Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Digital innovation and entrepreneurship: bridging the skills gap

Dick Whittington

The technology start-up sector is booming. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor estimates that more than a million tech start-ups are created worldwide each year, and that these contribute to a dynamic $3 trillion ecosystem. In the UK and the USA, the digital sector has been growing at more than three times the rate of the wider economy.

There are two very significant consequences of this. The first is a levelling of the playing field so that (what start out as) smaller businesses can now compete disruptively with larger rivals. This can be seen in the finance market, where smaller ‘Fintech’ businesses are challenging existing ‘bricks and mortar’ banks for the projected $tr mobile payments revenues; and also, in the emergence of AirBnB, Uber and other platforms of the ‘sharing economy’ that have disrupted the worlds of accommodation, transport, finance, and so on.

And the second consequence, which in part develops from the first, is the emergence, within the past 20–30 years, of tech titans such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet (Google), referred to generically as the FAANGs, whose economic and social power and influence is ubiquitous across the developed world.


The rapid growth and high productivity levels within the sector have demonstrated the economic benefits of entrepreneurship. Furthermore, research has shown that Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) entrepreneurs in particular build on innovative foundations to create sustainable businesses.

My first experience of founding a digital technology business was more than 30 years ago. At that time, the vast majority of students graduating with STEM degrees would unquestioningly expect to join one of the major technology or service businesses that dominated the sector. Interestingly – apart from notable exceptions such as IBM, BAE Systems and Siemens – few of the tech giants of that day have survived. University courses reflected this situation by focusing their curricula and teaching methods on building core scientific and technical knowledge.

Over the past few years I have been active as a mentor and investor working with a range of start-ups and university spin-outs, through the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub and some excellent privately-funded accelerator programmes. The vibrancy of the UK tech start-up sector is impressive and gives cause for optimism. Yet in London – a global hub of entrepreneurial activity – more than 30% of tech start-ups are currently struggling to recruit the talent they need to achieve their potential.

Against this backdrop it is interesting to review the ways that universities have adapted to the changes in the economy and the tech landscape; how are STEM students being equipped to start their own businesses or to join exciting early-stage tech companies and address their skills shortages, and how have curricula and teaching methods changed?

Recent experience of teaching business innovation and entrepreneurship to STEM undergraduates and graduate students has provided me with three insights:

  1. Students studying STEM disciplines readily spark at the opportunities offered by the fast-moving world of tech business, and are keen to apply their inherent analytical skills to business innovation and design.
  2. A significant majority of STEM students graduate with only a rudimentary and anecdotal appreciation of how digital techniques, technologies and processes apply to business and entrepreneurship, despite a formal education which includes a wealth of relevant digital knowledge and skills. Recent UK research discovered that only 10% of engineers and 5% of scientists (1% of physicists) are exposed to entrepreneurship education. There are of course some notable institutions that have embraced the change wholeheartedly – to their significant benefit.
  3. While there are many excellent books that address innovation and entrepreneurship, there is real need for a student textbook that coherently and in a structured and practical way addresses business for those planning to enter the modern digital world; a book that inspires, encourages and supports graduates to become job creators rather than merely to seek employment.

Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Research has shown that entrepreneurship can be learned and developed. That is not to say that everyone has the potential to create a $1bn business, but that, given a structured and practical introduction, the majority of STEM graduates will be able to contribute significantly to a start-up, early-stage development, or innovation within a larger organisation. And this means it is possible to address the skills shortage that currently frustrates both businesses and the wider economy, and also to address the related US problem of rapid technical obsolescence within STEM graduates.

In a nutshell, this was my motivation for producing Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship: a book that bridges the gap between formal STEM education and the digital business world; and provides a way of introducing innovation and entrepreneurship as core components of the skillset of the modern digital professional.

Bridging this gap is important to STEM students because the digital economy now encompasses more than half of the world’s population, and succeeding in this sector increasingly demands an effective balance of knowledge and skills in both business and technology. It is also important to higher education institutions in an increasingly competitive environment in which students demand courses that better reflect the world they expect to join. Lastly, it’s important to the economy of every advanced nation that the continuing vibrancy of its tech sector is fuelled by well-equipped and motivated STEM graduates.

Photo credits: Knight Foundation, Sandeepnewstyle

About The Author

Dick Whittington

Dick Whittington is Honorary Professor of Business Innovation at the University of York and an entrepreneur, business mentor and investor with over 30 years' experience. Co-foundin...

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