“The quantity and quality of research on entrepreneurship has not kept pace with the global entrepreneurship movement. Granted, no entrepreneur needs an OK from an academic before starting a company. But, at a certain point, the inadequacy of entrepreneurship research becomes an obstacle to continued progress in advancing entrepreneurship itself. Research can help translate enthusiasm for entrepreneurship into greater numbers of successful, growing firms. Research can also provide insight into what policymakers can (and can’t) do to help enable entrepreneurial ecosystems; contribute to figuring out whether a given program, public or private, is having any impact; and help to establish the fundamental links between entrepreneurship and the development of human societies.”

That’s how Jonathan Ortmans and I announced the launch of the Global Entrepreneurship Research Network (GERN) in 2014. As we convened in Istanbul last month for the fifth GERN annual meeting, these basic goals had not changed. We’re still focused on enabling more of what works in supporting entrepreneurs and nurturing entrepreneurial ecosystems.

However, in the past five years, our perspective on this work has shifted. Initially, we were most interested in understanding the research priorities of GERN member organizations—a significant subset of the leading funders of entrepreneurship research globally. Last year in Johannesburg, we flipped the lens and asked entrepreneurs and the leaders of entrepreneurial support organizations to lay out for us which questions were most important to them. 

The fact is, we’re still just at the beginning of answering some really important questions about entrepreneurship:

What are the components of an entrepreneurial mindset, and how can they be nurtured or reinforced (if at all)?

What government policies are the most critical in creating an environment for the emergence of high-growth, high-impact firms?

What measurable characteristics define a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, and what actions by ecosystem actors contribute most significantly to ensuring that vibrancy? 

What’s more, the rapid advance of digital technologies during the past five years—and in the foreseeable future to come—as well as ongoing demographic changes and other fundamental shifts compel us to update our answers to these questions on a continual basis.

Prompted by the Kauffman Foundation’s director of knowledge creation and research, Dr. Samee Desai, we focused the 2018 GERN annual meeting on an inventory of questions and answers. As a community of researchers and directors of entrepreneurial support organizations, what do we know with confidence about what works in the support of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship? What are the gaps in our understanding that we most critically need to fill?

Delegates and observers were invited to share their opinion on which are proven effective instruments to support entrepreneurs, as supported by evidence currently available. The answers we received follow below. 

Mentorship (i.e. experienced entrepreneurs mentoring startups and youth) and encouraging mentorship
32 %
Peer learning and mentoring
36 %
Prize competitions for entrepreneurship
18 %
Celebrating entrepreneurs and nurturing an understanding of and respect for entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial career pathways / nurturing social tolerance of failure
41 %
Learning by doing / experiential learning
45 %
Hybrid entrepreneurship support programs that combine funding and mentorship
50 %
Having entrepreneurs engaged/in the lead in designing policies for entrepreneurs / regulatory sandboxes
41 %
Youth entrepreneurship education
32 %
Enabling supply chain connections / linking entrepreneurs to corporations and governments
45 %
Encouraging ecosystems connections / convening
36 %


Delegates also identified knowledge gaps in identifying what works in building thriving ecosystems, distilling apparent information flaws.  Here are some of the answers on what the practitioner and research communities think we are missing in the field of entrepreneurship:

  • Individual-level data
  • A clearer way to categorize entrepreneurs
  • A clear definition of ecosystem and its impact on the growth of startups and scale-ups 
  • Measures of ex ante / ex post growth aspirations
  • Sector-specific research; feedback/information from the sector specific entrepreneurs on challenges and opportunities prevailing in respective industries
  • Impact of programs and policies over long term (24+ months)
  • Controlled experiments
  • Better mechanisms for (ex-post, non-RCT) policy evaluation
  • Demographic data to assess inclusiveness of innovation policy
  • Evidence on cost effectiveness of different support programmes
  • Quantification of the role of startups in prompting wider innovation (including competitive pressure on existing firms)
  • Research on how blockchain technology can support, fund and recognize entrepreneurs' impact
  • Measures for intrapreneurship
  • Robust measures of ecosystem networks (relationships)


Connecting with the doers and collaborating on data sharing

Members are aligned in focusing on keeping research connected to the needs of entrepreneurs by filling knowledge gaps among ecosystem builders, like the Managing Directors of GEN affiliates and GEW campaign hosts. When asked what GERN can do as a network to advance the role of research and address gaps, the three most common answers were:

  • Getting the “what works” in the hands of the right people to make it actionable
  • Further collaboration between researchers and doers/practitioners
  • Data sharing (e.g. make data from completed or ongoing projects easily accessible to integrate it into new projects)


To view the full discussion of these results, we invite you to watch the video recording, here