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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter February 25, 2020

The Relevance of Makerspaces for University-based Venture Development Organizations

  • Maria A. Halbinger EMAIL logo


Research on university-based venture development organizations is important to better understand how universities can provide an environment promoting entrepreneurial activity. However, there is a new infrastructure potentially of great relevance to the entrepreneurial eco-system of universities: makerspaces. Makerspaces provide important support and resources that are known to promote learning, innovation and venturing activity. I highlight the characteristics and effects of makerspaces and point towards potential areas for future research. In concluding, it appears that makerspaces can be a valuable part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in university-based venture development organizations.

Introduction and Overview

Entrepreneurship inseparably relates to innovation, technological change and economic growth (Schumpeter 1934). It has been argued that building technological competence is important for regional and national innovation systems and particularly supported by learning processes (Dalum 1992; Lundvall et al. 2002). I suggest that scholarly discussions on makerspaces as part of the entrepreneurial eco-system in university-based venture development organizations can contribute to this conversation in meaningful ways. Makerspaces provide important tangible and intangible resources that are known to promote learning, innovation and venturing activity and thus, are potentially of great relevance to the entrepreneurial eco-system of universities. Not surprisingly, researchers and practitioners alike are becoming increasingly interested in the functioning and effects of makerspaces (Halbinger 2018; Hielscher and Smith 2014; Lindtner, Hertz, and Dourish 2014; Svensson and Hartmann 2017; von Hippel 2017; West and Greul 2016) but explorations on the role of makerspaces embedded in university-based venture development organizations are rare.

In the following, I elaborate on the main characteristics and effects of makerspaces discussed in current entrepreneurship and innovation research. I then suggest various avenues for future research related to the economics of makerspaces in university-based venture development organizations and the potential implications thereof for education, economy and society at large.

Makerspaces: Characteristics and Effects

Makerspaces are communities that provide physical and/or virtual space with tools and machinery which promote innovative, entrepreneurial activities as well as creative experiments of any form in the areas of science, art and technology while exchanging ideas and tinkering in a social setting (Halbinger 2018). The number of makerspaces, hacklabs and digital fabrication labs is growing rapidly, with 2,321 makerspaces in 2020 worldwide ( Innovation and entrepreneurship scholars are becoming increasingly interested in the governance and effects of makerspaces (de Jong et al. 2015; Halbinger 2018; Svensson and Hartmann 2017; von Hippel 2017) and the broader implications of the maker movement (Browder, Aldrich, and Bradley 2019), considered as the most important development since the industrial revolution (Anderson 2012). Makerspaces have been further used to integrate users in systematic ways into organizations’ innovation processes as with LEGO (Antorini, Muñiz Jr, and Askildsen 2012) and BMW ( In addition, they promote learning and experimentation at university campuses such as Stanford or MIT (;, thus appealing to practitioners and educators.

Research investigating the outcomes of makerspaces is still emerging. For example, one study on Swedish hospital makerspaces found that the user innovations that were successfully created would not even have gotten off the ground had such a space not existed and that the returns from the innovations developed in the first year alone in the makerspaces were ten times the investment (Svensson and Hartmann 2017). Notably, however, makerspaces often emerge as grass-roots initiatives (i. e. by individual users) and not necessarily tied to an organization or commercial entity. Grass-roots makerspaces are considered to promote creativity (due to shared learning and knowledge exchange), sustainability (due to customized digital fabrication) and inclusivity (due to their inherently collaborative nature) (for overviews, see Hielscher and Smith 2014; Smith et al. 2013). Given these features, makerspaces are also considered to empower citizens in increasingly uncertain economies (Lindtner, Hertz, and Dourish 2014, 442). Further, it has been shown that more than 50 % of makerspace members develop a functionally novel innovation, and 18 % of those innovations are the basis for startup activity, presumably attributable to important treatment effects prevailing in these spaces such as lower innovation costs given the access to tools, machinery and collaborators as well as knowledge spillovers and exposure to important innovation-related information and skill development (Halbinger 2018).

Based on this view of makerspaces and their important societal and economic effect, research in this area can contribute in important and unique ways to a discussion of entrepreneurial activity in university-based venture development organizations.

Makerspaces as Part of the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem at Universities – Future Research Opportunities

The entrepreneurial journey is challenging (McMullen and Dimov 2013). Becoming an entrepreneur requires creativity to discover an attractive entrepreneurial opportunity as well as skills and resources to actually implement it. Accordingly, many startups fail or never come into existence to begin with.

But because entrepreneurship is beneficial for technological change (Schumpeter 1934) and regional development (Bercovitz and Feldman 2006) researchers have long been stating that if governments aim for cultivating the technological and innovation competence of their national and/or regional innovation systems, they are well advised to take measures that particularly support learning processes (Dalum 1992; Lundvall et al. 2002). It would thus be important to get a fuller understanding of the role of makerspaces as part of the entrepreneurial eco-system in university-based venture development organizations to help overcome the above-mentioned challenges and further promote entrepreneurial activity.

As opposed to other venture development organizations such as incubators, whose goal it is to successfully incubate and graduate startups, makerspaces aim first and foremost to establish an environment for open information exchange and experimentation (Coleman and Golub 2008; Dickel, Ferdinand, and Petschow 2014). Further, members of innovation communities typically provide important assistance (Franke and Shah 2003) as well as moral support and current insights into trends and technologies (Autio, Dahlander, and Frederiksen 2013). Makerspace members often tinker and engage in creative and innovation activities because they inherently enjoy making and being part of a community (Halbinger 2018). In other words, it appears that makerspaces allow ideation, prototyping and experimenting in enjoyable and playful ways, where even failing is part of the learning process.

Especially in a digitalized economy, where work becomes more and more knowledge based, distributed and technology driven, we need to gain deeper insights into makerspaces as an infrastructure for skill development, entrepreneurial opportunities and, ultimately, new jobs creation. Future research will be important to better understand the potential of makerspaces as a new and effective means for universities and governments to address the relevant innovation challenges of our time.Specifically, from an educational perspective, university educators are challenged in preparing students with a skillset current and up-to-date with increasingly faster emergences and continuous developments of new technologies that offer new opportunities for innovation and for new jobs. This is especially important in a time where there seems to be a mismatch between the skills required by the industry and those provided by the education system (Global-Entrepreneurship-Monitor 2017).

Notably, makerspaces seem to shape members’ tendencies to innovate and start up (Halbinger 2018) and function as a vehicle for combining various personalities relevant for innovation (Stock, von Hippel, and Gillert 2016). This is important particularly because innovation is becoming increasingly a team effort (Bercovitz and Feldman 2011). Future research could thus investigate how and to what extent makerspaces can shape students’ skills and mindset such as technical skills needed to operate and work with different technologies and design tools, as well as human and conceptual skills relevant for creative problem-solving and innovation development in teams. Besides major implications for entrepreneurship research, a deeper understanding of the inner workings and effects of university-based makerspaces will thus have important implications from a training and educational perspective. Makerspaces provide a safe environment where students can learn – and fail – outside of the restrictions of a job, and in this way, build important skills and competences relevant for their professional lives.

Yet, it needs to be answered to what extent can the culture and beneficial effects of grass-roots makerspaces be transferred, maintained and/or extended in the bigger eco-system of university-based venture development organizations. What are the factors that need to be in place to promote creativity and the gamification of the entrepreneurial process – without becoming inefficient in the broader university-system tied to financial and human resources? How can community members in university-based ecosystems still enjoy what they are doing, spark creativity and at the same time, be efficient entrepreneurs? Enjoyment and passion are important aspects of entrepreneurship (Cardon et al. 2009). To better understand the role of makerspaces, it would be relevant to know whether makerspaces are able to reach a broader population in the university-based ecosystem and kindle the entrepreneurial passion among students.

Further, as highlighted above, makerspaces provide both tangible resources such as space, tools and infrastructure and intangible ones such as assistance, training, advice and collaboration opportunities. Thus, can makerspaces play a complementary role in existing infrastructures of universities? Can and should makerspaces be part of the curriculum at universities building entrepreneurial eco-systems? Future research is necessary to explore and shed light upon the extent makerspaces can replace, or be intertwined with existing educational features of university-based venture development organizations.

Finally, makerspaces also provide an excellent avenue for research focused on measuring outcomes that potentially contribute to increased social welfare more broadly. Through participation in university-based makerspaces, students would be exposed to new tools and methods of manufacturing, digital fabrication and peer-production. Technologies such as 3D printing allow for customized designs and manufacturing on a small scale and thus, can facilitate, for example, minimization of waste, and decreased ecological footprint due to reduced transportation (e. g. Kreiger and Pearce 2013). Yet, more research is necessary to truly understand the implications of those technologies for the environment and society at large and what role makerspaces can play to that respect (Hielscher and Smith 2014).

Scholars have further argued that common-based peer production not only allows for the development of a creative mindset, but further contributes to humanity as it promotes “virtue” and “character formation” (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006). In an increasingly competitive society and business world, where scams and fraud occur on a regular basis, it would be highly relevant to advance our understanding as to how makerspace communities embedded in the eco-system of a university can help create awareness about ethical conduct at work and daily life in general and, in this way, help develop entrepreneurial individuals that have the “right” mindset for creating responsible, sustainable, social and ethical change.


Entrepreneurship is important for technological advancement, economic development and improved social welfare. Yet, the entrepreneurial journey is challenging. I contend that makerspaces can be a valuable part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in university-based venture development organizations. Makerspaces are communities that provide social support, project advice, tools and machinery and important knowledge spillovers relevant for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. In order to advance understanding of makerspaces as part of the entrepreneurial eco-system in university-based venture development organizations, I suggest various areas for future research. These include investigations related to the mechanisms and effects promoting creativity, skill development and entrepreneurial activity, as well as studies related to the potential of embedding makerspaces in the wider university-based entrepreneurship eco-system, and investigations measuring outcomes that potentially contribute to increased social welfare more broadly.


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Published Online: 2020-02-25

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