A Namibian-born scholar is taking Coventry University, in the UK, to new entrepreneurial heights

Published On: 25 March 2022|

Professor Gideon Maas has implemented a module titled Contemporary Issues in Entrepreneurship at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, which has no predetermined content. “There is nothing in that module,” he said. “We will see what’s going on in our environment during that year. And we will then focus on that,” he said.

Maas (above), who is the Director: International Centre for Transformational Entrepreneurship at Coventry University, mentioned the module as an example of how entrepreneurship needs to make allowance for immediate changes.

“Namibia taught me my accent,” he said – explaining his origin from South Africa’s north-western neighbour as he introduced himself to public universities’ senior executives who attended the recent Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW). Conducted under the auspices of Universities South Africa, the annual ELW was hosted both in-person and online, from Cape Town, by the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme and sponsored by British Council South Africa.  This year’s theme was Commercialisation of Research.

Coventry University is never stagnant

Speaking virtually from the UK, Professor Maas mentioned, throughout his presentation in the session: Transforming intellectual assets into commercial gains, how Coventry University is constantly changing. His comments included:

  • “We are busy changing things again, and not “again” in a negative sense; when we do change things at Coventry University, we do so really fast”;
  • We are in the middle of a massive curriculum transformation process within the whole of Coventry University. And entrepreneurship is one area that’s being implemented in some cross-faculty modules and programmes to make them even more entrepreneurial”;
  • “We are now in the fourth cycle of entrepreneurship changes since I joined in 2007. And it’s not that we don’t know what we’re doing; it is like the old S curves in marketing (a theory predicting that the performance of a new product, if successful, follows the shape of an S over time) – if you go up, then the product is going down in a decline, and you need a different S curve”.

The right leader makes a difference

Like other presenters at the workshop, Maas spoke of how leadership influences a university’s entrepreneurial approaches.

“The watershed moment was when Professor Madeleine Atkins joined Coventry as Vice Chancellor in 2004. She was really business aware and formalised a load of things. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Business Development was one initiative that was immediately implemented,” he said.

When Atkins was succeeded by Professor John Latham, a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Business Development, it helped the continuity, said Maas. He said Latham often mentions: “You need the right champion driving the process”. (Incidentally, Latham is an Extraordinary Professor in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at Stellenbosch University (SU), which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2019.  And Maas, too, is an Extraordinary Professor at SU’s business school.)

Academics’ attitudes to commericalising research and their links to industry

Maas also echoed what previous speakers at the workshop had said about academics’ resistance to entrepreneurial activities.

Coventry, situated in the West Midlands of the UK, has an outer ring road circling the old part of the city. The university is inside the ring road and “just outside the ring road, on the other side, you will find our Techno Park or innovation village”, he said. “So, people sometimes said the business is for the other side of the road.  Our role was to build a bridge between these two, from the academic to the commercial side.”

The university has also had to “rekindle collaboration with industry, and finding that sweet spot between academia and industry, where the crux of this whole thing lies”, he said.

An entrepreneurial university is about more than starting businesses

Maas’s job at Coventry University is two-fold. He is responsible for everything entrepreneurial, such as education and research. And he is also responsible for startups and spinouts, based in a different centre to the one he is the director of, namely Coventry University’s Social Enterprise which is tasked, according to the university’s website, to find ways to “benefit the local community”, as well as alumni.

Besides his role at the university, Maas has also been a project leader for the European University-Enterprise Network (EUE-Net), a group of entrepreneurial, engaged universities. He is also on the board of the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities (ACEEU), a quality assurance body that operates globally to acknowledge engagement and entrepreneurship in higher education.

“For us, the entrepreneurial university is not just about commercialisation of intellectual property or starting a business or doing business to increase the income of the university. And the reason I’m highlighting these three areas is because there is still a debate in academic environments. Should we be entrepreneurial? Should we be commercialising intellectual property? What is the nature of a university?

“We need to think a bit differently as to how we create this type of environment and this type of message. At the end of the day, we still need to relate to our colleagues, to explain to them what entrepreneurial means.”

He said “entrepreneurship can happen anywhere. It doesn’t mean that you need to create a startup. We’ve moved away from venture creation to value creation. And it’s not semantics alone. It is the approach. Value creation will focus more on the impact.

“When you start to commercialise things, you can be really innovative; but the question is: should you be? The issue of responsible innovation is coming into play. And you need to ask those kinds of questions as well,” he said.

What they have achieved and still want to achieve

Coventry University won the Entrepreneurial University of the Year at the 2011 Times Higher Education Awards and was hailed for its entrepreneurial culture that “permeates all levels” of the university. It also won the Duke of York Award for University Entrepreneurship at the UK’s National Business Awards in 2016. “These are some indication that at least we are moving in the right direction,” said Maas.

He said they want to achieve being truly multidisciplinary. Commercialisation for the arts and humanities will be different than for engineering and accountancy and they need to adapt slightly to allow for that.

Some of these disciplines don’t really want to use the word “entrepreneurial” or “entrepreneurship”, and that’s fine. But we still apply the principles behind them. And that is what is important:  that people really understand the principles in order to go forward because you want to create that kind of serial entrepreneurial attitude,” he said.

Lessons learnt

When Maas was project leader for the EUE-Net, one of the participants from a medical faculty told him: “You don’t want a surgeon standing next to your bed and say, Oh, today I’m going to be a bit creative”.

Maas agreed. He said there are many things that can be entrepreneurial as well as different levels of readiness in any organisation. “So, we’ve always decided to start off with the people that are ready for it and use them as case studies for others to see what we mean by this commercialisation”.

They aim to form more partnerships with international incubators and institutions. Coventry University attracts a lot of international students, and the university would like them to continue with what they have been doing when they go back to where they have come from – countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and China. Coventry has already done a virtual incubator experiment in Ghana, and it worked.

Professor Maas’s audience comprised, in the main, deputy vice-chancellors, executive directors, and directors responsible for entrepreneurship development at South Africa’s public universities.


QUESTION from entrepreneur and Non-Executive Director at Greendesign Africa, Mr Nolo Mokwena (below), who facilitated deliberations in the workshop: “Commercialisation is mostly in the sciences, and the arts need a different approach. What have you done and what have you seen working?”

ANSWER from Professor Maas: “Apart from the arts and humanities side, the one thing we’ve learned is that different age groups also respond differently. We’ve got a three-pronged approach nowadays. If you deal with students about 20 years of age, you will get 20 years of age-type of ideas: not really complicated ideas, but good ideas which they can learn from.

“Then from disciplines like Engineering, where you gain a bit more experience over time, the more growth orientation will be in the 30-year-old group.

“But the one we are still neglecting in Coventry, and the one we are going to embark on, now, is those 50 years and above. A load of new creations is coming from that group. That group is different because they’ve got networks already. They’ve got some cash. They’ve got the experience. And their motivation is different.

“But if we’re going to play a significant role in the socio-economic development of our region, then we need to have a balance between all three, and we need that to move forward in a continuous manner.

“So, we do keep track of who is attending all our entrepreneurship programmes, and it is interesting to see the good balance between all the different disciplines.”

QUESTION from Herman van der Merwe (below), Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning, at North-West University: “You were talking about the partnership you have with industry. How do you create that, how do you sustain that, and how do you ensure that it is a beneficial partnership for you and for Coventry?

ANSWER from Professor Maas: “We had a discussion on the needs of the industry and said, ‘If we need to address those kinds of areas, what do we need to do on our side, on the knowledge and the research part?’ We can’t just do a type of a blue sky-thinking research, which we are not focusing on, anyway. We’re focusing on applied and translational research. In other words, we stay close to the industry and make sure we address their needs at the end of the day.

“We are also doing the type of consulting that a load of universities is doing around the world. We are going out to medium-sized organisations and asking them what wicked problem they struggle with. And we bring those problems into the classroom and work on them to supply solutions.

“We work in some different sectors as well. There was a jewelry shop owned by a family for more than 100 years. And the owner got youngsters involved, 20-year-olds, to tell him what the new generation wants because he wants to attract them, but they are not walking into jewelry shops.

“That kind of dovetailing is important. So, you need to bring them in either as entrepreneurial residents or as mentors for some projects.

Even if we want to scale up, not all academics have experience in that middle sector where the engines of economic growth are. So, you need to go out to industry, to stay in touch with federations of small businesses and chambers, and make sure that you do it.  It is not just a talk show.”

Listening to Professor Maas were up to 54 senior leaders, mainly deputy vice-chancellors, executive directors, and directors responsible for entrepreneurship development from most public universities. The purpose of the annual ELW is to increase the number of institutions positioned as entrepreneurial universities and provide an opportunity for executive leadership of universities — especially deputy vice-chancellors — to engage on entrepreneurship at universities, specifically as it relates to university strategy and policy. This annual empowerment exercise is sponsored by the British Council as part of its support to growing entrepreneurial universities in the South African ecosystem.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.