It seems like a lot of startups are born from an idea someone had while in college. But what if, instead of being honed years later at an accelerator, that initial idea was supported on campus while the dreamer was still enrolled?
For example, David Lin started food delivery service Duffl two years ago while an undergrad at the University of California Los Angeles. The company went on to be a part of Y Combinator and raised $13 million. Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe was a University of Maryland student before dropping out to launch a startup. Some of the research on image-generating AI models came out of the University of Maryland as well, and the quantum chip technology behind EeroQ stemmed from Michigan State University research.
We’ve all heard success stories about schools like Harvard and Stanford churning out startup founders. While schools don’t often set out to be the next YC, they do seek ways to get some of the best research-based technology out of tech transfer offices and into the marketplace. That’s why schools, including the University of Maryland, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University and UCLA, are sinking resources into entrepreneurship programs and centers.
“Our secret sauce is to let students run with their ideas in ways that they’d like to without us prompting them, but then be there to support them.” University of Maryland’s Dean Chang
The original thought for many of these hubs may have been technology transfer — the process by which university-supported research is taken to market — but as entrepreneurship became a more viable career path and more people sought to work for a startup, many schools added tailored support for student founders and their community at large.
I spoke with representatives from those four universities about their entrepreneurial programs to learn how they have found success.
Michigan State University
Jeff Wesley, executive director of Red Cedar Ventures, the venture investment subsidiary of the Michigan State University Research Foundation, said its infrastructure — and its depth and breadth of team and services — is what makes MSU unique.
“Between the venture creation group and the statewide efforts with funding organizations like Michigan Rise, we have invested in 60 companies now at an early stage, some from the university and some from the Michigan network,” Wesley told TechCrunch. “It’s very active and focused on the early stage, and we run two accelerator programs.”
It also taps into a lot of entrepreneurs-in-residence, who can bring both the knowledge of how to grow a company and the ability to leverage new ideas from faculty, staff and students and turn them into new companies.
In terms of investment, the foundation is one of the leading investors in the state — the state of Michigan gives Red Cedar a tranche of funds to invest — with its capital investment activity doubling in the past few years, Wesley said.
While there are similar programs across the country, Wesley said it was only recently that universities in the Big 10 came together to share ideas. In November, he traveled to Chicago for the inaugural Big 10 Venture Summit to learn from all of the other creation arms, including how states and college alumni are supporting these efforts.
“I couldn’t believe we had never done this before,” he said. “We shared notes and looked at best practices, and after all of that, decided to continue doing events like this where we could actually share opportunities and learn the approaches taken by different programs.”
As with everything startup related, funding continues to be a challenge. “Even with success, early-stage investing is different,” Wesley said. Though many schools are tapping alums and seeking more support from university administration and different avenues within the state, “frankly, there is not enough funding to support efforts, especially with cancer therapeutics, which take a lot of capital,” he added.
Wesley is often asked by other universities how to get a similar program started and how to invest in companies. His biggest advice is to create infrastructure around the campus’ research arm and to focus on places where they could get initial funding, either from alumni or the state.
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