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Enabling Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: Insights from Ecology to Inform Effective Entrepreneurship Policy

Inspired by research on the importance of entrepreneurship for sustained economic growth and improved well-being, many governments and non-governmental grant-making organizations have sought over the past decade to implement policies and programs intended to support entrepreneurs. 

Over this interval, growing appreciation of the limits of strategies focused narrowly on financing or training entrepreneurs has prompted a number of such entities to shift their efforts toward more broad-based strategies aimed at enabling “entrepreneurial ecosystems” at the city or sub-national regional scale.

This paper takes the metaphor of the “ecosystem” seriously, seeking to draw lessons from evolutionary biology and ecology to inform policy for entrepreneurship. In so doing, the paper provides a framework for data gathering and analysis of practical value in assessing the vibrancy of entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Taking the ecosystem seriously as an economic model suggests the following strategies to enable entrepreneurial ecosystems:

  • Favor incumbents less. Policies and regulations that favor existing, dominant companies over entrepreneurial ventures constrain competition and create barriers to entry for new firms. Examples of such regulations include assertive enforcement of non-compete laws, excessively restrictive occupational licensing requirements and regulatory complexity that inhibits contracting. Policymakers should avoid such policies and regulations and work to reduce the barriers to business startup.

  • Listen to entrepreneurs. Rather than developing policies abstractly intended to correct “market failures,” policymakers should listen to what entrepreneurs have to say about their challenges. That input should be used to develop policies that stimulate idea exploration, product development and increased rates of deal flow.

  • Map the ecosystem. Entrepreneurial supporters should create an inventory or graph that indicates who the participants in the ecosystem are and how they are connected. Ecosystem maps can become valuable tools in developing engagement strategies.

  • Think big, start small, move fast. This simple rule, long a guiding principle for entrepreneurial ventures, also holds true for successful entrepreneurial ecosystems. The ecosystem should enable the connectivity needed for early success, and then clear the runway for future growth.

  • Avoid artificially segmenting your community or your strategies. Entrepreneurs and members of entrepreneurial communities are active participants in creating new companies, investing in and/or advising startups, mentoring entrepreneurs and serving as customers of entrepreneurial companies. Expect participants in entrepreneurial ecosystems to play multiple roles, and make the most of their valuable skillsets.

  • Prepare to capitalize on crises. Much like the rotting trunk of a fallen tree feeds the growth of new saplings, economic disruption creates entrepreneurial opportunities. Because disruptions are inevitable in economic and social life, architects of entrepreneurial ecosystems should anticipate them and prepare to make the most of the opportunities they create.

The search for effective strategies to enable local entrepreneurial ecosystems is a fundamentally practical one. Better understanding of actual ecosystems provides a conceptual framework within which policymakers can ask relevant questions, envision better approaches, and evaluate resultant outcomes.