Mark Zuckerberg’s; and Kik Messenger, a successful messaging app, was born in Ted Livingston’s residence at the University of Waterloo’s Velocity lab.)

Venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel feels school can be a waste of time and money, and every year he is awarding $100,000 each to 20 students under the age of 20 to help them start a business rather than go to college or university. As he has put it, higher education “has become a way to avoid thinking about the future.” The returns to education for American students have also declined, he has said elsewhere, even as tuition rises every year.

Not everyone in Silicon Valley agrees. After all, the Valley would not exist without the tech and engineering graduates of Stanford University (Mr. Thiel himself is a Stanford alumnus, albeit in philosophy, as is Google’s Larry Page). Last year, big-data billionaire Michael Baum responded to the Thiel challenge by giving the same amount to 10 students each year if they start a business and stay in school. (Some of those initial recipients already have their companies up and running.)

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