Governments around the world have embraced entrepreneurship as a key strategy for economic growth and prosperity. As a result, we are seeing significant public investments, both here in Canada and around the globe, into policies and programs intended to support the development and growth of entrepreneurs and startups. However, there is surprisingly little evidence about what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to these kinds of interventions.

This is the evidence gap that a new global research network was recently formed to address. Led by the United States–based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, The World Bank and Endeavor Global, the Global Entrepreneurship Research Network (GERN) was launched in October, with MaRS on board as a founding partner and the sole Canadian participant to date.

What is GERN?

GERN will convene research organizations, funders and other partners like MaRS to:

  • generate useful and actionable knowledge for entrepreneurs, policymakers and others;
  • fill in the gaps around what we know about entrepreneurship;
  • standardize data, especially that associated with longitudinal surveys;
  • conduct experiments to evaluate entrepreneurship education and training programs; and
  • gain a better understanding of which policies are most effective for fostering entrepreneurship.

GERN recognizes that there is no “magic bullet” for supporting and accelerating entrepreneurship, but it will promote and support knowledge-sharing to ensure that what is learned is accessible across countries, sectors and programs. Key initial steps will include the creation of a shared research agenda to guide GERN’s efforts and the identification of researchers and programs that can collaborate on addressing elements of that agenda.

Why GERN matters to MaRS

The evidential foundation that exists for entrepreneurship in Canada is patchy at best. Even current descriptive data about startup activity in Canada—such as entry and exit rates, survival rates, sector and geographic distributions and demographics, for example—is limited or difficult to access, and robust comparative research about the impact and performance of various support programs, such as accelerators, incubators and other initiatives, is largely absent. By participating in GERN, MaRS can ensure that the data being collected through MaRS Data Catalyst’s own research and data-sharing initiatives is standardized and that it aligns with other global datasets. Involvement in GERN also ensures that the best practices and insights captured by GERN can inform MaRS’ own programs and services, and that what we have learned here at MaRS can be shared globally as well.

Why GERN matters to Ontario and Canada

First of all, active participation in GERN signals that both the province and the country are not only committed to entrepreneurship, but that they also want to get “smart” about how they support and fund it. Canada lags behind other jurisdictions in terms of making key data sources, like business registry and business dynamics data, open and accessible. Participating in GERN may create just the incentive needed to facilitate broader and easier access to this kind of data. And, of course, GERN will provide provincial and federal policymakers with more than just anecdotal success stories as a basis for decision-making through its research mandate and emphasis on actionable knowledge.

Why GERN matters to entrepreneurs

Thousands of people in 138 countries are coming together this week to celebrate entrepreneurs during Global Entrepreneurship Week. This is yet another reminder of the growing popularity of entrepreneurship. With the explosion of programs and services catering to startups, understanding how programs differentiate and what kinds of outcomes are associated with them (something that is only possible through rigorous long-term studies) is essential. GERN hopes to fill that research void and, in doing so, help guide entrepreneurs to the resources that are most likely to increase the probability of their success. (Entrepreneurs are, of course, also taxpayers, so ensuring that public funding dollars are allocated to programs and supports that work is another significant benefit that accrues from GERN.)

GERN is also a platform for supporting large-scale research about startup performance and behaviour. This kind of research supports firm benchmarking, helping startup founders answer the question: “How is my company doing compared to other companies like mine?”  GERN’s emphasis on knowledge translation should also ensure that key research findings are shared outside of the traditional academic channels and that they are made findable and consumable for entrepreneurs.

MaRS is excited to partner with GERN and looks forward to contributing to this initiative. To prepare for our participation in this network, MaRS will be developing an entrepreneurship research agenda in consultation with key stakeholders and partners.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on what kinds of research questions MaRS—and GERN—should tackle.

Feature photo credit: No human can … by Sharon Drummond CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Helen Kula

Helen Kula is the former Manager of Data Product at MaRS Data Catalyst. While with Data Catalyst, she worked on acquiring, evaluating and linking data to build products that generate insight into Ontario’s startups and the province’s innovation economy. See more…