May 06, 2011

Down To Business: Colleges Look To Train New Entrepreneurs

By: by Marlene Kennedy, Daily Gazette


Lindsay Boyajian, an undergraduate at Cornell University, wants to create a fashion-advice website to help women dress appropriately - for both climate and culture - when they travel abroad.

Jonathan Ashdown, a doctoral candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wants to use ultrasound to move data wirelessly through thick metal walls, such as submarine hulls.

Theirs were among the winning ideas for a new product or service - some practical, some gee-whiz - offered up last week at the New York State Business Plan Competition held at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering in Albany. The event drew 23 teams of students from 10 colleges across the state to compete for cash prizes totaling more than $100,000. In addition to first-, second- and third-place finishers in four industry tracks - health care, "cleantech," services and high-tech - an overall winner also was crowned.

That last honor - and the $40,000 grand prize - went to Helios, a student start-up at Syracuse University that would employ UV-C technology (ultraviolet light) to sanitize tools and instruments. Helios also won the $10,000 first-place prize in the health care track, while another SU team,, an online marketplace for buyers and sellers of unique gadgets and inventions, took the first-place money in the services track.

That Syracuse did so well in the competition - while fielding just two teams - seemed noteworthy. But later, as I looked more closely at all of the winners, I was struck by the emphasis each of their colleges places on entrepreneurship.

Syracuse, for instance, became a so-called Kauffman Campus after winning a $3 million grant five years ago from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which studies and supports entrepreneurship. The initiative, which began in 2003 and has made grants to 14 colleges, aims to expand the teaching of entrepreneurial skills beyond the business school to all majors.

SU's entrepreneur infrastructure includes a formal Department of Entrepreneurship & Emerging Enterprises; a student start-up accelerator that offers coursework, mentoring and funding; an entrepreneur-in-residence program; an affiliation with the Technology Garden, a downtown technology-support group; and a student incubator, housed at the Technology Garden, called the Sandbox.

Also steeped in entrepreneurship is RPI, which saw four of six teams entered in the business plan competition win prizes - including Ashdown's ultrasound-using Wavefront Technologies, which took second place in the high-tech track. RPI established one of the country's first college-based business incubators in 1980, and in 2000 codified the importance of teaching entrepreneurship campuswide in The Rensselaer Plan, its blueprint for the future. The school created the position of vice provost for entrepreneurship in 2006 and named Robert Chernow - once a senior vice president at the Kauffman Foundation - to fill it.

And Cornell, which saw Boyajian's Wearever You Go fashion site - its only entry - win third place in the services track, lists courses in entrepreneurship at all of its schools and colleges, from the law school to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Cornell also offers an undergraduate business incubator, an annual two-day conference on entrepreneurship, and an MBA-student-led venture fund, among other programs.

While the day-long competition in Albany was designed as a showcase for new-business ideas and technologies, not every one of those presented seemed at the ready to launch. Yet even if no enterprise ever debuts, the student creators will have learned important real-life skills in the process. Or, as RPI's Chernow notes on his school's web site to explain its brand of entrepreneurship, "Not everyone wants to, or needs to, be an entrepreneur, but everyone should know how to think like one."