NCIIA – Nurturing Campus Innovation
By David Orsman
You’re an undergraduate and you have a great idea for a company or a design for a new product that your gut tells you will sell.
Yet you also have a few conflicting thoughts: Maybe go the relatively safer route and get started on a career. Or scratch that startup itch, launch a company and hunt for investors.
A poll of friends and family would probably reveal little consensus. Do it! Don’t do it!
But according to Humera Fasihuddin, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance’s long-time mentor of emerging student ventures, there are some compelling reasons to pursue that startup dream.
“This is probably the one time when you won’t have big life obligations, such as managing a career, paying a mortgage, being married, raising kids,” she says. “At college, you’re free of these constraints and so you have the ability to take risks.”
Moreover, Humera notes that students have access to an array of resources at universities, including lab space, the best and brightest minds to team up with, business plan competitions and opportunities from organizations like the NCIIA.
The NCIIA works with 200 U.S. universities to support technology innovation and entrepreneurship and nurture socially beneficial ventures emerge from the university environment.
By awarding grants and providing venture development training workshops and resources, the NCIIA and its partners such as the Lemelson-MIT Program help build entrepreneurial ecosystems on campus.
Take, for example, the innovation environment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Through the Technology Entrepreneurship Center (TEC), UI offers 13 courses in entrepreneurship and innovation; the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize of $30,000 awarded to the university’s most promising entrepreneur; a new Living/Learning Residence Hall for incoming students interested in innovation; and a business plan competition.
Along the way, UI has received more than a dozen NCIIA grants to start programs in innovation and entrepreneurship or to provide early stage funding to emerging student ventures.
In 2007, NCIIA awarded student Patrick Walsh an E-Team grant to develop a solar-charged LED lantern for use in developing countries. Walsh, who also won the UI Lemelson-MIT prize in 2008, founded Greenlight Planet, which has sold more than 60,000 of the units in India.
According to Walsh, who now represents the company in China, innovation is still the name of the game.
“We have really assembled a killer combination of innovative technology and in-house distribution networks – having both competencies in one company is pretty uncommon. We’re planning to grow very quickly. And we have NCIIA and Lemelson-MIT to thank.”
With those past successes in mind, the Green Living VentureLab will be held at the University of Illinois campus in April. VentureLab is NCIIA’s business idea and strategy accelerator. Students with emerging ventures spend five days evolving their business strategy and grappling with the financial mechanics. The resulting action plan is a tool they can use and adapt for years to come.
The Green Living VentureLab is a response to an increase in students interested in developing eco-friendly technologies.
“Green Living VentureLab is for any student who is looking to commercialize a technology in the areas of alternative energy, green building, community sustainability or water quality,” says Stephanie Larsen, the program marketing coordinator at the TEC.
Finalists of the TEC’s green-track business plan competition in early April will be invited to attend the VentureLab.
Far from a risky path, says the NCIIA’s Fasihuddin, being involved in developing a product or starting a venture at college provides students with a host of options.
Potential employers look favorably at the experience and skills gained from creating a technology, solving a problem, putting a team together and building a venture, she says.
“Another path available for student entrepreneurs is to take their skills to another startup,” she says. “And there’s the option of staying with the venture you started, getting that going, and then looking for the next opportunity.”
Visit NCIIA VentureLab
Editor’s note: This article appears in the February 2011 print edition.
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