Today’s undergraduates, confronted by a sluggish job market, are looking to universities to teach them how to turn their ideas into their own businesses or nonprofit ventures.
Colleges and universities are responding. Harvard’s Innovation Lab has incubated more than 75 companies. Northwestern University has launched The Garage, a student startup center. New York University has opened a campus entrepreneurs’ lab.
And the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics recently unveiled its Venture Studio. Tom Martin talked with its director, commercialization specialist Mariam Gorjian.
Q: What inspired the creation of the Venture Studio, and when did it launch?
A: When the new Gatton College was being designed, we were approached with the idea for a new space for entrepreneurs. They had a thousand extra square feet to provide for that, and we came up with the Venture Studio.
Q: What is its purpose?
A: The purpose of the Venture Studio is actually for entrepreneurs to come and work together to do pitches, collaborate creatively, have meetings. You can have about 100 people in the room very comfortably maybe watching a slide show or going through a presentation.
Q: Who is in that audience? Is your clientele limited to students, or can anybody from the community come to Venture Studio?
A: We do allow people from the community to come and interact in the space through special events that we have throughout the semester. We want to use it more for students to come and work on their projects, and pitch their ideas and get feedback.
Q: What kind of ideas are coming from students? It must at times be pretty fascinating.
A: We have a program that we’re piloting called Venture Studio Entrepreneurs Boot Camp. We had 60 applicants for the fall semester. We had around 12 projects that we brought in, some from UK research, some in equine, some in medical devices. Some of the projects were brought in by the students themselves around apps or physical products that they wanted to develop. It’s a 10-week structured course. They listen to guest speakers who specialize in a field like intellectual property or product development or customer validation.
Q: What are some of the more common problems that they encounter?
A: Actually defining the problem. A lot of times entrepreneurs can get caught up in an idea that they think is “the next big thing,” but identifying the problem and what they’re trying to solve is usually where it gets hung up the most. And then, trying to define how you actually make money from solving this problem. So, that’s something that we try to help coach them through in the boot camp.
Q: So, let’s say a student has a great idea. They come to you. It begins to crystallize, and they get to the point where they do want to commercialize it. They want to actually create a business around it. Do you help them with things like financing?
A: Absolutely. We work with different groups around Lexington. We work with the Bluegrass Angels that’s local to Lexington, local investors, state investors. There are also different grant opportunities like the Small Business Innovation Research grants and Small Technology Transfer Research grants, which are offered through Kentucky. Kentucky is unique in the sense that they match one-to-one in the funding they award. And of course, there’s Kickstarter and different campaigns that can be launched that we try to help showcase those tools for students to use.
Q: In your experience of working with startup entrepreneurs, what is most challenging to them, especially in the very delicate startup phase?
A: You come across a lot of entrepreneurs that they have something that they really want to accomplish and they’re passionate about, but trying to put finances behind it can be a challenge. So, through Boot Camp, for example, we have actually allotted our students a $500 spending award. They have to develop a plan on how they’ll use it.
Q: Are there any particular success stories that you would like to highlight?
A: We have had teams we work with, students on the university level, we’ve had several win competitions. We had a team last semester called Red Natural. They won $25,000 toward their project. And we’ve also had success with taking research from UK and turning it into companies. For example, working with intellectual property on campus as I have been in the past. We identified those as potential projects to turn into businesses, and I don’t know the numbers right offhand, but we’ve had success with people in the equine center and some in engineering. So, there are success stories and there are companies that have spun out, and we’re pretty proud of that.
Q: Would you say that today’s American economy is an entrepreneurial economy?
A: I definitely think so. I feel like today’s economy, especially with the younger generation, the students that we see coming out of the university, they really have a craving to actually do something with what they’re learning, with their degrees. Not only are they coming out with great educations, but they actually want to apply it somehow, and Venture Studio is one of those pieces to the puzzle that can actually train them on “this is a real world application, now you have to go and prove it.”
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, go to the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during “Morning Edition” and at 5:45 p.m. during “All Things Considered.”