Startups in the library: supporting campus entrepreneurs

While academic librarians have supported campus startups and entrepreneurs since before the dotcom boom, the title Entrepreneurship Librarian is a relatively new one. When I started in that role at University of Toronto Library’s (UTL) St. George Campus, I was given a lot of freedom to define the role as I saw fit. I started by reaching out to the growing network of campus-linked accelerators formalized under the campus entrepreneurship office.

My approach is based on my experience as a business librarian and a former marketing journalist. What startups want most from the library is market research, regardless of their technology or subject area of expertise, and it’s my job to help them find it. This is done through supporting new venture creation courses as well as through open resources and workshops on a range of topics including campus orientation for startups, market sizing, primary research tools and strategies.

I also have the pleasure of working with librarians who are engaged with the entrepreneurship ecosystem, including UTL librarian Christina Kim, who is cross-appointed to the Market Intelligence team at MaRS Discovery District. Based in downtown Toronto, MaRS is one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs, supporting promising young ventures that are tackling key challenges in the sectors of health, cleantech, finance and commerce, and work and learning.  As senior manager, Christina and her team of information specialists and industry analysts deliver research and information services, publish articles and reports, conduct outreach and instruction, organize events, and work on digital projects to support startups.

Complementary collections

MaRS and UTL have distinct but complementary collections and approaches. MaRS has a specialized suite of market intelligence databases aimed at their core areas of focus: ICT, cleantech, and healthcare. Not surprisingly, UTL’s resources are more academic in focus, and the approach is more pedagogical than client-focused. UTL supports course-based researchers while MaRS offers research services to startups across the province, as well as to specific Canadian Digital Media Network hubs across the country.

Picture of word entrepreneur

It wasn’t long before other entrepreneurship librarians at Canadian colleges and universities started reaching out. Rachel Figueiredo was Engineering Librarian at University of Waterloo before Entrepreneurship was added to her portfolio.  Now serving Waterloo’s growing list of campus accelerators, entrepreneurship programs, and student groups with an interest in starting a venture, Rachel’s first challenge was determining how to reach such a broad community to make them aware of the Library’s services. Luckily, Waterloo’s entrepreneurs have proven to be a captive audience, ready and willing to accept help wherever they can get it. This led Rachel to her next big challenge: without a background in business or entrepreneurship, she’s faced a steep learning curve in order to provide effective services to this group. Thankfully, she is not alone in these challenges.

After our first phone meeting, it was clear we shared a lot of similar responsibilities, questions and challenges about serving this community – and we weren’t alone. Over the next few months, a group of librarians from across the country formed organically, through informal networks and at conferences including OLA Super Conference. Everyone had the same questions about licensing (Who has access to databases and for what purpose?), outreach (How do we reach this interdisciplinary and incredibly busy group of users?), and professional development (Where can I learn about what my colleagues are doing in this space?). Rather than maintain a series of separate conversations, we decided to meet as a group.

National Entrepreneurship Librarians

The first National Entrepreneurship Librarians (NEL) call took place in March 2016, and the group has grown since then to approximately a dozen members from colleges and universities in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia. Of course, not all of us are officially Entrepreneurship Librarians and we come from a variety of backgrounds. We share information about online resources and successful instruction sessions, pose questions to the group, and collaborate on small projects such as a national list of pitch competitions for post-secondary students. In what can sometimes be challenging and solitary work, the opportunity to meet with others who are similarly engaged is always inspiring.

One idea was a virtual conference to allow for a deeper look at some of the projects we’d developed. Originally intended as a Canadian event, its scope quickly grew after I attended a discussion forum focused on business reference at ALA Annual 2016 that was dominated by the topic of research commercialization and entrepreneurship support. When I returned and met with the NEL group, Christina and Rachel offered to help with planning, and the Academic Libraries Supporting Entrepreneurs Symposium was born.

Taking place entirely online on March 2, 2017, this free, inaugural meeting will comprise two keynote speakers, as well as a round of lightning talks and a virtual discussion on a diverse range of topics, including outreach, programming, instruction, collections, and original research. As event organizers, our goal is to provide a forum for professional development for a growing group of Canadian and American academic librarians from a variety of backgrounds and job descriptions engaged in entrepreneurship support. The symposium promises to be a breeding ground of inspiration for this community. A call for lightning talk proposals closes December 16 and general registration is now open, so don’t miss your chance to attend.

Carey Toane is Entrepreneurship Librarian at the Gerstein Science Information Centre at the University of Toronto. Email her at carey.toane[at]utoronto.ca

Christina Kim is Senior Manager for the Market Intelligence team at MaRS Discovery District. She can be reached via email at ckim[at]marsdd.com

Rachel Figueiredo is the Engineering & Entrepreneurship Librarian at the University of Waterloo. Rachel can be reached at Rachel.Figueiredo[at]uwaterloo.ca

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