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Old school meet new school: How universities are adapting to build entrepreneurs

Posted by Chad O'Connor  September 25, 2012 11:00 AM

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Facebook started in a Harvard dorm room. iRobot got its start in MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. Sand 9 was founded as a Boston University Photonics Center spinout. In Boston, business and higher education have long been intertwined.

And now more than ever before, a new wave of innovation is coming directly from Boston-area institutions, fueled by programs like Northeastern’s IDEA, Harvard’s i3, Tufts’ Business Plan Competition, Startup Babson, and Emerson’s E3 which fund and foster the next generation of business leaders. With a wide range of new initiatives, Boston’s colleges and universities are embracing entrepreneurship with new programs and resources that promote innovation and create opportunities for students to become successful entrepreneurs.

Colleges here host an assortment of business plan competitions; some new, some old, ranging from the MIT 100K to Boston University’s $50K New Venture Competition. But it doesn’t end there: the Boston College Venture Competition gives students with the opportunity to develop a business plan, receive mentoring from experienced alumni, develop their skills and even receive funding. BCVC has spawned many ventures, including Jebbit, which spent this past summer in the Summer@Highland program — a summer program run by Highland Capital designed to give student run startups an environment to grow their businesses.

IDEA: Northeastern’s Venture Accelerator, took a different approach over the past two and a half years, developing a student-run accelerator that serves as the venture creation center for the university.

Entirely staffed and managed by students, IDEA provides business plan development, coaching, mentoring, resources, and funding to Northeastern students, alumni, and research spin-offs with a goal of making them self-sustaining or investment-ready. IDEA’s portfolio companies include Moniker Guitars, MiniPops, Tuatara, and more than 80 other active ventures in various stages of development.

Wentworth, which last spring created the Accelerate program, is the latest Boston school to join the party. The goal of the program is to increase the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit at Wentworth, and they have achieved incredible results so far. In Accelerate’s first summer, the group had 15 teams and more than 50 students participate, with 10 presenting their businesses during an end-of-summer pitch night.

These and other innovative initiatives play a key role in fostering the city’s entrepreneurship community and forming a new generation of business leaders

What makes these programs so well positioned to produce the next generation of business leaders? College and university programs offer something that the real world can’t — a safety net.

When you are college student, not only do you have more time and fewer distractions, but you can risk all of your savings, which, realistically, is not very much. If things don’t pan out, at least you learn from that experience.

After school, when you are in the “real world,” there are more things to take into account, like housing, student loan debt, and even children. But for college students living in a dorm room and eating in the dining hall or at 2 a.m. pizza joints, there is an environment that supports thinking big and taking risks.

The worst thing that could happen is you fail. And maybe then you need to start over, rethink your business plan, or perhaps pay more attention in class to get that post-grad 9-to-5 job so many entrepreneurs seem to despise.

And the lessons learned in this “safety net” period are just as valuable as the ones taught in a classroom. What incubators, accelerators, and other similar programs offer is experiential education and a low-risk opportunity to pursue a dream, a passion, or a simple idea.

Of course, there will be many ventures within these programs that don’t make it. But the support and experience that young entrepreneurs receive as students will ensure their entrepreneurial spirit and drive continue outside of school. The startups that are successful will be assets to the community. Those that are not will supply other successful ventures and companies with talented, educated and experienced professionals who understand entrepreneurship and the startup world.

Some people may think these programs are ‘just another student group,’ but in reality, they are shaping the entrepreneurs that will create the next generation of the fastest growing and most exciting companies.

Christopher Wolfel is CEO of IDEA, Northeastern University's Venture Accelerator. Follow their progress on Twitter @ideaneu

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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