Envisioning a New Research Agenda for Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: Top-down and Bottom-up Approaches

Reflections and Extensions on Key Papers of the First Twenty-Five Years of Advances

ISBN: 978-1-78756-436-7, eISBN: 978-1-78756-435-0

ISSN: 1074-7540

Publication date: 27 December 2018


Entrepreneurial ecosystems have quickly become one of the most popular topics in entrepreneurship research. Ecosystems are the characteristics and factors of a place that support high-growth entrepreneurship. This provides the ability for the field to provide important policy insights about how to aid the development of high growth, innovative ventures, as well as generate new insights into the relationship between the entrepreneurship phenomenon and the contexts it takes place within. However, work in the field remains undertheorized, with a little understanding of how the entrepreneur benefits from being in a strong ecosystem. This chapter argues that it is helpful to return to Ed Malecki’s work in a previous volume of this series, which explored the importance of networks. His work has contributed to a very broad stream of work on entrepreneurial environment. Using this as a starting point, this chapter distinguishes between “top-down” approaches to study ecosystems, which focus on the actors and factors that make up an ecosystem, and a “bottom-up” approach, which instead examines the ways in which entrepreneurs use their ecosystem to get the resources, knowledge, and support they need. The chapter concludes by suggesting how a research agenda for a bottom-up study of ecosystems can be informed by Malecki’s work.



Spigel, B. (2018), "Envisioning a New Research Agenda for Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: Top-down and Bottom-up Approaches", Katz, J. and Corbett, A. (Ed.) Reflections and Extensions on Key Papers of the First Twenty-Five Years of Advances (Advances in Entrepreneurship, Firm Emergence and Growth, Vol. 20), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 127-147. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1074-754020180000020004

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The past five years have seen entrepreneurial ecosystems emerge as one of the most popular and pressing topics within academic entrepreneurship research and policy communities (Scaringella & Radziwon, 2017). Entrepreneurial ecosystems represent the regional factors, attributes, resources, and actors that support the creation and expansion of high-growth, innovative new ventures. This, in turn, contributes to new job creation and regional economic development (Stam & Spigel, 2016). Although ecosystems have been critiqued as one more economic planning buzzword, Malecki has shown in both his 1997 chapter, in this series, as well as more recently in 2018 the ideas behind entrepreneurial ecosystems have a legacy stretching back decades (Malecki, 1997, 2018). Although ecosystems have a long intellectual history originating in clusters, innovation systems, and entrepreneurial behavior, current interest in entrepreneurial ecosystems is due to work in the popular business press by Brad Feld (2012) and Dan Isenberg (2016), who argue that ecosystems represent a new approach to entrepreneurship policy, which focuses on the organic creation of supportive environments based around the needs of high-growth entrepreneurs rather than concentrating on ways that the state can increase the overall rate of new firm formation. Subsequent academic research has explored the types of regional policies, contexts, and environments underlying strong entrepreneurial ecosystems (Acs, Audretsch, Lehmann, & Licht, 2016; Autio, Nambisan, Thomas, & Wright, 2018; Brown & Mason, 2017; Cunningham, Menter, & Wirsching, 2017; Mack & Mayer, 2016; Roundy, Bradshaw, & Brockman, 2018; Spigel, 2017; Stam, 2015; Thompson, Purdy, & Ventresca, 2017).

But despite (or because of) the growth of interest in the topic, ecosystem research faces multiple challenges (Alvedalen & Boschma, 2017). Brown and Mason (2017) argue that they are a fuzzy concept with no shared definition, although Spigel (2017, p. 49) suggests that ecosystems are more of a “conceptual umbrella” for the things, within a region, that promote new venture growth rather than a cohesive theory. Indeed, there is no standard definition of what is an entrepreneurial ecosystem is, and more importantly, what it is not. Does every place have an ecosystem, which impacts the ability of high-growth entrepreneurship to thrive or is the term reserved just for those places whose regional environment strongly supports a particular kind of high-growth entrepreneurship? Such unanswered questions make it difficult to create a global conversation about entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Beyond definitional debates, there are larger tensions within the literature around how best to study ecosystems. These tensions relate to the concepts whether the main subject of research should be the ecosystem itself or the actions of entrepreneurs within an ecosystem. That is, the question is whether ecosystems should be seen as an ontologically separate entity or they are the result of actions taken by entrepreneurs and other local actors. These different approaches lead to different research methodologies, questions, and data sources that potentially lead to divergent understandings of what an ecosystem is and how it can support high-growth entrepreneurship. In essence, we can distinguish between “top-down” that examine the ecosystems themselves and bottom-up approaches that focus on the actions of entrepreneurial actors within the broader entrepreneurial environment.

Top-down approaches look at the attributes of entrepreneurial ecosystems with the goal of identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for a regional environment that supports high-growth entrepreneurship (Acs, Autio, & Szerb, 2014; Colombelli, Paolucci, & Ughetto, 2017; Qian, 2016; Spigel, 2017; Stam, 2015; Stam & Spigel, 2016). Such a research typically employs quantitative or qualitative approaches to understand the structure of ecosystems, the resources within them, and how in turn these support entrepreneurs, who are building globally competitive new ventures. This stream of work is defined by the focus of regional social or economic structures and how these influence the patterns of firm creation and growth.

On the other hand, a smaller subset of papers have investigated how entrepreneurs inhabit and ultimately benefit from their ecosystems (Auerswald & Dani, 2017; Goswami, Mitchell, & Bhagavatula, 2017; McAdam, Harrison, & Leitch, 2018; Roundy, 2016; Thompson et al., 2017). This research focuses on how entrepreneurs interact with each other, other organizational and individual actors, and with the broader ecosystem to acquire, access, or create the resources they need to start and grow innovative new ventures. Work in this stream employs a more social-situated, “bottom-up approach,” which focuses on the processes and practices individual entrepreneurs employ within a region and how this in turn contributes to the overall effectiveness of the ecosystem.

In this chapter, I argue that it is helpful to return to Malecki’s (1997) original argument about the role of networks and relationships in supporting entrepreneurship and economic growth. As he argues, entrepreneurs and firms do not benefit by simply being proximate to each other. Rather the connections, networks, and spillovers between firms, entrepreneurs and institutions within a region drive sustained economic growth. The remainder of the chapter will first discuss the issues facing the entrepreneurial ecosystems research agenda and sketch out the relationship between top-down and bottom-up approaches of the ecosystem phenomenon. The chapter concludes by arguing that although these approaches adopt different methods and ask different questions, both are necessary for building an empirically rigorous and conceptually grounded understanding of entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Ecosystems in Context

The Intellectual Trajectory of Ecosystems

Entrepreneurial ecosystems are the social, economic, political, and cultural factors within a region that support high-growth entrepreneurship (Spigel, 2017; Stam, 2015). High-growth entrepreneurship is rarely precisely defined, but, in general, refers to new ventures whose business models, markets, or products provide the potential for them scale from small startups into globally competitive scale-ups (Brown & Mason, 2017). Such high-growth firms are responsible for the majority of new job creation and economic growth in many developed economies (Brown & Mason, 2014; Brown, Mawson, & Mason, 2017; Mason & Brown, 2014).

Although there is not an accepted definition of an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the most active area of interest has been around identifying the types of domains (Isenberg, 2010), attributes (Spigel, 2017), or framework conditions (Stam, 2015) that support this type of high-growth entrepreneurship. Nicorta et al. (2017) identify at least five different typologies of ecosystem factors, some of which date back to the early 1990s. Although each typology has their own unique factors, all agree that the successful ecosystems require: (1) cultural traits such as a tolerance for failure, acceptance of risk, and celebration of entrepreneurial successes, (2) particular actors such as first time and serial, entrepreneurs, investors, skilled workers, experienced mentors, and other supporters, (3) research universities or other knowledge-producing organizations that create new ideas and attract and train new entrepreneurs and employees, (4) dense social networks between actors that allow the spread of knowledge and resources, (5) sufficient investment capital to help new and growing firms, and (6) supportive public policies from governments, including incubators or accelerators that help new firms grow.

However, although ecosystems can locate its origins in the intellectual traditions of industrial districts, clusters, and innovation systems, current interest in ecosystems emerges primarily out of from work in the popular business press by Brad Feld and Dan Isenberg. It has attracted the attention of major entrepreneurship non-governmental organization (NGOs) and governments, who see it as an important tool for spurring economic development and reducing economic inequality (Strangler & Bell-Masterson, 2015; World Economic Forum, 2013, 2014). This, in turn, has been followed by a stream of academic research attempting to build a stronger conceptual and empirical foundation for a policy buzzword that has been aggressively adopted by numerous regional and national governments (Stam & Spigel, 2016). However, although the policy interest is new, research interest in the topic goes beyond simply chasing after the newest buzzword in the economic development world. Academic research on ecosystems emerges out of five key intellectual traditions, which combine a growing interest in the geographic aspects of business with the increasing importance of regions and high-growth firms as agents of economic development (Fig. 1). However, although the ecosystems concept draws on these ideas, it represents a novel perspective on the relationship between the firm founder and her broader local environment and community in the entrepreneurship process.

Fig. 1. 
The intellectual bases of research on entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Fig. 1.

The intellectual bases of research on entrepreneurial ecosystems.

The first literature is work on “entrepreneurial environments.” Beginning with Alfred Marshall’s (1920) pioneering work on industrial districts, researchers have long understood that the characteristics of a place, from its physical geography to its economic and social history, make certain places more amenable to different types of industrial development than others. Although early research focused on the geographic factors like transportation access, which support large-scale manufacturing, the emergence of high-tech clusters on the American eastern and western coasts pointed to the importance of skilled labor pools, knowledge spillovers from universities, and supportive cultures in the success of new, knowledge-intensive sectors such as computers and information technology (Lécuyer, 2006; Rogers & Larsen, 1984; Saxenian, 1994). Indeed, as early as the 1970s, researchers had noted that the new digital computer firms were locating in specific locations such as Palo Alto not only because of traditional economic factors such as labor costs, but also because of a broader supportive environment for technology entrepreneurship (Cooper, 1971). Such insights contributed to a broad literature on “entrepreneurial environments” that examined how a region’s economic and social structures and attributes influence the broader entrepreneurship process (Kenney & Patton, 2005; Ritsilä, 1999; Spilling, 1996; Van de Ven, 1993). As Malecki (1997, p. 82) argued, the entrepreneurial environment or climate of a place has “…possibly the greatest influence on entrepreneurship as an ongoing part of urban life.” This environment includes aspects such as its cultural outlooks toward high-risk entrepreneurship and trust as well as the types of formal and informal institutions that support dense networks between entrepreneurs, universities, and the business community. A supportive culture can encourage actors to build social networks, share knowledge, and cooperate; actions that help promote innovation and entrepreneurship although other cultural dispositions can discourage this kind of activity (Staber, 2007). The literature on entrepreneurial environments was the part of a larger movement within entrepreneurship and related disciplines away from an exclusive focus on national macroeconomic contexts or individual personality traits and toward the local environment or context surrounding the entrepreneurship process. This shift was not only driven by the intervention of economic sociologists, who pointed to the importance embeddedness in localized networks in the ability to entrepreneurs to identify new markets and gather the resources they need to start and grow firms (Aldrich & Zimmer, 1986; Burt, 2004; Granovetter, 1985), but was also aided by the intervention of geographers like Malecki (1991, 1993, 1997), Feldman (2001; Feldman & Audretsch, 1999), and Saxenian (1994).

The second literature underlying ecosystems is the work on clusters and innovation systems, which are specifically cited by Isenberg (2010) and implicitly drawn on by Feld (2012). Cluster research has shown how large “anchor firms” like corporate headquarters, research universities, or large manufacturing complexes create new entrepreneurial opportunities and a path for entrepreneurs to enter complex global supply chains (Delgado, Porter, & Stern, 2010; Glaeser, Kerr, & Ponzetto, 2010; Rocha & Sternberg, 2005). Clusters of firms in similar sectors create a highly skilled labor pool that entrepreneurs can draw on. Spinouts from these large firms can also seed a region with innovative new startups that build on the specialties of the anchor firm (Harrison, Cooper, & Mason, 2004).

Similarly, work on regional innovation systems points to the importance of knowledge spillovers between large anchor firms, research-intensive universities, and entrepreneurial ventures for creating innovation and competitive advantage (Sternberg, 2007; Ylinenpää, 2009). These knowledge spillovers occur through the mobility of highly skilled workers from larger organizations to smaller entrepreneurial ventures and spinoffs as well as through formal and informal collaborations and conversations within the region. Thus, work on clusters and innovation systems points to the overriding importance of a skilled workforce and the flow of knowledge within the region to support innovation and growth. However, more broadly, it points to the importance of the surrounding economic and social context of a place in contributing to the competitive advantage of firms within it (Porter, 2000).

The third area underlying ecosystem theory is entrepreneurial context, a literature connected with larger shifts within management research to better understand how economic, social, and political contexts affect organizational strategies instead of focusing on a single economically rational and socially isolated actor (Burke, 2002; Johns, 2001; Rousseau & Fried, 2001). Within the entrepreneurship research, this has involved the “de-centering” of the entrepreneur as the sole factor determining firm survival; however, instead to explore the geographic, industrial, or social contexts, the entrepreneurship process occurs within and how this affects entrepreneurs and other actors within them (Audretsch, Falck, & Heblich, 2011; Autio, Kenney, Mustar, Siegel, & Wright, 2014; Welter, 2011). Entrepreneurial actors are embedded in their local cultural, social, and economic contexts, influencing their outlooks toward actions such as risk taking, innovation, and cooperation (Dahl & Sorenson, 2009; Jack & Anderson, 2002). This, in turn, affects entrepreneurial strategy and the ability of firms to find the resources and know-how they need to quickly scale up.

The fourth area underlying recent interest in ecosystems is an increasing realization that the city-region, rather than the nation, is the most important scale for understanding entrepreneurial activity and policy (Audretsch, 2015). This is motivated by the improved availability of economic and social data available at smaller geographic scales (Feldman & Lowe, 2015) as well as a response to the political paralysis facing many nations’ economic policies (Katz & Bradley, 2013). The effects of regional policies and cultures on entrepreneurial innovation and economic development have been well studied (Storper, Kemeny, Makarem, & Osman, 2015), evidencing the importance of understanding the region as an important entrepreneurial actor in of itself. The work of Edward Malecki has been instrumental in building out this argument for more than 30 years (e.g. Malecki, 1984, 1993, 1997, 2012, 2018; Oinas & Malecki, 2002). From this perspective, cities are one of the few political actors who can develop functional and evidence-based economic development schemes to boost high-growth entrepreneurship; in addition, the increasing availability of fine-grained data provides researchers with new ways of studying the effects of these new policies.

Finally, ecosystem research is motivated by the increasing realization that only a small subset of high-growth startups are responsible for the bulk of new job creation and growth (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2010). Prior to the rise of ecosystem discourses, government policy largely focused on trying to increase the aggregate venture creation rate, though this mostly lead to the establishment of low-growth ventures that have very little impact on overall economic growth. However, high-growth firms have distinct needs from lower-growth firms; particularly, around ensuring they have sufficient investment capital to innovative new products and internationalize (Brown & Mawson, 2015; Mason & Brown, 2013). This is not necessary a new research finding, with earlier researchers such as Birch (1987) noting more than 30 years ago that new ventures are a key source of job creation. Nevertheless, the role of high-growth new ventures as job creators has been taken up by numerous governments and economic think-tanks such as the World Economic Forum, the OECD, and the Kauffman Foundation. Ecosystems research specifically focuses on these firms to the exclusion of other types of firms, although earlier work on entrepreneurial environments typically looked at the overall rate of new firm formation.

The connections between these five research domains and ecosystems research are shown in Table 1. Entrepreneurial ecosystems draw on a broad research agenda based in disciplines ranging from economics to geography to industrial policy. However, the ecosystem concept transcends this work by creating an integrative research agenda focused on how the nature of a place can support a particular form of innovative, high-growth entrepreneurship. Although this is a practical, policy-oriented research agenda, it has the potential to make key contributions to basic social science questions such as the relationship between structure and agency, the role of culture in economic processes, and the evolution of local economic and social systems.

Table 1.

The Concepts Underlying Ecosystems Research.

Concept Key Actors Input into Ecosystems Research Key Outcome
Clusters and innovation systems Anchor firms, universities, and regional governments Importance of skilled workforce and knowledge spillovers; place affects competitive advantage of firms. Increased firm competitive advantage due to regional resources and factors.
Entrepreneurial environments The entrepreneur, the public, and the place The social and economic situation surrounding the entrepreneur will affect entrepreneurial strategy. Understanding of the types of regional factors and structures that promote or suppress entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurial context The entrepreneur and the environment Entrepreneurs are embedded in a variety of contexts, of which the local context is particularly important. Understanding how entrepreneurs are socially embedded actors, who are affected by their context.
City-region focus Local governments, local networks, and the entrepreneur Regions are the most important scale for policy interventions to support high-growth entrepreneurship. More focused policies to catalyze high-growth, innovative entrepreneurship.
High-growth firms Scale-up entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and policymakers A small percentage of high-growth firms are responsible for the majority of new job creation and economic growth in regions. Creation of new policies focused on supporting high-growth entrepreneurship rather than supporting all entrepreneurial activity.

Challenges in Researching Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

The rapid development of the entrepreneurial ecosystems field, combined with its policy-led research agenda, has created several problems that hinder the development of coherent research agenda (Stam & Spigel, 2016). Chief among these is the lack of theory connecting the regional political and social environment with firm outcomes such as firm survival, growth, innovation, and internationalization. Some connections are theorized to exist – for example, Autio et al. (2018) suggest that strong ecosystems may support business model innovation — but few casual channels are established and even fewer backed up with empirical evidence. Although there have been several attempts to create an integrated collection of ecosystem attributes or factors that bring together different lists from different researchers and organizations, there is little empirical testing of the necessary and sufficient attributes of a strong ecosystem.

One response to the lack of ecosystem theories has been to describe the attributes and factors observed in successful entrepreneurial ecosystems. As described previously, these attributes include cultural factors such as the tolerance for risk or the extent to which entrepreneurship is celebrated within a community, factors relating to the density and strengths of local social networks, having a highly skilled workforce, policy factors such as the presence of training programs or strong research universities, and financial attributes such as having a large pool of angel investors. Nicotra et al. (2017) cite five lists of attributes, with many other collections of regional attributes associated with high rates high-growth entrepreneurship scattered throughout the entrepreneurship and economic geography literature. These lists of factors are developed through qualitative observation of successful ecosystems (Auerswald & Dani, 2017; Cohen, 2005; Feld, 2012; Motoyama & Knowlton, 2016; Spigel, 2017), quantitative analysis of multiple regions (Audretsch & Belitski, 2016; Dubini, 1989; Guzman & Stern, 2015; Qian, Acs, & Stough, 2013), or through reference to previous work on clusters and innovation systems (Auerswald, 2015; Isenberg, 2010; Stam, 2015; Stam & Spigel, 2016). This is a top-down approach, which focuses on examining how the structure of an ecosystem (the types of attributes and resources within it) affects the rate of high-growth entrepreneurship and the practices and entrepreneurial actors.

However, the contextually dependent nature of ecosystems makes it hard to create generalizable rules for their necessary or sufficient attributes. For example, research-intensive universities are often seen as one of the most important factors in building a strong ecosystem, with the role of Stanford in the development of Silicon Valley cited as an instructive example (Lécuyer, 2006). However, numerous high-growth ventures have developed in locations without such a university: Gateway Computers, for example, was founded in Sioux City, Iowa. There are many “black swan” entrepreneurial firms that have valuations over 1 billion USD that originated from the periphery of the global economy rather than in core entrepreneurial or innovative regions (Mahroum, 2016).

Beyond this, most of the lists of ecosystem attribute were based on ecosystems in the United States or Western European, and are, therefore, embedded in the context of Anglo-American economic and social systems. They implicitly assume well-functioning legal structures, property rights, and investment markets along with relatively high levels of trust between entrepreneurs and low levels of corruption in state-funded initiatives. It is not clear if ecosystems in different types of economies, such as the quasi state-directed economy of China, middle-income countries in Northern Africa and Latin America or the developing economies of Southeast Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, have the same or different underlying factors or attributes (Spigel & Harrison, 2018).

The challenge of identifying the most important ecosystem factors is compounded by the lack of systematic data on ecosystems. The most obvious problem is the lack of information on high-growth startups. Such firms are difficult to distinguish from other firms because revenues and employment data for small private firms are rarely disclosed. In most cases, the status of a firm as high-growth must be imputed from other firm attributes such as having received venture capital, participating in an accelerator, spinning out of a university. Although there have been some attempts to develop alternative ways to identify high-growth firms (Nathan & Rosso, 2015), such methods suffer from high false negative and positive rates. Beyond this, there is a lack of comparable data on core ecosystem processes such as interactions between entrepreneurs, knowledge flows, and cultural factors like trust and risk-taking. Researchers are often forced to use the “least worst” metrics for these factors, which often do a poor job proxying the complex social interactions they are meant to measure (Stam, 2018). Although qualitative case studies can provide holistic analyses that incorporate these factors, the lack of rigorous, systematic data on these attributes makes it difficult to empirically establish the importance of particular ecosystem attributes like culture or networks.

Top-down approaches to ecosystems that attempt to identify and measure key regional attributes or resources that support high-growth entrepreneurship is a critical step in the development of the research field and makes it the work relevant to policymakers and entrepreneurial practitioners. However, it faces three main problems. First, the major attributes are largely based on observations of successful ecosystems in Anglo-American, economies. We cannot assume that these factors are relevant in other contexts (Hall & Soskice, 2001). Second, it is not clear how these factors encourage high-growth entrepreneurship (Spigel & Harrison, 2018). Although ecosystem research has built on insights about the impact on particular attributes on high-growth entrepreneurship; for example, the presence of venture capital (Sorenson & Stuart, 2001) or a highly skilled labor pool (Acs & Armington, 2004), we still know very little about the processes through which these different factors work together to create a cohesive ecosystem. There are hints to these processes in the cluster and regional innovation systems literature, such as the role of employee mobility in the flow of market knowledge between firms, but such insights have not yet been fully integrated into ecosystem theories. Finally, the poor quality of data on ecosystems makes it difficult to measure the impact of these various factors and understand how they differ between ecosystems. Lacking this data, it is challenging to develop and test generalizable hypotheses about ecosystems. We need a better understanding about the processes that make ecosystems work before we can study global patterns in ecosystem structures.

Bottom-up Approaches to Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

Rather than a top-down approach that engages with ecosystems to identify the actors and factors that are associated with high-growth entrepreneurship, an alternative approach is to examine how entrepreneurs engage with their ecosystems and acquire the types of resources and support they need to grow their firms. These individual actions and practices in turn help constitute and reproduce the larger ecosystem. This can be termed a bottom-up approach because it starts with the experiences and actions of entrepreneurs and uses them as a way to understand the functioning of the broader ecosystem. That is to say, we view ecosystems as being constituted by the practices of the entrepreneurial actors within them rather than in the resources they contain. As shown in Fig. 2, bottom-up approaches start by investigating the entrepreneurial practices within an ecosystem, such as if and how entrepreneurs network and their willingness to take on substantial risk to quickly grow help drive the ongoing ecosystem processes such as entrepreneurial learning and recycling of resources and knowledge between older and newer firms. This, in turn, helps establish the overall structure of the ecosystem, including the types of entrepreneurial resources available. The analytical direction of a top-down approach is reversed, starting with the ecosystem structure and available resources, showing how they flow throughout the ecosystem, and ultimately affecting entrepreneurial practices and activities.

Fig. 2. 
Analytic Options for Studying Entrepreneurial Ecosystems.

Fig. 2.

Analytic Options for Studying Entrepreneurial Ecosystems.

A bottom-up perspective acknowledges that resources in an ecosystem like financial capital, business know-how, access to crucial social networks, and the help of skilled advisors and mentors are not freely floating in an ecosystem; entrepreneurs must access these resources by expanding their time, money, or social capital (Spigel, 2016). An ecosystem can be rich in resources; however, if there is no way for entrepreneurs to access these resources, it will not be effective at supporting high-growth entrepreneurship. Useful social networks predicted on a culture of sharing and trust are necessary for these resources to freely flow within an ecosystem (Malecki, 1997). Spigel and Harrison (2018) argue that from this perspective, ecosystems are not tangible things but are instead “…better understood as ongoing processes through which entrepreneurs acquire resources, knowledge, and support, increasing their competitive advantage and ability to scale up” (p. 14). Rather than ecosystems being the cause of, and the result of, high levels of innovative entrepreneurship, this perspective views ecosystems as being constituted by the practices and actions of high-growth entrepreneurial actors. A bottom-up approach specifically engages with these processes, examining how they emerge out of the collective practices of entrepreneurial actors.

Bottom-up approaches open up new sets of research questions, which can shed new light on how ecosystems operate and support high-growth entrepreneurship. These in turn have the potential to shed additional light on how ecosystems form, support high-growth entrepreneurship, and how to create more effective policies to ensure that ecosystems are inclusive. The following subsections discuss several new potential avenues for ecosystem research that build on this “bottom-up” research approach.

What Practices Do Entrepreneurs Use in their Ecosystem?

The growing literature on entrepreneurial practices (Chalmers & Shaw, 2015; de Clercq & Voronov, 2009; Nicolini, 2010) builds on older notions of entrepreneurial behavior (Bird, 1995; Mitchelmore & Rowley, 2010), but with a specific focus on what entrepreneurs actually do instead of normative evaluations of what entrepreneurs should do to maximize survival and growth. This includes the daily “micro-practices” through which entrepreneurs engage with their community and learn about the entrepreneurship process (Anderson et al., 2010). Within ecosystems research, this includes a new focus on the actions, techniques, and methods entrepreneurs consciously and unconsciously employ to access the resources and support found in their local community. This may involve decisions about whether to attend entrepreneurial events to build social ties with other entrepreneurs as opposed to dedicating more time to their firm or spending time with their family. Ecosystem practices, such as discussing sensitive firm issues with other entrepreneurs, sharing finite resources, and providing introducing and help to other firms, depend on the levels of trust within a community and the extent to which altruism has been normalized in the ecosystem’s culture (Muldoon, Bauman, & Lucy, 2018). Other practices may involve how entrepreneurs develop their own networks with other local founders, if this is primarily thorough informal contacts and introductions or if they are mediated through formalized networking or training programs. This leads to an important research question of what practices entrepreneurs use to engage in their ecosystem, and to what extent are these practices and ecosystem engagement in general linked with positive firm outcomes.

Who is Included or Excluded from Entrepreneurial Ecosystems?

Researchers have largely approached ecosystems uncritically, with little thought to the extensive literature on gender and racial discrimination in the entrepreneurship process (Greenberg & Mollick, 2017; Köllinger & Minniti, 2006). However, ecosystems are likely affected by implicit and explicit exclusion and discrimination. Because ecosystems are so dependent on access to social networks, discrimination is particularly invidious because it prevents certain entrepreneurs from building connections with other entrepreneurs, learning from them, and being able to draw on each other’s social capital to solve problems and help grow their firms. A bottom-up approach to ecosystems should consider the types of barriers entrepreneurs face in engaging with their ecosystem. Entrepreneurial networks tend to be homophilous, made up of people with similar backgrounds, goals, and outlooks (Hanson & Blake, 2009). Older, female, or racial minority founders might be less likely to be part of the social networks of so-called “typical” younger white male entrepreneurs (de Clercq & Hoing, 2011). Even when networking events are specifically build the social networks of under-represented groups, these networks might not overlap with those of the white, male entrepreneurial actors who possess the most important entrepreneurial resources. Entrepreneurs might also self-exclude themselves from an ecosystem if they do not see the value of participating or if engaging with the ecosystem requires too much effort.

We, therefore, need to critically evaluate who is allowed to be part of an ecosystem and which entrepreneurs face additional barriers in participating in it. For those who are excluded from their ecosystem, we must examine if and how they compensate for this. What practices do the excluded entrepreneurs use to either replicate or supplant the resources that they cannot get from the ecosystem? In addition, does this have any impact on their ability to create and grow innovative firms?

How Do Entrepreneurs Lead an Ecosystem?

Feld’s (2012) manifesto on startup communities argues that entrepreneurs should lead ecosystems rather than large firms or the public sector for the simple reason that entrepreneurs are best placed to identify the most pressing challenges facing them. In this sense, entrepreneurs should take the lead in organizing the local startup community and work to build consensus about the most important areas that need support. However, this represents a collective action problem. Entrepreneurs must already dedicate a great deal of time and effort to build their own firms and often do not have the extra time to help coordinate an ecosystem or build new lobbying organizations Other entrepreneurs who do not actively contribute their ecosystem may still benefit from the public goods the ecosystem creates (Pitelis, 2012). This creates a fundamental challenge for ecosystems; the people who are most responsible for building the ecosystem have the most limited time and resources to build it. In practice, successful or cashed-out entrepreneurs often become key ecosystem organizers (Mason & Harrison, 2006). Their success gives them the time, resources, and legitimacy needed to become leaders of the entrepreneurial community. Often, they take on the responsibilities of community organizing due to their own strong personal ties to the region as well as a desire to create a better environment for their own future rounds of entrepreneurship (Feldman & Zoller, 2012).

There has been very little research on how and why particular entrepreneurs emerge, or do not emerge, as ecosystem leaders and how they engage with the public sector and other stakeholders co-create the ecosystem. An exception to this is the work by Autio and Levie (2017), who show that the Scottish public sector officials and entrepreneurs collaborated to build an effective ecosystem-management structure. However, from a bottom-up perspective, we need more clarity about how and why some entrepreneurs seem willing to dedicate a great deal of their own time and social capital to building the ecosystem and assisting other entrepreneurs although others prefer to focus their own energies on their firm, family, or other philanthropic interests. Indeed, there is a need for more focus on the smaller, informal groups created by and for entrepreneurs, such as meet-up groups, informal pub nights, or hackathons, to better understand the motivations by their organizers and if these allow for the spread of entrepreneurial know-how within the community.

New Research Approaches

Top-down and bottom-up approaches are necessary to fully understand the nature of entrepreneurial ecosystems and rigorously link their structure with firm outcomes like survival and growth or regional outcomes like job creation or improved economic welfare. As shown in Table 2, top-down and bottom-up approaches to ecosystems involve differing perspectives, goals, units of analysis, and research questions and experience different types of research challenges. The most fundamental difference between the two approaches is the unit of analysis. Even if their empirical data are gathered at the firm level, top-down approaches are fundamentally centered on the overall structure of the ecosystem and trying to link this with this improved firm survival or growth rates. Bottom-up approaches are concerned with how entrepreneurs experience and interact with their ecosystem and how this creates or constrains different potential growth strategies. In essence, top-down approaches can show patterns in the types of resources available in ecosystems and their structures, although bottom-up approaches reveal the processes through which ecosystems support (or do not support) high-growth entrepreneurship.

Table 2.

Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Approaches to Entrepreneurial Ecosystems.

Approach Top-Down Bottom-Up
Main focus The resources, attributes, and factors that constitute strong entrepreneurial ecosystems, how these ecosystems initially emerge and evolve, the effect of ecosystems on firm outcomes such as growth, and the relationships between ecosystems and regional economic trends. How entrepreneurs engage with their ecosystem to create and grow highly innovative firms, the practices they use to acquire these resources, the barriers they face while interfacing with the ecosystem, and the ways in which they emerge as ecosystem leaders and help build a stronger ecosystem over time.
Research goals Identify the necessary and sufficient regional factors that create a conducive environment for high-growth entrepreneurship. Understand the relationships between ecosystem structures, resources, and entrepreneurial practices, and their consequent impact on firm growth strategy.
Unit of analysis The region and the ecosystem. The entrepreneur and the scale-up firm.
Common research strategies Quantitative: A statistical analysis of indicators to identify most important regional ecosystem factors and link with firm outcomes. Quantitative: Network measurements of worker and knowledge flow within an ecosystem, simulation modeling of entrepreneurial interaction.
Qualitative: Case studies based on interviews with entrepreneurs and other stakeholders to identify what ecosystem factors are most important to scaling firms. Qualitative: Practice-based or discursive approaches based on interviews with entrepreneurs to identify how they engage and benefit from the ecosystem.
Common research challenges Difficulty of identifying high-growth firms a priori, lack systematic of data on ecosystem cultural and network attributes of ecosystems, difficult to establish causality between ecosystem structure and positive firm outcomes. Difficulty of identifying processes linking ecosystem practices to ecosystem structure, lack of quantitative data on entrepreneurial practices or knowledge sharing.

Qualitative methods are likely to be the most common methodology in bottom-up approaches. Interviews with entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and other ecosystem actors, augmented with ethnographic observations are an effective way of identifying the practices entrepreneurs use in relation to their ecosystem and uncover how these are connected with high-order social processes. Nevertheless, this should not obscure the potential for mixed-methods and quantitative techniques do reveal the underlying processes and practices of ecosystems. For example, the network analysis of startup support event attendees can help identify the knowledge sharing practices within an ecosystem and agent-based simulations offer the potential to look at the relationships between entrepreneurial practices (such as entrepreneurs’ propensity to network) and ecosystem structure.

Bottom-up approaches have the potential to spur useful developments researchers’ understanding of the socially embedded nature of entrepreneurship as well as policy thinking on how to cultivate entrepreneurial ecosystems. Ecosystems operate at the intersection of entrepreneurship as a universal economic phenomenon that derives from the nature of modern capitalism and entrepreneurship as a deeply contextual, socially embedded process with deep roots in local power structures and social dynamics. In all likelihood, some aspects of entrepreneurial ecosystems are universal, in the sense that high levels of human capital, plentiful investment capital and entrepreneurial mentorship will generally spur high-growth entrepreneurship. This is the result of the fundamental nature of modern Schumpterian capitalism along with the hegemonic narrative of Silicon Valley-style technology entrepreneurship that has been globalized through popular business planning structures like Lean Startup and “entre-tainment” like popular biographies of famous entrepreneurs or shows like Dragon’s Den or Silicon Valley (Swail, Down, & Kautonen, 2014).

However, other aspects are contextually contingent, such as the impact of culture, public support efforts, and the ways in which regional ecosystem structures are translated into everyday entrepreneurial practices within ecosystems. This is evidenced by the different types of entrepreneurial ecosystems we can observe. There are striking differences between the prototypical ecosystems of Silicon Valley, Boulder, and Boston based on research universities, venture capital networks, and an innovative culture and other structures such as Calgary’s oil industry ecosystem (Spigel, 2017). This is to say nothing about ecosystems that develop in the context of, for example, Chinese, Islamic, or other economic and cultural systems (Freitas & Kitson, 2018). These differences are rooted in regional social, economic, and political histories; however, there is very little clarity about how these trajectories affect the eventual structure of ecosystems or the practices entrepreneurs use to engage with them. Bottom-up approaches to ecosystems help reveal these connections between regional factors, ecosystem structures, and entrepreneurial practices to reveal the socially embedded and contextual nature of the high-growth entrepreneurship process.

Within policy debates, a bottom-up perspective provides additional insights into how ecosystem work. This provides local policymakers and business communities with new insights into how to craft effective policies and build stronger networks of entrepreneurs and support actors. In particular, it is important to understand if and how particular entrepreneurs are excluded from an ecosystem and if current policy designs and entrepreneurial practices are sustaining this exclusion or actively trying to reverse it. Understanding the underlying processes through which entrepreneurs benefit from their local ecosystem will also help answer basic policy questions, such as whether we should be looking for a singular entrepreneurial ecosystem in a region or there are multiple ecosystems for different industries and groups (Brown & Mason, 2017).


Malecki’s (1997) intervention in an earlier volume of this series made a powerful argument about the importance of social networks and regional cultural climates in the entrepreneurship process. This was part of a larger wave of research that critiqued the entrepreneur as a rational economic agent but instead looked to view her as a fundamentally social actor, who is embedded in overlapping regional and global social contexts and networks. This debate helped to precipitate a major shift in entrepreneurship research that moved the field to be more accepting of sociological perspectives and qualitative and critical methodologies. This, in turn, has led to new policy interventions that are aware of the need to work within the constraints of local contexts and resources.

Entrepreneurial ecosystems are the most current iteration of this debate. Ecosystem ideas build on the preexisting work by Malecki and others on the importance of networks and cultures in creating a supportive entrepreneurial environment by focusing specifically on the types of high-growth firms that are most beneficial to economic development and innovation. Although this topic has a history dating back more than two decades, its recent popularity comes from the dominance of a particular brand of American-style technology entrepreneurship within entrepreneurial and economic development policy communities. This popularity sparked an interest in ecosystems among researchers, who have so far looked to identify the types of regional actors and factors that can support high-growth entrepreneurship. This top-down approach is useful in identifying the most common ecosystem structures and finding empirical evidence that can connect ecosystems with improved firm outcomes like survival and growth. However, there are limitations in what this type of approach can reveal about the underlying processes of how ecosystems ultimately support high-growth entrepreneurship.

Bottom-up approaches that look at ecosystems as they are experienced by entrepreneurs are crucial for studying the processes through which ecosystems operate and ultimately support high-growth entrepreneurship. These approaches start with how the entrepreneur engages or does not engage with her ecosystem, such as the types of resources she gets from the ecosystem and the practices she uses to acquire them. The ecosystem is not seen as a discreet ontological entity, but, rather, the outcome of how entrepreneurial actors interact, share knowledge, and support one another. These practices are constructed within the local regional context, affected by factors like the regional culture, economic history, and availability of resources and political support.

As ecosystem research develops, it should seek to utilize top-down and bottom-up approaches. Top-down approaches can reveal patterns in ecosystem development and identify the most common combination regional factors that promote high-growth entrepreneurship; however, it is extremely difficult for these approaches to show the processes through which ecosystems support new venture growth. Bottom-up approaches can more effectively reveal the social and interactive processes that power ecosystems; however, it is difficult for them to generate generalizable findings. Only a conversation between these two approaches, employing a variety of methodologies and carried out in a variety of different contexts, can create the nuanced understanding of ecosystems necessary to support effective policy creation and move the debate on the social embeddedness of entrepreneurship and innovation.


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