Encouraging 'Crazy Ideas'
Op-ed for Forbes, August 30, 2010
Entrepreneurs on today's college campuses are no longer only huddled together at the business school. They are emerging from the hallways in our music schools and our engineering programs. They are coming forward with fresh ideas in architecture and medicine.
The educational programs designed to draw out these innovative thinkers must be welcoming to all students willing to take a risk on what some might call their "crazy ideas."
The late President Ronald Reagan got it right in 1988 when he told students at Moscow State University, "These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all of the economic growth in the United States."
If he were making that same point today, Reagan might have to address the students more directly. Instead of discussing "these" entrepreneurs he would need to say "you" entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurism is breaking out all over our college campuses. At the University of Michigan we've learned that many of our students are creating opportunities for themselves even before they get to campus. One survey found that as many as 15% of our incoming freshmen had already started businesses.
That's both exciting and intimidating. The challenge for higher education today is to support our students in this vital area of economic development. While that certainly means creating new courses and programs, there also may be times when we simply need to step out of the way.
That's why UM and other leading research institutions will be scaling up their entrepreneurial education efforts--initiated here a decade ago--by developing new programs designed to nurture the inventive spirit of our students and give them the knowledge and confidence they need to succeed.
As a university, Michigan is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the next wave of entrepreneurism. With unemployment hovering around 13% in our state, there is a pressing need to create new jobs. Combined with a research enterprise valued at more than $1 billion, encouraging and supporting our students in their ventures not only promises to lead to new inventions and products, it also helps keep these young people in our state as tomorrow's business leaders and innovators.
At UM we've been able to put in place a framework to support a full range of entrepreneurism--including more than 100 courses, incubator space, venture funding, competitions and, most importantly, a growing culture that embraces and encourages risk taking. Equally important is being a model for our students by demonstrating that a large, complex university can be innovative and collaborative.
In addition to entrepreneurial centers at our nationally ranked business and engineering schools, we have a campus-wide student group, called MPowered, that promotes entrepreneurism. These energetic students launched a "1,000 Pitches" competition to generate 1,000 video pitches on new business ventures. In its second year students responded with 2,100 pitches--more than double the entries from the inaugural year.
TechArb, a business accelerator for student businesses, brings all of these programs together and takes them to a new level. TechArb, which is located just down the hall from the Google AdWords office in Ann Arbor, allows student startups to gain traction quickly, try out ideas, fail, pivot and try again.
At UM we believe universities are uniquely suited to provide these startups with the essentials to learn quickly and grow as entrepreneurs. Some 20 student companies have been a part of TechArb in the past year. One recent "graduate" is Mobiata, which posted $1 million in sales by creating the No. 1 Apple iPhone travel application.
A key element of innovation is collaboration. The image of a lone inventor tinkering in the lab is being replaced by groups of thinkers from diverse academic disciplines coming together with their best ideas.
We have a unique alliance with our state's two other major research universities, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, called the University Research Corridor. This effort was created to transform, strengthen and diversify the state's economy. Educating a work force that understands the entrepreneurial ways that will create jobs of the future is an essential component of this broader economic development effort.
And we have a new facility--the North Campus Research Complex--that we hope will be a breeding ground for new businesses and new university partnerships with the private sector. This is the former Pfizer R&D complex that sits adjacent to the UM campus.
We're just now beginning to make use of this incredible array of state-of-the-art labs and other research facilities. But already we have opened our doors to a startup company: BoroPharm, launched at Michigan State. The firm considered moving out of state, but instead relocated from East Lansing to Ann Arbor to continue its growth.
Even all that is not enough.
In addition to fine-tuning these programs, we are especially excited about offering a new academic program, starting in the fall of 2011, that will lead to a master's degree in high-tech entrepreneurship. This program will be a collaborative effort between our engineering and business schools.
We believe it is critical for our graduate students to learn the essentials of engaging customers early, testing ideas, rethinking those ideas and refining concepts so they are ultimately capable of creating the most effective and scalable business models possible.
At a recent Midwest forum on innovation, staged on our campus by the U.S. Commerce Department, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke said the challenge that lies ahead for university communities everywhere is to make what was happening at Michigan the standard across the nation.
Even though we have come a long way in a short period of time, I believe there are times when we underestimate our students' ability to be entrepreneurs. We're not always tuned in to their exuberance for innovation. But, like out students, we continue to learn and grow.
Still, higher education has made great strides toward creating a culture of entrepreneurism on many university campuses nationwide. I firmly believe that the way to change the culture of an organization is to help people change. And we're changing the way people view entrepreneurism every day at Michigan.
Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Michigan. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke recently appointed her as one of three inaugural co-chairs of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.