Virginia Tech’s Apex Center for Entrepreneurs has won the top award from the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers for exceptional contributions in entrepreneurship research.

The award was announced recently at the consortium’s annual conference, hosted virtually this year by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Virginia Tech is a co-winner of the award with Texas A&M University. The other finalists from the 106 nominee schools were the Stockholm Institute for Economics, the University of Louisville, and the University of North Carolina.

Judging criteria included the volume of research produced and quality of the publication outlets; the potential of the research to significantly advance the entrepreneurship discipline; and demonstrated ability to connect research efforts to teaching and community engagement.

At Virginia Tech, entrepreneurship research, coursework, and other learning programs are anchored by a partnership between the Apex Center and the Department of Management, which offers a concentration option, entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology, within the management major, and a minor, entrepreneurship and new venture growth. The center and the department are based in the Pamplin College of Business, where innovation through entrepreneurship is a strategic focus area.

“The award is clear testimony of the high quality and significance of our entrepreneurship research,” said management department head Devi Gnyawali. “Our faculty have published in all major entrepreneurship journals. Several current Ph.D. students and recent Ph. D. graduates have been working on entrepreneurship research in recent years.”

For its small size and relatively recent beginnings, Virginia Tech’s entrepreneurship research community has been extraordinarily productive, Gnyawali said. “Since the Apex center’s founding in 2014, Virginia Tech has gone from being unknown in the realm of entrepreneurship research to being one of the most frequently mentioned for its quantity and quality of research output.”

Six years ago, he recalled, there was little coordination of entrepreneurship research within the Pamplin College, much less the wider Virginia Tech community. To build a more vibrant research ecosystem and culture in this area, he said, the college hired two up-and-coming scholars in the field — Richard Hunt, as the center’s research director, and David Townsend, as academic director. Both are full-time faculty members in the management department.

“I am proud of Rick Hunt and David Townsend, who have led our entrepreneurship research efforts,” Gnyawali said. Hunt and Townsend coalesced scholarly work in Pamplin and grew the research network across campus through two new initiatives, a research collaborative and faculty fellowships.

In its approach to research, Hunt said, the center has sought to reflect Virginia Tech’s roles as both a top-tier research institution and a public land-grant university — promoting academic scholarship, through the research collaborative, and supporting activities that are more practitioner-oriented, through the fellowships, to translate scholarly research into practical knowledge.

The fellows have included faculty members from the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture and Urban Studies, Engineering, and Science, and the Fralin Biomedical Institute.

“We foster the multidisciplinary pursuit of research that contributes to the insights, skills, and tools of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs,” said Hunt. In 2019, for example, he and Townsend co-authored an article on rural entrepreneurship in a leading journal, adding to the ongoing, multidisciplinary outreach effort by other Apex-affiliated scholars to help residents of several Appalachian communities improve their entrepreneurship knowledge and skills.

Hunt stressed, however, that Apex’s research mission is “first and foremost served by the production of original, primary research for the most prestigious journals publishing works in entrepreneurship.”

Apex researchers have contributed by developing new theories of entrepreneurial strategy and action, he said. Their published work has examined such issues as using artificial intelligence and machine learning to explore and exploit business opportunities, and creating and applying hybrid business models to speed up the international expansion of digital start-ups.

“These and other projects underscore the ways Apex has supported research on entrepreneurial challenges and opportunities, from basic rural survival to the globalization of multi-sided platforms,” Hunt said.

The achievements of Apex researchers in the past six years include 72 peer-reviewed publications in top journals, 34 peer-reviewed proceedings at major conferences, and thousands of Google citations.

Their many research honors include the Academy of Management’s Outstanding Dissertation and multiple awards for the academy’s Outstanding Paper on Entrepreneurship Theory, the Sumantra Ghoshal Research-Practice Award, and multiple best paper awards at the Sustainability, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship Conference and at the Babson Entrepreneurship Research Conference.

Townsend and Hunt, who have co-authored more two dozen articles together, have earned numerous honors in recent years, including the prestigious Best Conceptual Paper Award from the Academy of Management in 2019.

For the Apex Center, this is the second award from the Global Consortium. The center, which serves students from any Virginia Tech major and any year who are interested in building new business ventures, received the Outstanding Emerging Entrepreneurship Center Award in 2018.

“At Apex, we are a team of entrepreneurs, innovators, thought-leaders, tech enthusiasts, and startup company champions,” said Derick Maggard, the center’s executive director. “Our goal is to inspire and empower our students to turn their passion, purpose, and ideas into entrepreneurial action.”

Through their research and scholarship, he said, the center’s faculty also bring fresh theories and concepts to teaching and learning in the classroom and beyond, contributing significantly to the many opportunities Virginia Tech students have for learning and practice in all phases of the entrepreneurship and innovation process.

Maggard noted that this year’s conference attendance was the largest ever, with more than 600 virtual attendees from more than 300 colleges and universities and more than 100 award submissions.