As young companies have been responsible for a majority of net job growth over the last couple decades, entrepreneurship has increasingly become a fundamental force at universities nationwide. Research from the U.S. Small Business Administration suggests important links between education and venture creation and entrepreneurial performance — to the extent that education can provide both a greater supply of entrepreneurs and higher levels of entrepreneurial performance.
Thus the question remains: how are administrators at the nation’s top universities with the top entrepreneurship programs fostering innovation and building student entrepreneurs from scratch, and what can you learn from their example?
A recent review of three universities with nationally ranked entrepreneurship programs — The University of California, Los Angeles, Cornell University, and the University of Houston — points to these key findings.
Although on different coasts and in different ecosystems, all of these universities are fostering entrepreneur-friendly environments through a combination of means: accessible university resources and support for aspirational entrepreneurs, cross-campus collaboration among different departments, as well as industry engagement and networking opportunities for students.
Step One: Unusual Generosity
One of the discerning factors at the University of Houston Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship are the resources made available to student entrepreneurs. Hesam Panahi, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Houston, says he believes having access to resources on campus is important.
“This year we opened RED Labs, our student startup accelerator at the Bauer College of Business. We’re offering students a free co-working space and accelerator program where they can turn their ideas into actual products that solve a real customer pain,” Panahi says.
At UCLA, the demand for more startup resources spurred the creation of Startup UCLA, one of the first campus-wide initiatives. Prior to the launch of Startup UCLA in 2012, entrepreneurship programs were concentrated at the graduate level at the Anderson School of Management or geared towards faculty.
Last year Jim Stigler, Associate Dean of Social Work at UCLA, wanted to open the doors of entrepreneurship to undergraduate students as well. UCLA alumni agreed — they wanted to prepare students to work in startups and ventures. “There is a lot of talent at UCLA, but we really had no way to tap into that. There was no way to know that students were building businesses in their dorms,” says Stigler.
Startup UCLA accepted its first class of companies into its summer accelerator program this past year. Participating student companies receive between $4,000 and $8,000 in addition to mentorship and office space while participating in the 12 week program in exchange for no equity. Stigler says, “Our goal is to help these students learn something. If their company fails we can spin it as a learning experience.”
Likewise, Cornell listened to student demand for acceleration services, physical space, and access to mentors by opening the eLab in 2008 as a business accelerator for high potential startups. Zach Shulman, Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the Johnson Graduate School of Management says, “The eLab is like a mini TechStars, we accept 10 teams that go through the acceleration process in the fall and graduate in April.”
Besides acceleration and incubator resources, these universities also integrate entrepreneurship into the curriculum. Panahi says, “Within our curriculum, we offer a corporate entrepreneurship certificate that is available to all University of Houston students. The certificate requires enrolling in two courses: one covers the basics of entrepreneurship and the other discusses intrapreneurship within an organization.”
- Give student startups access to physical office space
- Offer students a means to accelerate their ideas on campus
- Integrate entrepreneurship education into the curriculum
Step Two: Aggressive Cross-Pollination
When asked about the meaning behind the tagline of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Alfred E. Osborne, Senior Associate Dean, says, “Thinking in the Next means that our students are not afraid to dream about possibility. Entrepreneurship and innovation have been at the core of Anderson and we have driven a lot of this ecosystem.” Although entrepreneurship is the driving force behind Anderson, it is also widely-practiced across campus, at both the medical school and the engineering school.
For example, the Institute of Technology Advancement, an off-campus technology development center established by the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, recently launched the new Student Entrepreneur Venture Competition, a competition for new, independent ventures in the seed, startup, or early stages. The Student Entrepreneur Venture Competition is an effort to promote cross-campus collaboration among students in the engineering and the business school. For instance, each student team must consist of at least one UCLA engineering and one Anderson MBA student.
In the Technology and Innovation Partners Program, Anderson MBA students work with scientists or post doctoral students to help bring intellectual property to the market. Osborne says, “Anderson students work to translate IP into commercial purposes and look for feasibility of the product or service to be further developed downstream.”
For Cornell, cross-campus collaboration is possible because of Entrepreneurship@Cornell, a centralized program office. Shulman says, “Some schools have their own flagship programs but our goal is to promote collaboration across campus.” The vision of Entrepreneurship@Cornell is to support a diverse group of university-wide activities that foster entrepreneurship in every college.
- Offer students multiple project-based opportunities that allow for collaboration with students from other colleges
- Set up a centralized entrepreneurship program office to serve as a hub for the entire university
- Support a diverse group of university-wide activities to encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship across campus.
Step Three: Get Off My Lawn (or Quad)
University engagement with the larger ecosystem and those in industry are just as crucial. “Externally, we try to get student entrepreneurs connected to the startup scene as early as possible. Our goal is to infuse the Houston startup community with student talent,” says Panahi. The University of Houston is also involved at the city level, through the promotion of recent group initiatives aimed at growing entrepreneurship by solving important problems and capitalizing on Houston’s strengths: energy and healthcare.
At Cornell, industry engagement is integrated directly into the university. The eLab’s board is made up of alumni that are entrepreneurs and many professors have extensive company creation or venture experience. For example, Zach Shulman not only teaches at Cornell, but is also the managing partner of Cayuga Ventures, where Cornell students represent half of their portfolio.
Other examples of university and industry partnerships include UCLA’s Deutschman Venture Fellowship Program, which provides MBA students with hands-on venture capital management, investment training, and operating company experience. Selected students are placed with sponsoring venture capital firms or portfolio companies for three month summer internships with financial support provided by a stipend from the program and a month salary.
- Give students the opportunity to solve real world industry problems that are important to the local ecosystem
- Bring industry experts into the university to impart their entrepreneurship experience and network connections
- Offer students more hands-on learning experiences that allow them to work directly with relevant industry partners
The observations of these top ranking entrepreneurship programs indicate that these universities are listening to their students and iterating to provide quality entrepreneurship education. Although these universities have implemented similar initiatives, one caveat they have all avoided is the notion of a “one-size fits all” or a “copy and paste” mentality. Remember, not every startup ecosystem is, or should become the next Silicon Valley.
Take away key findings from these three established entrepreneurship programs, but always customize every entrepreneurship initiative at your university to your own specific ecosystem and its needs.
How to get started:
Listen to your students and establish a firm grasp of how you could help them better explore entrepreneurship opportunities and start companies.
About 3 Day Startup
3 Day Startup (3DS) teaches entrepreneurial skills to university students in an extreme hands-on environment. In addition to supporting budding entrepreneurs, 3DS programs cultivate entrepreneurial communities that contribute to the growth of entrepreneurship ecosystems in the regions surrounding these university programs. This proven program provides students the tools they need to start successful companies. To date, more than 41 companies have come out of 3DS to collectively raise $14.5 million in investor capital and more than a dozen have been accepted to prestigious incubators and accelerators such as Y Combinator and TechStars.