nt. J. Entrepreneurial Venturin
, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2018 83
Copyright © 2018 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
University support systems for sustainable
entrepreneurship: insights from explorative case
Department of Business Administration, Economics and Law,
Innovation Management and Sustainability,
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg,
Ammerländer Heerstr. 114-118,
26111 Oldenburg, Germany
Department of Business Administration, Economics and Law,
Innovation Management and Sustainability,
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg,
Ammerländer Heerstr. 114-118,
26111 Oldenburg, Germany
Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability,
Clayallee 323, 14169 Berlin, Germany
Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability,
Clayallee 323, 14169 Berlin, Germany
Abstract: In recent years public policy has increasingly recognised the
importance of entrepreneurship for sustainable economic growth and solving
fundamental challenges such as climate change. It is emphasised that
universities should play an important role in supporting sustainable
entrepreneurship by sensitising and educating future sustainable entrepreneurs.
Up till now there has hardly been any research on university support systems
for sustainable entrepreneurship. We address this research gap with a
qualitative multi-case study of four universities in the USA and Germany,
based on 41 good practice examples. Using an open innovation concept, we
developed a conceptual framework that is based on an interactive paradigm and
allows comprehensive support systems analysis. We identified top-down,
bottom-up and combined implementation strategies as well as integrative and
additive approaches. The framework is suitable for empirical investigations and
supports future research. Our results demonstrate the importance of the
. Tiemann et al.
institutional framing of support activities and indicate that, in comparison with
other elements of the university support system, research on sustainable
entrepreneurship is lagging behind.
Keywords: sustainable entrepreneurship; university support systems; good
practice cases; entrepreneurial universities; sustainable universities.
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Tiemann, I., Fichter, K. and
Geier, J. (2018) ‘University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship:
insights from explorative case studies’, Int. J. Entrepreneurial Venturing,
Vol. 10, No. 1, pp.83–110.
Biographical notes: Irina Tiemann is a Senior Researcher at the Department of
Business Administration, Economics of the Carl von Ossietzky University of
Oldenburg, Germany, and member of the Oldenburg Center for Sustainability
Economics and Management (CENTOS). She received her PhD from the
University of Münster, Germany, where she also studied Business Chemistry.
Afterwards she worked as a Business Development Manager at Aleo Solar
GmbH in Oldenburg. Her academic interests are in the field of sustainable
entrepreneurship and business model developing process.
Klaus Fichter is an Adjunct Professor of Innovation Management and
Sustainability at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany,
and on the board of directors of the Oldenburg Center for Sustainability
Economics and Management (CENTOS). He is the Founder and Director of the
Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability, Berlin, and Head of
graduate degree programs in innovation management and sustainable
entrepreneurship. He is Chair of the special interest group Sustainable
Entrepreneurship of the FGF network of entrepreneurship research, education
and policy. Furthermore, as a widely published author in journals such as R&D
Management, Journal of Industrial Ecology, and the Journal of Innovation
Management, and Business Entrepreneur, he has proven credentials in both
academia and the business world. His research focuses on evolutionary and
interaction economics, eco-innovation, sustainable entrepreneurship and green
start-ups. He is particularly interested in innovation communities,
entrepreneurial ecosystems and support systems for sustainable
Joerg Geier is an Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Borderstep Institute for
Innovation and Sustainability, Berlin. He is a member of the Club of Rome and
former Deputy Secretary General. He is a member of the Energy Academy,
Berlin. As a start-up consultant, he connects German and Silicon Valley-based
companies and ecosystems. He is the former Director of Executive Education at
Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. His expertise is in
international capacity building. His academic interests are in the field of
sustainable entrepreneurship and green start-ups. As a Fulbright Scholar, he
obtained his MBA from Golden Gate University, San Francisco.
In recent years national as well as international public policy has increasingly recognised
the importance of entrepreneurship for sustainable economic growth and solving
fundamental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity. For
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 85
example, in 2014 the European Commission published the green action plan (GAP) to
help start-ups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) take advantage of the
opportunities offered by the transition to a green economy (European Commission,
2014). The GAP states: “Green entrepreneurship should already be addressed in (higher)
education, to prepare the mind-set of future green entrepreneurs”. Furthermore, the GAP
recommends encouraging green entrepreneurship by helping potential entrepreneurs to
identify sustainable business opportunities, and to develop new and creative forms of
cooperation between businesses and academia. Accordingly, universities should sensitise
and educate future sustainable entrepreneurs and use a systematic approach to specific
opportunities and challenges of sustainable development by providing appropriate
support systems. This argument and requirement from policy makers is supported by
research on entrepreneurship and management education (Matten and Moon, 2004; Basu
et al., 2008; Lans et al., 2014; Hesselbarth and Schaltegger, 2014). The need to include
sustainability in educating responsible leaders has been emphasised in an extant body of
literature (see Lozano García et al., 2006; Osiemo, 2012; Hesselbarth and Schaltegger,
2014). While the question of why sustainable entrepreneurship should be supported by
higher education institutions has been clearly answered, there have been few insights into
how an appropriate university system should be designed to effectively support
Universities are often seen as engines of growth in the knowledge-driven economy
(Laursen and Salter, 2004). In addition to research and teaching, universities have a third
role in promoting more specific tasks such as technology transfer, patenting and
commercial outputs in an increasingly knowledge-based world. This phenomenon has
also been described in the entrepreneurship literature as a paradigm shift toward an
entrepreneurial university (Etzkowitz et al., 2000; Etzkowitz and Klofsten, 2005; Ranga
and Etzkowitz, 2013).
Universities also play a pivotal role in promoting sustainability principles and thus
contribute to the paradigm shift toward more sustainable development (Disterheft et al.,
2013). Universities have been given key roles in promoting and implementing sustainable
development (UNCED, 1992). An increasing number of universities have responded to
the ethical obligation to systematically integrate sustainability into their institutions
through teaching, research, operation, assessment and reporting (Disterheft et al., 2013).
This has been described in the sustainable development research as the emergence of
sustainable universities (Disterheft et al., 2015; Figueiró and Raufflet, 2015; Ramos et al.,
Although the research fields of the entrepreneurial university and the sustainable
university are both growing, until now there has been no connection between them. There
is a clear gap in university entrepreneurship research regarding sustainability, and vice
versa, and only very limited research has been carried out on support systems for
sustainable entrepreneurship. The few exceptions are limited to single universities and to
single elements in entrepreneurship education (Basu et al., 2008; Hesselbarth and
Schaltegger, 2014; Lans et al., 2014). Against this background, Lans et al. (2014)
highlight the lack of connections between the educational fields of entrepreneurship and
sustainability at universities. Entrepreneurship education is usually located in the
business schools, while sustainable development education is usually based in the
environment faculty. There are some cases where the boundaries of these two disciplines
are crossed (e.g., business courses offered to students from environmental or green
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technologies fields) but only few cases in which an effort is made to integrate both
perspectives (e.g., courses offering an original focus on sustainable entrepreneurship).
Initial investigations have shown that, so far, only a few universities have developed
special support activities for green and clean technologies or entrepreneurship programs
with a focus on sustainability (Clausen and Fichter, 2011; Fichter et al., 2014).
In order to fill the research gap regarding university support systems for sustainable
development, and to improve understanding of what universities can do to boost their
development and implementation of sustainable entrepreneurship, we investigated the
following research question:
• How do leading universities support sustainable entrepreneurship and how are their
support systems designed?
To answer this question, we conducted a review and described the current state of the
research in this field. We found that no appropriate conceptual framework for specific
support systems at universities had been developed, and have therefore elaborated a new
overarching conceptual framework. To empirically analyse the research question, we
conducted in-depth case studies using our new conceptual framework. Methodologically,
we took a qualitative approach to gain an in-depth understanding of a new and complex
phenomenon within its specific contexts. Our analysis highlights the lack of research on
university support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship. It also contributes a
theoretical basis by providing a new conceptual framework and qualitative empirical
results from case studies.
2 Conceptual background
2.1 Literature review
2.1.1 Sustainable entrepreneurship
Sustainable entrepreneurship is a new research field that is still developing. Binder and
Belz (2015) provide a systematic review of existing literature and show that sustainable
entrepreneurship is an emerging stream within entrepreneurship literature. Traditionally,
entrepreneurship was considered in terms of economic development, while environmental
and social issues were widely ignored. The first article which linked sustainable
development and entrepreneurship appeared at the end of the 1990s: Hart and Milstein
(1999) applied the concept of creative destruction (Schumpeter, 1942) as the central force
for the transition to a sustainable society. They were the first to put forward the concept
of sustainable development as a source of entrepreneurial opportunities. Following this
observation an increasing number of researchers began to turn their attention to the nexus
of sustainable development and entrepreneurship (Cohen and Winn, 2007; Dean and
McMullen, 2007; Pacheco et al., 2010; Patzelt and Shepherd, 2011). Since 2009, the
number of articles published on sustainable entrepreneurship has increased significantly
(Binder and Belz, 2015). While many of these articles emphasise opportunity seeking as
key to sustainable entrepreneurship, another important thread of literature highlights a
creative and effectuation-based approach (Hockerts and Wüstenhagen, 2010; Parrish,
2010; Schaltegger and Wagner, 2011) where a creation perspective is taken. These
researchers emphasise the active role of ecopreneurs and sustainable entrepreneurs in
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 87
creating sustainability-oriented change. This perspective is particularly important for a
creative view of universities supportive of sustainable entrepreneurship.
With the upturn in research, different terminology and definitions of sustainable
entrepreneurship emerged. In this paper we view sustainable entrepreneurship, in
accordance with Pacheco et al. (2010), as the discovery, creation, evaluation, and
exploitation of opportunities to create innovative goods and services that are consistent
with sustainable development goals (United Nations, 2015). Shepherd and Patzelt (2011)
state that the recognition of sustainable development opportunities is more complex for
the entrepreneur than the recognition of non-sustainable opportunities motivated solely
by economic gain. Sustainable entrepreneurs need to balance often competing aims of
economic, social and ecological value creation (Parrish, 2010). This leads to increased
complexity for sustainable entrepreneurship in comparison to traditional forms of
entrepreneurship. In addition to high complexity, sustainable opportunities are
characterised by strong uncertainty (cause and effect of the problem), and the difficulties
of realising a complete solution. They have been classified as ‘wicked problems’ (Lans et
Creating, recognising and taking advantage of sustainable opportunities are complex
challenges for sustainable entrepreneurs and demand specific support systems. An
effective support system incorporates all actors, institutional settings and resources that
help entrepreneurs in innovating successfully (Fichter et al., 2016). In this paper we
concentrate on the university as an important supporting actor. We assume that, on the
one hand, some personal attributes of entrepreneurs such as the individual’s prior
knowledge and motivation (Shepherd and Patzelt, 2011), sustainability orientation
(Kuckertz and Wagner, 2010; Wagner, 2012) and perpetual reasoning (Parrish, 2010) can
be influenced by the education and experience they receive at universities and should be
adequately addressed within the university context. One the other hand, universities are
also able to support external economic actors like SMEs or start-ups in developing and
establishing sustainable and often technology-driven products through their research and
development (R&D) resources. In the following chapter we discuss and analyse the
literature on university support systems.
2.1.2 University support system
First we describe the current research situation regarding the role of universities in
supporting entrepreneurship in general, and second the consideration of sustainability in
university entrepreneurship support in particular. We do this by reviewing international
literature, focusing on books and articles in peer-reviewed journals. Using the
comprehensive review of university entrepreneurship literature between 1981 and 2005
provided by Rothaermel et al. (2007) as a guide, relevant literature was identified based
on keyword searches in journals and journal databases. In this review, the following eight
journals were identified as the most important sources and formed the focus of our
analysis of the entrepreneurship literature: Research Policy, Journal of Technology
Transfer, Technovation, Journal of Business Venturing, Management Science, Small
Business Economics, International Journal of Industrial Organization, and R&D
In addition to the entrepreneurship literature, we looked at articles dealing with
regional sustainable development. With the increasing importance of sustainable
development on a global, national and regional level, the role of academia as part of the
. Tiemann et al.
regional ecosystem is also being investigated. The Journal of Cleaner Production’s issue
on ‘The roles of academia in regional sustainability initiatives’ (2009, Vol. 17, No. 12)
was a particularly important source.
The existing literature points to three key findings. First, university entrepreneurship
research offers various classifications of relevant aspects of an entrepreneurial university,
such as internal elements [internal incentive system (Freedman and Silberman, 2003),
characteristics and roles of faculty (Chrisman et al., 1995), etc.] and external factors
[federal laws and policies (Mowery and Sampat, 2001), relationships with industry
(Harmon et al., 1997), etc.]. Many approaches focus only on specific factors, with just a
few taking a more comprehensive view (European Commission and OECD, 2012;
Rothaermel et al., 2007).
Second, there is a clear gap in university entrepreneurship research in regard to
sustainability, and vice versa. Only three (Basu et al., 2008; Hesselbarth and Schaltegger,
2014; Lans et al., 2014) of the 56 articles and books we analysed consider sustainable
entrepreneurship explicitly in a university context while the rest focus only on the field of
Third, there is a need for more comprehensive systems analysis and an interactive
paradigm. Rothaermel et al. (2007, p.740) suggest a more comprehensive analysis to
understand the dynamics and effects of different measures on the whole system. This
perspective is shared by other authors (e.g., Bradley et al., 2013) who stress that
technology transfer and university entrepreneurship is a highly interactive process rather
than a linear one.
These findings indicated that no comprehensive conceptual framework had yet been
developed which adequately structured our unit of analysis (university support systems
for sustainable entrepreneurship) and which was appropriate to answering our research
question. Thus we needed a consistent conceptual framework to analyse the potential
fields of activity and support and to determine starting points for transforming the general
university support system for entrepreneurship to a support system for sustainable
entrepreneurship. In the following chapter, we develop such a conceptual framework.
2.2 Conceptual framework
The main purpose of the conceptual framework was to structure our unit of analysis,
meaning to classify the potential fields of university activity and support for sustainable
entrepreneurship. The conceptual framework is therefore descriptive and not explanatory,
and is designed to cover all potentially relevant fields of activity and structure for
supporting sustainable entrepreneurship in the university environment. It was designed to
allow empirical investigation and analysis of the research question.
Sustainable entrepreneurship involves both new companies (start-ups), and
intrapreneurship within established SMEs and larger companies. Both have different
roles in this context: in a review of 100 diffusion processes, Fichter and Clausen (2016)
found that start-ups are primarily involved in radical eco-innovation processes while
established SMEs and larger companies are more strongly involved in incremental
eco-innovation. Hockerts and Wüstenhagen (2010) further suggest that ‘sustainable
Davids’ (start-ups) play a key role in emerging and early growth phases of market
development while ‘greening Goliaths’ (larger companies) become more important in the
growing and mature phases of an industry. University support for sustainable
entrepreneurship is relevant to both, that is to help students, researchers, and university
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 89
teachers develop their entrepreneurial skills and start new ventures, and to help external
economic actors develop and establish green products and sustainable business models.
2.2.1 Interactive paradigm
Developing a consistent conceptual framework for analysing the potential fields of
activity and support and determining starting points for transforming the general
university support system for entrepreneurship to a support system for sustainable
entrepreneurship requires a clear and consistent theoretical basis. Since universities are
complex social systems that are embedded in an even more complex environmental
context, we agree with Rothaermel et al. (2007, p.740) and Bradley et al. (2013) that
there is a need for more comprehensive systems analysis and an interactive paradigm.
Interaction economics and interactive innovation theory are based on an interactive
paradigm and offer a consistent theoretical basis for describing and analysing the
evolution of university support systems for entrepreneurship. The theoretical field of
interaction economics (Fichter, 2014) which has recently emerged is a micro-economic
approach that sees the social interaction between actors as a central ‘location’ of
self-organisation as well as decision-making and change in social and economic
processes, and thus makes this aspect its main objective for conceptualisation.
Consequently, the focus of interaction economics is, like that of evolutionary economics,
in the broadest sense change in social and economic systems. Rather than describe an
internal status it concentrates on transitional processes and the emergence of new ideas,
both in terms of how these ideas are spread and the impact such novelty has. The
interaction between individuals within the system is conceptualised as the central ‘place
of change’ (Fichter, 2014). We therefore focus our analysis on university support
activities and the interactions related to them. We differentiate between internal
interaction (interaction between university actors) and external interaction between
university and external actors.
Since university support for entrepreneurship is not limited to internal support for
spin-off activities of students, researchers, and professors (academic entrepreneurship),
but also comprises specific tasks such as technology transfer, patenting and commercial
outputs as well as extensive cooperation with external actors, we felt it was most
appropriate to base our conceptual framework on interactive and systemic concepts. The
triple helix model deals specifically with the interaction among industry, university, and
government at the local, regional, and national level (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 2000).
This model calls attention to the interdependencies between these three spheres of
influence and to the dynamic processes through which actors mimic each other’s roles. In
the triple helix model the role of universities becomes an entrepreneurial one,
emphasising proactivity in commercialisation of knowledge and research results
(Etzkowitz and Klofsten, 2005). The concept of entrepreneurial university (Etzkowitz
et al., 2000; Etzkowitz and Klofsten, 2005; Ranga and Etzkowitz, 2013) is based on the
triple helix model and provides a systemic perspective on universities and was suitable
for our purpose. Etzkowitz (2001) describes the capitalisation of knowledge as a
transformation of the role of the university in society comparable to the first academic
revolution of the late 19th century and early 20th century when research became an
accepted academic task in addition to teaching. Over the last few decades, universities
have embraced a third central role: to make solution- and action-orientated contributions
to societal challenges. Universities take on an entrepreneurial role as a transformation and
. Tiemann et al.
innovation actor and play a unique role in society, providing a community of
experimentation and innovation (Wissema, 2009).
We perceive the entrepreneurial university as an integral part of the triple helix model
and regional and transregional innovation systems (Astheim and Gertler, 2005; Geels,
2004). Examples of university involvement in transregional innovation systems are the
Knowledge And Innovation Communities (KICs) of the European Institute of Innovation
and Technology (EIT) .
In regard to entrepreneurial support and the development of innovations, there are
numerous relationships and forms of interaction between internal actors of a university
and external actors. Building on the interactive school of innovation theory (Fichter,
2013) we use an open innovation concept (Chesbrough, 2006; Enkel et al., 2009) to
describe and analyse these interactions between the university and external key actors. By
putting the university at the centre of an open innovation model, support activities can be
differentiated and related to inside-out activities (e.g., knowledge transfer to external
actors, academic spin-offs, licensing, consulting of SMEs), networking and cooperation
(e.g., joint research projects, master’s theses with industrial partners and regional
clusters) and outside-in activities (e.g., industry partners as mentors in university business
plan competitions, entrepreneurs and industrial partners participating in extracurricular
courses or utilising office and laboratory space in universities’ incubators). These three
types of interaction between university members and external actors can be perceived as
part of the triple helix model, and can be related to interdependencies with government
Based on an extensive literature review, Rothaermel et al. (2007) identified four
research areas that emerged from a detailed analysis of 173 articles:
1 the entrepreneurial university
2 productivity of technology transfer offices (TTOs)
3 new firm creation
4 the environmental context including networks of innovation [Rothaermel et al.,
The research on the entrepreneurial university views entrepreneurial activity as a step in
the natural evolution of a university system that emphasises economic development in
addition to the more traditional mandates of education and research. “Consequently, most
of the articles in this research stream attempt to reveal organisational designs of
universities (‘structure’) that inhibit or enhance the commercialisation of university
inventions. Studies have revolved around incentive systems, university status, location,
culture, intermediary agents, focus, experience, and defined role and identity”
[Rothaermel et al., (2007), p.708]. Discussion on the entrepreneurial university is thus
related to institutional framing and issues of university strategy, structure and culture, so
we took institutional framing as one element in our conceptual framework. According to
Etzkowitz et al. (2000) the concept of the entrepreneurial university describes an
academic structure and function that is revised through the alignment of economic
development with research and teaching as academic missions. We extended this
understanding to include the universities’ obligations to support sustainable development
in local, regional and national environments and integrate sustainability issues within the
concept of the entrepreneurial university. We also used other research areas identified by
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 91
Rothaermel et al. (2007, p.707, ff.) in our conceptual framework. We included the work
of TTOs and other transfer activities, and labelled this field of support activity ‘transfer
activities’. We also included ‘new firm creation’ and the ‘environmental context’ as
important elements in the framework. Two fields missing in the conceptual framework of
Rothaermal et al. (2007, p.707) are teaching and research as the traditional fields of
activity and key roles of universities. These are very important in supporting sustainable
entrepreneurship. Against this background we developed a conceptual framework that
differentiates between internal interaction and external interaction while also structuring
the university into five internal fields of activity (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 Potential fields of support activities of universities for sustainable entrepreneurship and
innovation (see online version for colours)
The institutional framing (1) leads the top down processes for implementation of
entrepreneurship and sustainability by defining the strategy and mission, organising the
structures und functions of the institutions (e.g., professorships for entrepreneurship) and
developing the culture of the university (Jacob et al., 2003). University presidents,
chancellors, directors, deans and governing bodies play a key role here (European
Commission and OECD, 2012). According to the extended role of the university, which
we described above, we divided the basic activities into education activities (2) (e.g.,
teaching activities), research activities (3), and transfer activities (4). Based on the open
innovation concept described above, we differentiate between the following types of
transfer activities: inside-out activities (e.g., knowledge transfer to industry partners,
TTOs, patenting, licensing etc.), cooperation (e.g., joint R&D projects with external
partners) and outside-in activities (e.g., industry partners as mentors in university
business plan competitions, participation of entrepreneurs and industrial partners in
extracurricular courses). The university’s support activities for new firm creation
. Tiemann et al.
(European Commission and OECD, 2012, pp. 10–11; Grave et al., 2014) include
consulting members of the university (students, researchers, professors etc.) in their
entrepreneurial endeavours, coaching academic start-up teams, and supporting them by
providing infrastructure within university entrepreneurship centres, incubators or
programs (e.g., entrepreneurship summer schools). In our conceptual framework, these
are grouped together into the activity field support activities for new firm creation (5).
The shift to more entrepreneurial activities arises from both the internal development
of the university and external influences on academic structures (Etzkowitz et al., 2000;
Rothaermel et al., 2007). Thus we expected that the five elements would be mutually
dependent on the environmental context and the interaction with external actors such as
government, industry or civil society. Here we applied the systemic and interactive
perspective described above. The entrepreneurial university is influenced by national and
regional universities, innovation and entrepreneurship policies and regional development
strategies, and is embedded in regional and transregional innovation systems. In terms of
our open innovation approach, support activities can be related to different forms of
interaction between the university and external actors such as companies, start-ups and
innovation networks. We categorise these open innovation activities in our conceptual
framework as inside-out activities, cooperation and outside-in activities (Enkel et al.,
We used this conceptual framework to systematically answer our research question.
We analysed each framework element (institutional framing, education, research,
transfer, and support for new firm creation) regarding the status quo of the specific
support activities for sustainable entrepreneurship.
3 Method and data
3.1 Method and case selection
We took a qualitative case-based approach. Case-based research is appropriate when
existing theories or the available data are insufficient to engage in quantitative hypothesis
testing and when the researcher desires to gain an in-depth understanding of a complex
phenomenon within its specific context (Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007; Yin, 2009).
To identify appropriate cases, we comprehensively researched the literature and the
Internet. The geographical scope of our research focused on five selected countries:
Finland, Germany, Sweden, the UK and the USA. We used the eco-innovation
scoreboard (Eco-IS) to select the first four of these five countries (EIO, 2016). The
Eco-IS has 16 indicators that illustrate both eco-innovation performance and the level of
development of the support system for eco-innovation across the EU member states. We
assumed the leading countries on the Eco-IS would have the EU’s most highly developed
good practice cases for university support systems for eco-innovation and sustainable
entrepreneurship. In the top four we found
1 Finland and Sweden
4 the UK.
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 93
Finland, Germany and Sweden were selected as they were the countries of the project
partners and the governmental organisations that funded the research project. The UK
was selected due to it being Europe’s most international education market (Hemsley
et al., 2010) and for its cultural position “between the US and other European countries”.
The USA was selected for a better global perspective as it is the world’s most global
market in higher education (CWCU, 2014). Its business schools set milestones and its
entrepreneurial centres for global technology entrepreneurship serve as templates for
entrepreneurial ecosystem development, and we therefore assumed it would provide
appropriate good practice cases outside the EU. Other countries were not considered due
to the limited resources of the research project. To find the relevant universities within
the countries we used country-specific university rankings (Grave et al., 2014; Net
Impact, 2014; The Aspen Institute, 2012) as starting points. Findings from literature and
Internet research for Finland, Germany and Sweden were supplemented by 12 expert
interviews. As a result, 41 good practice examples were identified.
Table 1 Study design and case selection criteria
Multi case study design
Unit of analysis University as whole organisation
Technical or non-technical
University with natural
sciences and engineering as core
University with social
sciences as core areas
University focus University with entrepreneurial
University with sustainable
Selected countries USA Germany
Case selection criteria Level of advancement:
breadth and scope of
support (activity or
Field access: access
to relevant actors of
the case for
Different perspectives of
director of an
director of a
We used detailed descriptions of these good practice examples (Geier and Fichter, 2015)
to identify cases for our in-depth analyses. Because of limited resources, we balanced the
two aims of gaining multi-faceted results from different cases (a multi-case study design)
and analysing the cases in more detail, by choosing four universities from the most
advanced ‘good practice’ cases. To select the four cases we used following criteria
1 The level of advancement in sustainable entrepreneurship support: the breadth and
scope of explicit sustainable entrepreneurship support activities and programs. Cases
had to have activities in all elements of our conceptual framework (institutional
framing, education, research, transfer, and support for new firm creation).
. Tiemann et al.
2 Heterogeneity: cases with different foci (entrepreneurial, sustainable), profiles
(technical, social sciences) and from different countries, in order to represent
different contextual settings.
3 Field access: access to the relevant actors of the case for interviewing.
Based on these selection criteria we chose four universities with two different foci (two
with more entrepreneurial focus and two with a more sustainable focus), with two
different profiles (two technical universities and two non-technical universities) and from
two different countries (two from the USA and two from Germany). Within each case,
we included the different perspectives of interview partners from university management,
research and teaching in the fields of entrepreneurship and sustainability, as well as an
3.2 Data collection and analysis
To collect our data, we used the triangulation method which combines online and offline
document analysis, revision of the results by members of the universities, and
guideline-based in-depth interviews with different relevant actors involved in the case.
In each of the four cases we interviewed six different persons representing different
perspectives such as university management, research, teaching and an external
perspective. In total, 24 in-depth interviews were conducted. Recordings of over 956
minutes were made (the average duration of an interview being 40 minutes) and
transcribed in the original languages (English and German).
The data from the document analyses and the interviews was evaluated through
coding and analyses with MaxQDA. The coding category system was developed using a
combined deductive and inductive approach. Initially, a code category system based on
the conceptual framework and the guiding questions was developed deductively. In the
pre-coding process (five interviews) various adjustments were inductively made, with the
main code categories being divided into more specific sub-code categories. New codes
were added to represent the inductively derived categories. To ensure the analysis was
objective and reliable, three of the project researchers independently coded the same
interview to pre-test the coding system. The results were compared, variations were
discussed and adaptations of the code system were made until an appropriate level of
intercoder reliability was achieved. The coding using the final code system was
performed by one person. Having only one coder has the advantage of reducing
variations due to personal coding behaviour and increases coding consistency. At the
same time, intercoder reliability of final coding is not controlled for the subjective
interpretation. Thus both approaches (having one or several coders) involve advantages
and disadvantages. Since we had controlled intercoder reliability in the pre-test, we
decided to choose the approach of one coder.
4 Case analyses
To answer our research question, we analysed the relevant support activities and
classified these activities according to our conceptual framework elements (see Figure 1):
institutional framing, education, research, transfer, and support for new firm creation. We
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 95
analysed each case separately, looking at the relevant supporting activities and the design
of the support system for each case in detail, then we conducted a cross-case analysis
investigating the data in aggregated form to compare the cases.
4.1 Individual case analyses
4.1.1 Case: German university GER U1
Our first case is a medium-sized university in Germany. It was founded in the 1980s and
characterises itself as a humanistic, proactive and sustainable university with
entrepreneurship as a cross-cutting theme. Several interesting sustainability-related
supporting activities for entrepreneurship and innovation were identified (see Table 2).
This case notably features explicit elements within the institutional framework of the
university that cover both the topics of sustainability and entrepreneurship. Interestingly,
the university mission statement treats entrepreneurship and sustainability as two
co-existing strategic aims, but does not explicitly connect them. It defines an
entrepreneurial university as a proactive university which fosters the development of
proactive individuals who demonstrate creativity and thoughtfulness as well as the
willingness and ability to creatively shape society. The concrete support activities for
sustainable entrepreneurship integrate the two perspectives and focus primarily on
education and research. These activities are located within the sustainability faculty of the
university. They offer modules and programs which sensitise students to environmental
protection and sustainability in conjunction with business and entrepreneurship
education. The sustainability faculty conducts several large research projects on specific
topics, such as sustainable business model assessment or sustainability transformation of
businesses and markets, and organises research conferences with a specific focus on
sustainable entrepreneurship. These integrative activities are designed and promoted
mostly from the bottom up by individual professors and staff members.
4.1.2 Case: German university GER U2
Our second case is a young medium-sized German university. It was founded at the end
of the 1970s and can be characterised as a technical university with a focus on
entrepreneurship and green technologies. The following support activities for
entrepreneurship and innovation were identified as sustainability related (see Table 3).
In this case the university strategy promotes the institutional integration of green
technologies and green entrepreneurship in a top-down approach. The university
management has set clear strategic objectives and builds a comprehensive structure to
support entrepreneurship activities within the field of green technologies (innovation
centre for green technologies, start-up consultant for green technology, etc.).
Sustainability and entrepreneurship issues are connected in a way that is more integrative
than additive. Specific challenges and opportunities of sustainable business ideas are
addressed by specific support offerings (e.g., start-up consultant/expert for green
technologies; start-up prize for sustainability etc.). The university has also strong bonds
to industrial partners due to its technical competencies. The focus on entrepreneurial
activities within the field of green technologies is supported through interactive
cooperation between the university and its industrial partners.
. Tiemann et al.
Table 2 Relevant support activities for entrepreneurship and innovation case – German
Institutional framing Education Research Support Transfer
General career, start-up and
technology transfer service
Strat egy: In the mis sion
statement the university
sees itself as a humanistic,
sustainable and proactive
Collab oration w ith severa l
lead ing un iversities and
their corporate partners to
Bachelor’s module and MBA
program which sensitise the
students to environmental
protection and sustainability in
conjunction with business and
Innovation incubator with
some focus on sustainable
services and business ideas
that are best suited to create
new companies and jobs in
Course offerings in the field of
sustainable and social
Association for sustainable
research, a network to
Stru cture: Sustainability
faculty, centre focused on
topics with a professorship
of sustainable management
and professorship of social
Several research projects
in the field of sustainable
transformation of business
models and markets,
Innovation network with
sustainable SMEs supports
to innovate for
modules with focus on
entrepreneurship for all
students from different studies,
complementary studies with
focus on sustainability and
Culture: Sustainability and
entrepreneurship are both
Extra-curricular projects and
stu dent in itiat ives in the field
of social entrepreneurship
entrepreneu rship with
focus on sustainable
Interactive p latform for
social entrepreneurs to
promote student engagement
and activity in social
with a focus o n resource
and material efficiency
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 97
Table 3 Relevant support activities for entrepreneurship and innovation case – German
Institutional framing Education Research Support Transfer
oriented research projects
in the field of green
Online platform for
local un ive rsitie s
Strategy: The university vision and
guidelines for six-year presidency are
focused on research on global socio-
technical challenges, positioning itself
as an entrepreneurial university, and
gradual expansion into a sustainable
centre for green
consultant for green
technologies and start-up
prize for sustainability
Defined university mission with
themes of sustainability and
Curricular courses in the
fields of environmental
generation with focus on
green t echnolo gies,
green innovation, etc.
Cooperation with and
technology transfer to
industrial partners in the
field of green
green start-ups and
Structure: Centre of excellence in
green technologies, sustainability
council, entrepreneurship centre,
innovation centre for green
technologies, start-up consultant for
green technologies, technology
transfer company and private
university foundation focusing on
projects in line with the university’s
culture, mission-driven students with
several student initiatives and
education of responsible
entrepreneurs, leaders and
Excellence college for
PhDs (research field of
providing economic and
Cooperation with various
. Tiemann et al.
4.1.3 Case: US university US U1
Our third case is a medium-sized US university founded in the 19th century. It can be
characterised as a value-driven university underpinned by a strong ethical tradition and a
focus on social entrepreneurship, with a strategic priority to support social entrepreneurs
in addressing climate change. The following sustainability-related support activities for
entrepreneurship and innovation were identified (see Table 4).
The elements of the institutional framing support sustainable entrepreneurship in this
case. One key strategic aim is engagement with industry to become immersed in
entrepreneurship and sustainability. An important structural element is a centre for
social entrepreneurship whose mission is to accelerate global, innovation-based
entrepreneurship in service to humanity. As opposed to many other university
entrepreneurship programs, this university concentrates primarily on existing
entrepreneurs who are not part of the university. Instead, the program recruits for
excellence in the social enterprise field in order to maximise positive environmental
impacts. University students can then benefit from the external network of the program
and participate in practical learning as an elective forming part of their undergraduate
education. Thus the focus of support activities is primarily on institutional framing,
transfer, and education.
4.1.4 Case: US university US U2
Our fourth case is a large US university founded in the late 19th century. Its focus on
environmental science and management is located in a specific school founded in the
1990s. It has had a key focus on sustainable business and eco-entrepreneurship for the
last ten years. Its specialisation in corporate environmental management teaches students
how private sector firms may address environmental and natural resource issues in a
manner that also promotes shareholder value, thus creating the important link between a
quality of environmental and natural resources and a firm’s overall market objectives.
The following sustainability-related support activities for entrepreneurship and
innovation were identified (see Table 5).
In this case, specific supporting activities for sustainable entrepreneurship focus
primarily on a single school of a large university, thus institutional framing is limited to a
single unit of the whole organisation. The entrepreneurship program is designed bottom-
up, is out of the school, and has its roots in environmental science rather than in business.
It follows the integrative approach by developing entrepreneurial solutions with a specific
focus on ecological issues (eco-entrepreneurship). The program has strong external
business connections, with a strong entrepreneurial focus rooted in a capstone project that
allows students to interact with “the real world”. The program is comprehensive in its
interdepartmental approach through collaboration with a technology management
program of the engineering department, but the supporting activities primarily reach
students of the particular school rather than of the whole university.
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 99
Table 4 Relevant support activities for entrepreneurship and innovation case –
US university U1
Institutional framing Education Research Support Transfer
A centre that teaches social
partnership with other
Strat egy: The vision of the university
focuses on the education of citizens and
leaders of competence, conscience, and
compassion and on cultivating
knowledge and faith to build a more
sustainable world; strategic priorities
include engagement with industry to
become immersed in entrepreneurship,
innovation and sustainability and to
advance the knowledge and
understanding of the ways in which
social justice and sustainability intersect.
Stru cture: Centre for social
entrepreneurship with the mission of
accelerating global, innovation-based
entrepreneurship in service to humanity;
institute and accelerator program w ith a
focus on global social benefits;
engineering schoo l with an innovation
lab whose purpose is to support students
in developing adaptable, affordable, and
accessible technologies and products for
Culture: A mission-driven university
which attracts people interested in social
A fellowship program that
leverages the learning asset
of an alumni network of
300+ social enterprises for
faculty and students. The
fellowships provide a
comprehensive program of
mentored, field-based study
and action research for
within the alumni network
of social entrepreneurs.
Private grant program,
administered by the
centre for social
supporting faculty and
student research in
technology for social
benefit across campus.
The accelerator program
prepares advanced social
enterprises for growing
impact and securing
cap ita l in vestme nt s;
work alongside mentors
to complete on lin e
mod u les , which refine
their business models
and identify growth
Except for the fellows
program, the centre’s
focus is on the
environment outside of
the university: mentors
investors and technology
leaders, and the
beneficiaries of the
program are social
entrepreneurs, in most
cases with a focus on
. Tiemann et al.
Table 5 Relevant support activities for entrepreneurship and innovation case –
US university U2
Institutional framing Education Research Support Transfer
General start-up support
service is provided b y t he
office of technology
Faculty members of the school
play leading ro les in advis ing
government agencies, corporations,
and non-profit organisations about
science, management, and policy
Strategy: The mission of the
school focuses on taking a
lead ing role in research ing
iden tifying and so lving
environmental problems, and
training research scientists
eco-entrepreneurship is a
core topic at the scho ol
Offerings such as new
venture com petitions
provide opportunities for
any student from different
subjects to learn how to
start a business
Group projects or eco-
entrepreneurship projects within
the master’s program, which
involve small groups of students
partnering with outside clients to
solve a real-world environmental
Structure: A s ch ool wit h a
focus on environmental
science and management;
professorship in the field of
cooperation between the
school and the school of
Master’s studies with
focus on environmental
sciences and management
issues, with modules in
management and in eco-
res earch in it iative ba se d
on strategic plan of the
school, which takes an
inte rdisc iplin ary
approach to addressing
Venture fellows program
designed to improve the
support given to eco-
interested in pursuing their
ventures after graduation;
formalised process of
providing financial support,
resources and guidance for
council (external members) which
guides, supports, and promotes
eco-entrepreneursh ip education and
serves as the primary conduit
between the school and the
entrepreneurial and investor
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 101
4.2 Cross-case analysis
When we compared the cases, we made several observations: First, approaches for
implementing support activities and the objectives of sustainable entrepreneurship in the
university support system range from clearly defined approaches focusing on social or
eco-entrepreneurship (e.g., specific eco-entrepreneurship projects within the master’s
program) to fuzzily defined approaches aimed at sensitising and motivating large
numbers of students on the basis of more general concepts (e.g., ‘responsible and
proactive solutions for societal problems’). Second, we were also able to distinguish
between integrative approaches and additive approaches. Integrative approaches are
supporting activities which consider sustainability and entrepreneurship as a combined
issue rather than as separate issues. Examples include university business plan
competitions which integrate sustainability criteria into the larger set of assessment
criteria or which offer an award category for sustainability, and research conferences on
entrepreneurship or innovation management which offer sessions on sustainable
entrepreneurship alongside other topics. In contrast, additive approaches address
sustainability and entrepreneurship issues in separate activities and programs. This could
mean treating entrepreneurial orientation and sustainability as two separate strategic
objectives in the university strategy, or offering general start-up support and general
entrepreneurship courses to all students and researchers, including those from green
technology or sustainability disciplines.
Table 6 Cross-case comparison of coding frequency within the conceptual
GER U1 GER U2 US U1 US U2 Total
Institutional framework 19 21 9 3 52
In general 2 0 1 1 4
Strategy 2 7 2 0 11
Structure 10 9 5 2 26
Culture 5 5 1 0 11
Education 16 13 3 4 36
In general 4 6 2 1 13
Curricular 9 3 1 3 16
Extracurricular 3 4 0 0 7
Research 7 4 1 1 13
Support for new firm creation 6 7 2 3 18
Transfer 17 20 5 9 51
Inside-out activities 8 7 0 2 17
Cooperation with industry 7 3 2 4 16
Cooperation within networks and initiatives 1 7 1 1 10
Outside-in activities 1 3 2 2 8
Other 2 0 0 0 2
. Tiemann et al.
After analysing each individual case in a qualitative manner, we analysed all the cases in
a more aggregated form, comparing the coding frequency across the cases. In particular,
we analysed the coding frequency of the code categories for the conceptual framework
elements (institutional framework, education, research, transfer, and support for new firm
creation). The aggregated results of this analysis are shown in Table 6.
Almost all coding could be assigned to the deductively generated categories of the
conceptual framework. Only a few additional comments could not be assigned and were
grouped together as ‘other’. The sub-category ‘cooperation’ was inductively divided into
two sub-categories: ‘cooperation with industry’ and ‘cooperation within networks and
initiatives’. The most coding were found in the categories ‘institutional framework’ and
‘transfer’, followed by the category ‘education’. Within the ‘institutional framework’
category, the sub-category ‘structure’ was the category used most by the interview
partners. Within the ‘transfer’ category, inside-out activities and cooperation with
industry were mentioned most by the interview partners. Within the ‘education’ category,
the curricular seminars and programs were the categories cited most. Least mentioned
was the ‘research’ category. With exception of GER U1, few specific research activities
regarding sustainable entrepreneurship could be identified.
Analysing the institutional framework in more detail, we identified different design
strategies for university support of sustainable entrepreneurship (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 Design strategies of support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship (see online
version for colours)
(a) (b) (c)
Notes: (a) Top down; (b) Bottom up; (c) Combined.
• Top-down: e.g., university management defines a university strategy related to
entrepreneurship and sustainability and develops structures and supportive culture
• Bottom-up: e.g., the supporting activities are based on initiatives of individual staff
members (professors, lecturers and TTOs) according to their own interests and
• Combined: simultaneous occurrence of both top-down and bottom-up strategies.
In some cases we observed unplanned emergent developments, for example from external
cooperation or a research project.
The most coding were assigned to the top-down category. In the German cases
especially, university management defines a specific university strategy, develops
structures accordingly and establishes a supportive culture. The bottom-up strategy was
the most dominate pathway only in the case of US U2.
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 103
Table 7 Cross-case comparison of the coding frequency of design strategies for sustainable
GER U1 GER U2 US U1 US U2 Total
Top-down 6 9 3 1 19
Bottom-up 2 1 1 6 10
Combined 2 3 0 0 5
Emergent 3 1 1 0 5
To answer our research question, we first developed a conceptual framework to structure
the support system for entrepreneurship at universities in five key fields of activity. We
analysed the relevant activities for each case and classified these activities according to
the criteria of our conceptual framework.
In the case studies we began by analysing each case separately, looking at the
relevant support activities in detail. We found diverse and heterogeneous approaches
within different contexts. The specific and integrative support activities for GER U1
focus primarily on education and research and are located within the sustainability faculty
of the university. By contrast, the dominant approach in the GER U2 case is the specific
integration of green technologies and entrepreneurship issues on a whole-of-institution
basis (strategy, structure, and culture). The US U1 case, too, had developed strong
institutional framing, with a focus on external networking. Its entrepreneurship programs
concentrate primarily on external social entrepreneurs who are not members of the
university. The supporting activities of the final case, US U2, focus primarily on a single
school of the university. The program has strong business connections and a strong
entrepreneurial focus rooted in a capstone project that allows students to interact with
industrial partners. These different approaches demonstrate an emerging field of action
which is characterised by experimentation. No dominant design of support system for
sustainable entrepreneurship can yet be observed.
We found very different understandings of what ‘sustainable entrepreneurship
support’ is supposed to mean, ranging from clearly defined interpretations focusing on
social or eco-entrepreneurship to rather fuzzy interpretations with a less defined focus.
This demonstrates that, even in the small group of leading universities, support for
sustainable entrepreneurship is not a clearly defined term and is as yet far from being a
well understood construct.
The results show that two basic forms of implementation approaches can be
1 an additive approach where entrepreneurial orientation and sustainability are two
separate strategic objectives
2 an integrative approach where, for example, specific teaching activities partially or
fully combine both topics in one integrated perspective on sustainable
. Tiemann et al.
The integrative approach is more widespread within the cases we analysed. This could
mean it is an important factor for the explicit support of sustainable entrepreneurship.
After analysing each case in a qualitative manner we conducted a cross-case analysis
of the data in an aggregated form, comparing the cases. By analysing each framework
element (see Figure 1) of the university support system for sustainable entrepreneurship,
we identified examples of support activities for all elements. Almost all activities could
be assigned to one of the framework elements. Under the ‘other’ category, only a few
additional comments could be identified which were not directly related to the elements
of the conceptual framework. We therefore determined that our conceptual framework
was appropriate for describing and analysing university support systems for sustainable
We found it valuable to follow an interactive paradigm and apply a systemic
perspective as a basis and to use an open innovation concept. Differentiating inside-out
transfer activities, cooperation and outside-in transfer activities also proved useful. The
analysis revealed that different forms of cooperation can be distinguished and that these
can be assigned to the sub-categories ‘industry cooperation’ (cooperation activities with
industry partners exclusively) and ‘cooperation within networks and initiatives’
(cooperation activities with different types of external actors such as external scientific
partners or regional governing bodies).
The ‘institutional framework’ has been emphasised by the interviewees as an
important influential factor, and especially its sub-element of ‘structure’. The
establishment of sustainability departments, entrepreneurship centres, professorships and
Bachelor’s/Master’s courses with a specific focus on sustainable entrepreneurship seem
to be an important factor for the long-term implementation of specific support activities.
The role of creating new suitable structures fits very well into the creation perspective in
the sustainable entrepreneurship literature (see Section 2.1.1) emphasising the active role
of universities in creating sustainability-oriented change and their proactive role as
creativity supporting and action oriented platforms.
Analysing the institutional element ‘strategy’ in more detail, we were able to
differentiate between different design strategies for specific support systems. In our small
sample the top-down approach was the dominant strategy. In the US U2 case, which had
low top-down influence, many obstacles were reported and the supporting activities
focused mainly on a single school rather than the whole university. Based on this
analysis, the top-down approach seems to be an important factor driving the development
and implementation of the specific support systems. Strong leadership commitment and
good governance seems to be crucial to developing a comprehensive support system for
Education was the third most frequently used activity field of university support for
sustainable entrepreneurship in our case studies. Education is important for sensitising
students and developing their skills and expertise. Curricular courses play an important
role in the long-term implementation of sustainable entrepreneurship education.
However, extracurricular courses are often used to integrate knowledge from external
partners (e.g., entrepreneurs and industrial partners) and are also an essential part of the
pathway to actual practice.
The framework element that appeared least was the ‘research’ category. With the
exception of GER U1, few specific research activities on sustainable entrepreneurship
were identified. This may indicate that, in comparison with other elements of the
university support system, research on sustainable entrepreneurship is lagging behind.
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 105
Our research suggests a growing number of universities are embracing the notion that
sustainability should and can be integrated into the university support system for
entrepreneurship, or that sustainability activities should be implemented and promoted
with entrepreneurial spirit. This relates positively to the demands by policy makers that
green entrepreneurship should be addressed in (higher) education to prepare the mind-set
of future green entrepreneurs, and that it should be encouraged by helping potential
entrepreneurs identify sustainable business opportunities, including through new creative
forms of cooperation between business and academia (European Commission, 2014). At
the same time, our literature review illuminates the lack of research on university support
systems for sustainable entrepreneurship. Our case studies support this finding. Even
among the four leading cases of university support for sustainable entrepreneurship that
we examined, only a few specific research activities could be identified.
With regard to our research question ‘How do leading universities support sustainable
entrepreneurship and how are their support systems designed?’ our case study results
suggest that the efforts of leading universities have been hitherto focused principally on
the transformation of institutional framing and on implementing practical support for
sustainable entrepreneurship in transfer activities. Specific research on sustainable
entrepreneurship is a minor field of activity in comparison to these main fields of
university support. Given that support for sustainable entrepreneurship is a very new field
of university activity, and that very little experience and knowledge is as yet available,
we conclude that the present low level of research activity is a clear deficit and that
research should be increased in order to generate empirical insights on the requirements
and success factors of implementing effective university support systems for sustainable
6.1 Insights for future research
Our research results provide initial insights and are a basis for future research.
First, we have developed a conceptual framework that structures the unit of analysis
and classifies potential activity fields of university support for entrepreneurship. The
framework proved suitable for empirical investigations and supports future research by
providing a descriptive model which subdivides the university support system into five
key areas of support activity. It was helpful to base the framework on an interactive
paradigm and to use interactive concepts such as the triple helix model and the open
innovation concept. The differentiation between inside-out transfer activities, cooperation
(industry cooperation and cooperation within networks and initiatives) and outside-in
transfer activities was also of value. It also proved to be helpful to employ a
conceptualisation of sustainable entrepreneurship (see Section 2.1.1) that includes
opportunity seeking as well as a creation perspective which emphasises the active role of
universities in creating sustainability-oriented change. This creation view of universities
is very useful for understanding the role of universities in supporting sustainable
Second, we identified different approaches and designs of support systems for
sustainable entrepreneurship. In the group of 41 good practice examples, which included
the four detailed case studies, we did not observe a single dominant support design. This
. Tiemann et al.
is understandable as the phenomenon of university support for sustainable
entrepreneurship is still in an early and experimental phase. The case studies show that
different design strategies can be distinguished. We identified top-down, bottom-up and
combined implementation strategies as well as integrative and additive support
approaches for sustainable entrepreneurship.
Third, our results support the assumption that the external contextual setting (public
funding of research projects, regional entrepreneurs as mentors, private beneficiaries of
university programs, university networks, regional clusters, etc.) actually influences how
sustainable entrepreneurship support activities are organised. Therefore a conceptual
framework for further research is needed which includes interaction with the
environmental context. This would allow an understanding and explanation of why and
how university support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship are implemented and
what options for intervention exist.
6.2 Managerial implications
Looking at the approaches of the good practice cases, the following learning and
recommendations can be derived. Integrative approaches which clearly define the
concept of sustainable entrepreneurship and are focused on it are important to take
advantage of the specific opportunities and meet the challenges of sustainable
entrepreneurs. However, general and additive approaches can be practical in order to
reach a larger target group. In both cases, the university strategy and mission need to be
defined and implemented with specific objectives for the integrative or additive
perspective of sustainable entrepreneurship. Institutional framing and capacity building
for effective university support systems seem crucial. Accordingly, structures like
centres, professorships and programs focusing specifically on sustainable
entrepreneurship and innovation should be implemented on a long-term basis. Curricular
and extracurricular courses should be combined to provide basic and theoretical content
together with practical learning. Interactive knowledge transfer between universities and
external partners in the field of sustainable entrepreneurship should be pursued in various
ways (inside-out, outside-in, and cooperation). And finally, research on sustainable
entrepreneurship, the integration of results into teaching, and concrete start-up and
entrepreneurship support activities all need to be intensified.
Our investigation demonstrates an emerging field of action which is characterised by
experimentation. No dominant design of support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship
can yet be observed. Therefore transparency of different approaches is needed and good
practice exchange between practitioners and policy makers in the field of university and
entrepreneurship policy will help them to learn from each other and to develop
appropriate support systems for different university contexts. It remains open whether
support systems will converge to ‘one best way’ to organise university support systems in
the future or whether there simply is no ‘one best way’ to support sustainable
entrepreneurship but rather various design configurations that correlate with different
Our results are limited to a group of 41 good practice examples from five countries, and
four detailed case studies. As the field of university support systems for sustainable
University support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship 107
entrepreneurship is new and dynamic, it was appropriate to take a qualitative approach.
Once university support for sustainable entrepreneurship is more widespread, a
quantitative approach should be taken to verify and generalise our results. The diverse
factors influencing the evolution of support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship
appear to be an interesting topic for further research. When analysing design strategies of
effective university support systems for sustainable entrepreneurship, the concept and
literature of organisational change could assist in developing strategies for redesigning,
transforming and expanding existing university support systems.
The authors are grateful to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research
(BMBF) (Support code 033E001) for their financial support through ECO-INNOVERA
to undertake this research as part of the project ‘support systems for sustainable
entrepreneurship and transformation (SHIFT)’.
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