technology

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 (1) Just Win, Baby

I've had the privilege of mentoring lots of student entrepreneurs over the past years and based on this experience I've decided to lay-out the roadmap I believe every student entrepreneur ought to have in place in the interest of increasing the chances of seeing their venture succeed. 

The map above (which I shall be improving upon over time) lays out the major high-level ingredients required to maximize success for a student entrepreneur. In this mini-series of posts I'm going to flesh-out each step in more detail. 

By way of preface to this deeper dive here are a few preliminary points having to do with awareness and perspective I'd like to make:

For a multitude of reasons student entrepreneurs are in the greatest position in the history of the world to launch new ventures. I have called this period University Entrepreneurship 2.0 :

  1. the cost of starting a new business has plummeted due to revolutionary developments in bandwidth, cloud computing and open source software
  2. investors are lining up to discover the next gen of great young entrepreneurs
  3. many universities are now providing real support to student entrepreneurs  
  4. there are tons of contests/competitions/organizations targeted to student entrepreneurs at your disposal now  

Think about all this. Take it all in. And remember- there is something that actually hasn't changed that's greatly in your favor too:

Launching a company during your student years is the best time in your life to do so because there is no downside. You can only learn, meet people and sharpen your skills. You can't lose...

But actually, I want you win.

That's right- I said it here. Just win, baby.

For Part (2) of this Series click here

What Every Student Entrepreneur Needs to Know to Succeed (2) Get Connected!

This is part of my Series on University Entrepreneurship.

In the first post in this series I encouraged you to take stock of where you are and to understand your unique position in world-history as a student entrepreneur. Your awareness of the surreal advantages you have over every student entrepreneur that has come before you is massively important. So let's assume that this has sunk-in. Now what?

Very simple. All the folks on the side-lines have been talking about startup bubbles these days. How about your own bubble? That's right- how about getting out of the bubble that you are in. 

Steve Blank and Eric Ries and the whole lean-start-up crew tell you to "get out of the building". They're right...

But I'm telling you to actually get the heck off campus and go to where the startup action is. (If you're in New York that means downtown by the way.)

What do I mean? You need to dive into the startup community of your city or town wherever you live. Get a list of all the events each Monday morning and go to as many as you can possibly attend. Meet everyone, be friendly- have fun and get involved- don't be a wall flower. The best way to get to know people is to work with them and engage. So, I'm talking about you jumping all over the various meetups, hackathons, startup talks, startup weekends, lean startup competitions, entrepreneurship talks, conferences, cocktail parties, entrepreneurship weeks, breakfasts, dinners, societies, roundtables available.

When I tell students to do this, some say: "But what do I say to people when I'm there?", or "I don't really know anyone, it's a bit intimidating".

Actually- the reality is that the startup ecosystems are an incredibly welcoming and warm environment. People in the startup community aren't a bunch of uptight careerists decked-out in suits. For the most part it's comprised of people like you who want nothing to do with corporate personalities and environments. If you're a student they're typically extra-welcoming. Just be honest and tell folks you are a student and are diving-into the startup community. You'll typically get high-fives.

And remember- the key is this: Roll-up your sleeves and participate. Pull an all-nighter at a hackathon with a makeshift team, sign up for a leanstartup competition, present your un-baked ideas at incubation events. Before you know it you'll know everyone and they'll know you. You'll feel that team spirit and esprit de corps and it will change you forever. 

You'll be out of the campus bubble now and will be part of the world you need to know intimately if you want to be an entrepreneur.

You'll be Connected

For Part 3 of this Series Click Here

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