It seems that many startups are born from an idea someone had during his studies. But what if, instead of being honed at an accelerator years later, that original idea was supported on campus while the dreamer was still enrolled?
For example, David Lin started the food delivery service Duffl two years ago while still a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. The company became part of Y Combinator and raised $13 million. Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe attended the University of Maryland before dropping out to start a startup. Some of the research on image-generating AI models also came from the University of Maryland, and the quantum chip technology behind EeroQ stemmed from Michigan State University research.
We’ve all heard success stories about schools like Harvard and Stanford producing startup founders. While schools don’t often look to become the next YC, they do look for ways to get the best research-based technology out of technology transfer offices and into the marketplace. That’s why schools, including the University of Maryland, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, and UCLA, are investing resources in entrepreneurship programs and centers.
“Our secret sauce is to let students work with their ideas in a way they want without us pushing them to do so, but then be there to support them.” Dean Chang of the University of Maryland
The original idea for many of these hubs may have been technology transfer—the process by which university-supported research is brought to market—but as entrepreneurship became a more viable career path and more people wanted to work for a startup, many schools added support for student founders and their community in general.
I spoke with representatives from those four universities about their entrepreneurial programs to learn how they’ve achieved success.
Michigan State University
Jeff Wesley, executive director of Red Cedar Ventures, the venture investment subsidiary of the Michigan State University Research Foundation, said the infrastructure — and the depth and breadth of the team and services — is what makes MSU unique.
“Between the venture creation group and the statewide efforts with funding organizations like Michigan Rise, we’ve now invested early in 60 companies, some from the university and some from the Michigan network,” Wesley told australiabusinessblog.com. “It’s very active and focused on the early stage, and we have two accelerator programs.”
It also employs many entrepreneurs-in-residence, who can bring both the knowledge of how to grow a business and the ability to harness new ideas from faculty, staff and students and turn them into new businesses.
In terms of investments, the foundation is one of the leading investors in the state — the state of Michigan gives Red Cedar a tranche of funds to invest — with capital investment activity doubling in recent years, Wesley said.
While there are similar programs across the country, Wesley said universities in the Big 10 have only recently come together to share ideas. In November, he traveled to Chicago for the inaugural Big 10 Venture Summit to learn from all the other creative arms, including how states and college alumni are supporting these efforts.
“I couldn’t believe we had never done this before,” he said. “We shared notes and looked at best practices, and then we decided to continue hosting events like this where we could actually share opportunities and learn the approaches of different programs.”
As with anything start-up, financing remains a challenge. “Even with success, early stage investing is different,” said Wesley. While many schools are tapping into alums and seeking more support from the university administration and various avenues within the state, “frankly there isn’t enough money to support efforts, especially with cancer therapies, which are capital-intensive,” he added.
Wesley is often asked by other universities how to launch a similar program and how to invest in companies. His biggest piece of advice is to create infrastructure around the campus research arm and focus on places where they can get initial funding, either from alumni or the state.