One of the latest trends at universities, especially given the on-going economic malaise in the U.S., has been to create centers for entrepreneurship, innovation and economic development. Examples include the University of Florida’s Innovation Square, the University of New Mexico’s Innovate ABQ and Arizona State’s SkySong.
In all of these cases, universities and college towns are attempting to collaborate in what’s been referred to as “town and gown” – live/work/play ventures – in order to mix students with businesspeople. It’s part of a two-fold goal to jumpstart local and state economies and to give students an outlet for their innovational and entrepreneurial urges.
That take on things entails a very infrastructure-heavy approach that requires investment and the cooperation of the university and the local business community, as well as of local and state governments.
The idea is basically to create a complex of buildings, close to both campus and downtown, where students can go and work on their ideas and meet with industry professionals and businesspeople in order to turn those ideas into products and services. Some plans also include entrepreneurship classes and course credit for entrepreneurial ventures.
It may seem like a lot of extra effort just to get students to innovate and connect with those already in the scene, and that excess is precisely the point.
As mentioned above, such live/work/play ventures are designed to focus on holistic economic growth for the entire city: construction jobs to build the new “innovation complex”, residences for the businesspeople who may want to relocate once the project is underway, and finally, places for everyone to eat and shop.
Essentially, live/work/play models are state and local economic rejuvenators masquerading as entrepreneurial incubators. The large scale on which such projects are planned and deployed means that preparation of the next generation of entrepreneurs is not truly the prime concern, given the many other competing demands.
When attempting to interest students in entrepreneurship, that could be a serious oversight.
An alternative to the live/work/play model is the incubator model, which in the university environment involves small-scale deployment of time and resources to ensure quality over quantity. A good example in the collegiate world comes from the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.
Anderson has been encouraging high-quality entrepreneurship on a small scale annually for the past 9 years by organizing and holding the UNM Business Plan Competition. UNM students and alumni alike are welcome to compete for the chance to win thousands of dollars to help finance their startup idea (a complete business plan is required), which can be tech or non-tech related.
A recent winner in the tech track was Blackfish Children’s Books Apps, and a recent non-tech track winner was a local food truck business in Albuquerque.
Smaller contests like this do not generate much, if any, economic growth at the local or state level – at least not at first. However, the smaller scale, and the chance to include students and alumni in such a competition, are a better choice for an institution truly interested in fostering an entrepreneurial culture on its campus.
Quite simply, if you want to drive local and state economic growth, then do it, but don’t combine it with an entrepreneurial incubator. Students’ own potentially lucrative ventures are sure to get lost in the shuffle of state and local interests, and the interests of long-established businesses.
At the same time though, there’s no guarantee that such locally-created and locally-financed ventures will stay local. Founders may very well up and move to another part of the country, taking their success and whatever economic benefits they may have created, with them.
There is, however, a third approach that may yet prove its worth.
The co-founder of Urban Outfitters, Scott Belair, is working to create a college campus where students’ sole duty for a semester is to innovate. The campus, attached to Lehigh University, of which Belair is an alumnus, would bring together student innovators with the goal of inventing new products and services and then making them marketable, in the true entrepreneurial spirit.
“I envision a 24-hour campus with hundreds of students,” Belair said in an interview with the Allentown Morning Call. “A place where the ideas never stop coming. This is just the beginning. This is the future.”
The campus will be housed in the former R&D buildings from the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation, in a possible “take that” to those who say that America’s glory days of production and innovation are behind us.
In a summer-long test run, students already began working on ideas such as a system for ordering blueprints for products online and using a home 3D printer to create them, literally, in-house, and a water filtration system to turn water used for agricultural purposes into potable water.
Live/work/play and incubator models are both established, and they both work, albeit with their own particular drawbacks. Perhaps it’s time to innovate the way we innovate, and to rethink how we introduce students to the entrepreneurial world.
Image credit: CC by Michael Beckwith