The Coming Entrepreneurial Tidal Wave: University Entrepreneurship 2.0

This post was written in late 2010, (I've reposted here):

As I sometimes like to say- if the licensing side of the university tech transfer business is 29 years old by now, the practice of spinning-out companies based on university intellectual property is still really a teenager.  The field is still young enough such that no one has written the definitive book on its application and in the meantime the field simply continues to evolve and grow at a stunning pace.  And, like any teenager worth his or her salt, this form of university entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly boisterous, ambitious, somewhat unruly at times and yet is displaying enormous creativity, energy and imagination. As I approach the beginning of my fifth year in the university and with the benefit of having spun-out almost 50 university startups during this period, I have taken a moment to reflect on what I have seen and am seeing occur. 

According to AUTM statistics, American universities are now spinning-off companies based on university intellectual property at a clip approaching 600 per year. In addition, as demonstrated in a recent white-paper authored by a team led by MIT's legendary Ed Roberts, this number of 600 per year is actually dwarfed by the thousands of other companies being launched each year by university entrepreneurs forming companies of their own that are not based on their university's intellectual property. Another important development is the well-known fact that as the costs of launching a company continue to decrease due to the advent of cloud computing and the like- so has it steadily become much easier for university-age students to try their hand at entrepreneurship.

Over these past four years I have also observed more and more universities rising to the challenge of empowering and enabling their populations of fledgling entrepreneurs. More and more schools are offering entrepreneurship education and lectures, and setting up divisions run by experienced entrepreneurs/investors and as a result we are seeing new programs bubbling up everywhere. It is now increasingly common to hear about various university programs offering entrepreneur office hours, seed-funding competitions and new entrepreneur-in-residence and/or venture mentorship services. Amazingly, such programs were the exception and not the rule when I first arrived on campus some four short years ago.

There are perhaps two other factors at play in this ether. The first I call the Facebook Effect. With the mythology of its dorm-room provenance looming archetypally over the consciousness of almost every new student venture, we have in place now the much needed "success story" to inspire legions of young entrepreneurs. Secondly, due to the prolonged economic downturn and decimation of the job market, more and more students now find it perfectly reasonable to explore the startup avenue than ever before.

It is my belief that we are now hearing the first rumblings of what will be an enormous tidal wave of entrepreneurial innovation emerging from the academy throughout this country. I'm officially going to go on record and declare that we are entering University Entrepreneurship 2.0

What Every Student Entrepreneur Needs to Know to Succeed (3) Know Something!

This is part of my Series on University Entrepreneurship.

In the previous posts in this Series we established the mindset and awareness required as well as the immersion you need to initiate in your local startup ecosystem in order to greatly increase your chances of success as an entrepreneur.

In this post we are focused-on developing subject-matter expertise. So let's elaborate on what I mean by this.

If you're an undergrad perhaps you've already declared your major/minor, etc. and if you're in grad school you're already something of a specialist. So there's no question you're developing some serious knowledge. But that's simply not enough and you should refuse to rest on the laurels academia might bestow on you. It means close to zilch in the business world and often leads to insane disconnects when the two worlds collide. This cultural divide only deepens over time and believe me, I've seen it over and over again. Don't ever let it get to this. With some extra effort you can "change the game" completely.

If the sort of businesses you're thinking about launching one day happens to spring from the subject matter you're studying in school, that's definitely a "leg-up" so to speak, but don't be lulled into complacency by thinking you've got the space figured out. I meet plenty of grad students who are deeply intimate with a field of research, but this simply doesn't come close to knowing what they need to know.

If you can become intimate with the following matters as well, you're really on your way:

  • Who are all the established companies and startups in this space (historically and now) and what happened to them and why?
  • What were and are their business models?
  • Who are all the successful entrepreneurs/teams in this space? How did they achieve what they achieved? Where are they now?
  • Who are the entrepreneurs & teams that failed and why?
  • What is the customer base in this space like? How is it segmented?
  • Who are the key investors in this space and what are they looking for?
  • Where is the industry moving? Where are the white spaces, the unsolved problems?
  • Who are the best writers/bloggers/journos giving the most unique insights into the space? 
  • What are the best events/gatherings/conferences in the field where everyone gathers?

I guarantee you that if you master all of the items above you will be absolutely unique among your peers. Amazingly very few people actually even know to do this in the first place but even if they do they usually don't pursue it for whatever reason.

If you are one of the few that develops this subject matter expertise you will have achieved fluency in a new language and everyone in the business world you encounter will immediately recognize this.

Now You'll have Subject Matter Expertise!

For Part Four in this Series click here

What Every Student Entrepreneur Needs to Know to Succeed (5) Finding a Mentor

This is part of my Series on University Entrepreneurship.

In the previous posts in this Series we established the mindset and awareness required as well as the immersion you need to initiate in your local startup ecosystem, what you need to do to acquire subject matter expertise and how to develop a social media presence all with the objective of greatly increasing your chances of success as an entrepreneur. 

Next on the menu is understanding the importance of mentorship. Take a second to remember what is was like when you first started trying to learn a new language, sport or skill. It was probably somewhat daunting and uncomfortable at first. Perhaps you found a great coach to quickly help you get the hang of things that gave you real-world insights that you never would have found in a book. I suggest you look at learning entrepreneurship in the same exact way. It's really not something one "just does" and hopes to be good at. You need experienced people to help guide you so you can avoid major pitfalls. The sooner you accept this reality, the better. Having an ego about this is a mistake. Don't confuse being intelligent with actually knowing anything- it's a huge problem that's rampant in our society.

The good news is that most colleges and universities are being swept up in the tidal wave of university entrepreneurship I predicted three years ago! Whether the school's administration is genuinely interested in helping student entrepreneurs succeed or just "trying to keep up with the Jones' (and the Stanford's for that matter)", doesn't matter much, because they're all falling over themselves to find entrepreneurs-in-residence and start mentorship programs to point their students to. I strongly urge you to take advantage of these resources and to receive some ongoing advice and mentorship.

Also, as you immerse yourself in the local startup community, keep your eyes open for experienced and successful people who might be inclined to help you. Perhaps they went to the same college as you did or simply love what you are trying to create. When you find such a person, get to know them and take your time- don't clumsily ask them to mentor you on your first or second meeting. Let it happen organically. Usually the conversations will just head in the direction of advice and mentorship- all you need to do is roll with it at that point!

In a nutshell, finding a solid mentor can dramatically increase the chances of you succeeding, so get out there and see what you can do about it! Here's some additional posts I've written in my Series on Mentorship that you may also find to be helpful.

Best of Luck! 

For Part 6 of this Series click here

What Every Student Entrepreneur Needs to Know to Succeed (7) Grants & Competitions

This is part of my Series on University Entrepreneurship.

In the previous posts in this Series we established the mindset and awareness required as well as the immersion you need to initiate in your local startup ecosystem, what you need to do to acquire subject matter expertise, how to develop a social media presence the importance of finding a mentor, and how to cultivate lasting ties with investors, all with the objective of greatly increasing your chances of success as an entrepreneur. 

In this installment, I'm going to highlight the fact that among the many awesome advantages you have as a student entrepreneur, (your sheer youth, the spare time you have, your .edu address, the willingness of most people to help you, your freedom to operate, etc.) is the fact that you can apply for a staggering array of competitions and grants geared specifically to student entrepreneurs like yourself!

The opportunity is so remarkable I thought it deserved its own special category in this Series as I see it as separate and apart from raising capital & investors. You see- what we're talking about in this post is non-dilutive capital! Another more colloquial term for it is of course, "Free Money"!

Over the years I've seen the student entrepreneurs with the most hustle consistently figure out ways to enter into a plethora of competitions and apply for student grants while they are still in school.  Oftentimes the money and in-kind services they receive for winning such competitions and grants are actually the critical funding they needed to achieve proof-of-concept or product-market fit for their businesses. It would have been very tough for them to raise angel or VC money at the stages they were in, but that $25k or $50k they won made all the difference. In fact, a number of great businesses got their start this way, including mammoth venture-backed companies like ComixologyLearnVestWarby Parker and Pinterest.  

So do not hesitate to avail yourself of the myriad of resources, competitions and ignition grants available at your university and beyond.

In the meantime, I wish you lots of luck- hope you pull down some wins here. Go out and get-em!