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opinion

We live in an era when policy-makers find themselves focusing intently on a handful of foundational problems in our economy: What will the jobs of the future look like? What skills are needed? And how does Canada compete in the digital world?

Across Canada, university and college campuses have been offering up compelling answers to these crucial questions and, surprisingly, those answers are coming from outside the classroom.

As they’ve done for generations, postsecondary institutions produce well-educated graduates and scientific research. But as we discovered in a recent study, Canada’s universities have also set themselves up as a kind of lab for an extensive, diverse and intriguing experiment in encouraging entrepreneurship. It is that approach that can best support students, graduates and early-stage innovators to flourish in a changing economic landscape.

Over the past decade or so, numerous campuses have launched incubators, accelerators, sandbox programs, co-ops and a range of other programs aimed at providing students with ways to test ideas, launch companies and, ultimately, envision themselves as entrepreneurs.

Some of these programs have gained international reputations: Ryerson’s DMZ this year was ranked by UBI Global, a research and ranking organization, as the world’s top business incubator managed by a university. The York Entrepreneurship Development Institute (YEDI), Entrepreneuriat Laval, TECEdmonton and the Accelerator Centre (University of Waterloo) placed first, second, third and fourth, respectively, among top business accelerators with university links.

The range and vibrancy of this evolution of the university experience speaks to a lively entrepreneurial instinct among a growing number of postsecondary institutions. It also reflects an important but little known fact: that Canada has the highest rate of early stage entrepreneurship among all developed countries. What’s more, almost half of all graduates envision themselves starting a business, according to a 2013 BMO survey.

When Mitacs, Startup Canada and other partners – policy centres, incubators and accelerators – sat down to study a network of programs ranging from simple speaker series to demanding accelerator programs for established firms, we learned several important lessons.

We were able to identify programs of varying commitment and complexity – an analysis that can be useful in determining best practices for universities building entrepreneurship ecosystems. The study also revealed the vastly different cultures of different universities.

Our research clearly indicates that the private sector is engaged through a variety of channels, such as mentorships, internships, angel investments and juries in accelerators. What’s less appreciated is the role that these entrepreneurial experiences – many of which are extracurricular – play in the development of Canada’s economy and labour force. While these experiences are directed at young people with ambitions to build innovation-driven businesses, there’s also an encouraging and growing interest in entrepreneurship in large organizations, both private and public.

An increasing number of Globe and Mail ROB Top 1000 firms in recent years have set up internal innovation labs to explore the potential of new technologies, such as machine learning or block chain. Others private-sector groups, such as ScaleUP Ventures, have forged investment partnerships to connect Canadian start-ups to both capital and large Canadian customers as part of their scaling strategies.

These organizations evidently have a demonstrated interest in, and demand for, recent graduates who not only bring defined technical and analytical skills but have also been exposed to the entrepreneurial experiences delivered through these campus programs.

Even if they don’t become entrepreneurs, graduates who have pitched to angel investors or tried to bootstrap a business will bring a crucial outlook to employers of all sizes. They’ll have an invaluable experiential understanding of the agility and risk-taking outlook that defines the entrepreneurial career.

Graduates with hands-on entrepreneurship experiences represent an especially valuable pool of talent for Canadian firms of all sizes. For that reason, these programs merit recognition as a vital and growing component of Canada’s labour-force development strategy. They also can be seen as an important source of human capital for innovation-driven Canadian SMEs that are looking to scale into mid-sized firms – traditionally a difficult step.

Canada’s postsecondary institutions have been impressively entrepreneurial in building these entrepreneurship ecosystems. It’s now time for decision makers to recognize the role they can play in building Canada’s future.

Alejandro Adem is CEO and Scientific Director of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada. He is also a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia.

Victoria Lennox is the CEO of Startup Canada, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and competitiveness through entrepreneurship promotion and programming. She is a serial social entrepreneur in Ottawa and the President of the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs in Britain.