Well over half of InBIA member incubation programs have some association with institutions of higher learning. That statement, though, doesn’t tell us much: the relationships between academy and incubator are widely varied; perhaps no two university incubator relationships are identical. There are, though, some useful general categories.
Some universities or colleges wholly own and operate incubation programs or networks, while others collaborate with economic development organizations. University-based programs may focus on faculty-generated technology transfer, commercializing advances made in the schools’ labs and workshops. Others are hybrids of technology transfer and businesses not related to university research, though a subset of the latter may make use of facilities at the institution.
Many incubators enjoy an informal relationship with a university or college. A surprising number have relationships with more than one school and some are associated with as many as a half-dozen, which offers variety when an incubator professional or client seeks expert help. The informal associations are as varied as the programs that engage in them.
The next generation of entrepreneurs is doing business while still at school
Incubation professionals who regularly survey the industry landscape might conclude that student incubators – university incubation programs aimed at helping students, often undergraduates, to start their own businesses – are a new phenomenon. Though there are more and more programs either created for students or including a new student-focused component, the student incubator movement has been around for more than 17 years.
The University of Northern Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, began serving student entrepreneurs in 1996.
“Being a smaller comprehensive university program, we don’t have the exposure that larger institutions get,” says Katherine Cota-Uyar, associate director and entrepreneurship instructor at John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. “Our entrepreneurial center was established and began helping student entrepreneurs in 1996. We began speaking on university incubation at InBIA conferences in 2009 and began our incubation program in 2004-2005.”
Initially the program offered courses, advising and mentoring, which proved popular. Through funding provided by private donors and the U.S. Department of Commerce Small Business Administration, the school launched its physical incubator for students. The program has evolved into an entrepreneurial-educational system that accepts student clients on a semester basis; and to remain in the incubator, students must demonstrate business progress. The incubator offers services to both resident clients and affiliate clients, who receive all incubation services except space.
JPEC collects no fee for services. “Students pay back by being available for recruitment efforts and visits by dignitaries, legislators, government officials and so on, and prospective donors,” Cota-Uyar says. “We also have a fellowship program where current students and graduates can donate to the center to help other student incubator businesses.”
Toward the end of the last decade, interest in university incubation grew. Two of the people leading the charge were Jennifer Fowler of The Louisiana Business & Technology Center in Baton Rouge, La., and Thea Chase, at the time on the faculty at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colo., and executive director of the Business Incubator Center of Grand Junction. Both had explored the idea of student incubators and both would soon put their research into action.
Fowler joined LBTC in 2008, and within a year was planning the LSU Student Incubator, where she is now both director and a business counselor. “We started researching our program in 2009, and when I was looking at different models, there were definitely some out there, it was a handful,” she says. The program was soon accepting students. The 1,200-square-foot LSU Student Incubator comprises coworking space, meeting rooms, and mentoring, as well as an array of business services. For the last two years it has held the “LSU Student Incubator’s Venture Challenge,” a business-plan and pitch competition that begins with five business plan workshops and ends by awarding a total of $25,000 in seed money among four finalists. The money comes from private donations. The contest is open to any member who cares to enter.
Chase, meanwhile, moved in 2010 from Colorado to San Luis Obispo County, California, where she is director of the California Polytechnic State University’s SBDC for Innovation – the first in the state focusing on tech-based businesses – and managing director of the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a university incubation and acceleration consortium of programs with a student specialization. CIE opened in 2010 and now offers programs ranging from the Hatchery, which helps students in early-stage company formation and provides mentoring and real-world experience, to the Innovation Sandbox, which “allows students and faculty to collaborate in a shared working space to facilitate teamwork, further ideas and develop technologies.” There is an Entrepreneurial Ideation Lab, complete with prototyping equipment, that in the words of the program “gives students an on-campus space to work and play.” In 2011, CIE added the SLO HotHouse Accelerator, an intensive 13-week program that matches mentors, money and student entrepreneurs.
Programs have success in common
Though the programs differ widely, they all have achieved success in many ways. The LSU Student Incubator recently accepted its 100th student-owned company. Some, like the “Yellow Jacket” combination smartphone case and stun gun, have achieved not just success but invaluable national coverage. “We have 29 recent graduates who are running their businesses today,” says Fowler. “They’ve hired an additional 68 employees. And we’ve only been doing this for three years.”
Northern Iowa’s R. J. McElroy Student Business Incubator typically graduates nine student companies each year. The majority of which remain in business, though sometimes students go on to form different companies, maintain their businesses as side ventures as they accept employment elsewhere, or having considered their businesses exclusively learning experiences, close them. Cal Poly’s program is multi-disciplinary in both approach and outcomes. It sponsors, for instance, “Cal Poly Entrepreneurs,” a cross-disciplinary organization of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs from the school’s student body.
“Here we have a huge engineering department, with a lot of things happening on the tech side, and in com-puter science, where the low-hanging fruit is,” says Chase. “There was an app-development flood when I got here. So there seemed to be an opportunity for us to work on the programming side to develop companies. We partnered with the Small Business Administration and produced our SBDC. There was this push for developing young entrepreneurs through university incubation. At Cal Poly there was demand for guidance and assistance.” While all three of the programs mentioned do, as might be expected, have many companies producing software and Internet-based products, all three have companies providing physical goods and non-electronic services as well.
“We ended up working with a lot of technology companies because they were in the queue, but now we’re getting more embedded in the university,” adds Chase. “Now we have companies that are doing all kinds of things – architecture, engineering, graphic design. It’s really changing over time. And there’s a lot more interest among students involved in agriculture and food science.”
This information originally appeared in the InBIA Review, The University Incubation Connection, Volume 29, No. 2, October 2013©2013 by the International Business Innovation Association
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