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ASU at forefront of creating entrepreneurs who can change society

team of students
February 07, 2012

An entrepreneur is one who develops, manages and assumes the risk of an enterprise; one who sees a problem as an opportunity; one who creates value.

Arizona State University has become a breeding ground for entrepreneurs, and today the university is at the forefront of a national movement to bring entrepreneurship into higher education.

Weaving entrepreneurship into the fabric of the university, ASU exposes every single one of its 10,000 freshmen to the concept in its ASU 101 course.

ASU provided another 90 entrepreneurship-related courses to 41,445 students between January 2007 and June 2011.

In the last school year, 10,813 students in 120 different majors were enrolled in these courses, and about 5,000 students participated in entrepreneurship-related clubs, boot camps, speaker series, workshops, seminars, lectures and internships.

There are more than 15 micro-centers focusing on entrepreneurship throughout the ASU campuses, from engineering to the arts. Students can nurture their ideas and try to bring them to fruition through guidance and mentoring, and can apply for funding.

So why the focus on entrepreneurship? Recent scholarship underscores the importance of entrepreneurship as a major source of new enterprises and technological innovation and as a generator of wealth. It forms a bridge between theory and practice, integrating various fields of learning. It is seen as an essential strength of American society.

ASU has a history of being entrepreneurial, starting with the Spirit of Enterprise Center at the W. P. Carey School of Business more than 15 years ago.

The movement kicked into high gear in 2002 when Michael Crow became president of ASU. In his inaugural address, he said he wanted ASU to “develop a reputation for entrepreneurial boldness.” He called for ASU to “capitalize on its knowledge content and intellectual property, expediting the transfer of knowledge and technology developed in our classrooms and laboratories to the commercial sector.”

President Crow didn’t ask every faculty member to patent inventions, and he didn’t ask that every student start his or her own business. He urged widening the appeal of entrepreneurship by asking students to identify what they are passionate about and to become an active force in seeking solutions to society’s problems.

He asked faculty and staff to get students involved in entrepreneurship in order to embed it in the culture of the university. He urged them to develop programs, design curriculum, engage community members and organize co-curricular activities with this goal in mind.

Since then, student teams have developed hundreds of new ventures – many of which have launched successfully – from a clean burning and efficient gel fuel stove for developing countries to a nonprofit organization that provides meningitis vaccinations in Africa. 

Students have created a low-cost respiratory monitor for infants at risk of SIDS and developed a mobile application to assist veterinarians in diagnosing small animals.

They have improved mobility options for wheelchair users, established after-school science programs, and developed technology to assist visually impaired students with note-taking in the classroom.

Spotlighting the university’s success, the founders of an ASU student startup, called G3Box, were recognized as “College Entrepreneurs of the Year for 2011” in December by Entrepreneur Magazine. The team of engineering students is developing a way to retrofit discarded shipping containers, turning them into portable maternity clinics that could be shipped to countries with high maternal mortality rates.

Another surge of entrepreneurial energy is washing over the ASU campuses at the start of this semester, with several big events for student teams: Innovation Challenge and the Ashoka Exchange national conference.


Innovation Challenge, funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and two sponsors, co-hosted Start-Up Summit and Demo Day with the ASU Venture Catalyst to choose 30 finalist teams Jan. 27 at ASU SkySong. Undergraduate and graduate students from across the university who are dedicated to making a difference in local and global communities through innovation can win up to $10,000 to make their project happen.

The finalists will present at a Pitch Day, slated for Feb. 11, in the Memorial Union La Paz room on the Tempe campus, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.  Winners will be announced Feb. 13 in the MU Pima room at 3:30 p.m.

ASU also will host a national conference for 500 of the most innovative and influential leaders for social entrepreneurship in higher education – the Ashoka Exchange – on Feb. 10-11. ASU was named a Changemaker Campus by Ashoka U in August 2010 and then opened a student-run central resource hub to help students with entrepreneurship, civic engagement, service learning and community service. Campuses will compete for innovation awards at the conference.


Two generous funding opportunities that have helped ASU become a leader in entrepreneurship education include the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, made possible by a $5.4 million investment by Orin Edson in 2005, and the Kauffman Campuses Initiative, an extremely competitive five-year, $5 million grant from the Kauffman Foundation in 2006.

The Kauffman Initiative was launched on 21 campuses to foster the creation of interdisciplinary entrepreneurship education that would be available to all students, regardless of major. ASU has taken the effort university-wide, rather than focusing it in one center or institute.

“ASU is the only school to put entrepreneurship in the first-year experience for each student, and it has developed a pervasive program, making what seems to be a permanent change in the culture at ASU,” said John Courtin, vice president of the Kauffman Foundation.

“This effort was a commitment and a passion of Michael Crow’s,” Courtin said. “He understands the importance of entrepreneurship in higher education and the role of the university in contributing to the Arizona economy. ASU has admirably fulfilled the goals of this grant.”

Funding from the Kauffman Foundation – as well as from local companies and donors – has helped to support 31 ASU Innovation Challenge award winners. The 10,000 Solutions Project, a Web-based program to showcase innovative ideas from community members to solve local and global challenges, also is supported by funds from the Kauffman Foundation.

Another 10 to 16 teams will receive grants in ASU’s upcoming Innovation Challenge, the third annual competition sponsored by Kauffman and local donors and companies. The experience helps students learn teamwork, leadership, project development, business plan creation, public speaking and network creation.

On a higher level, the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative awards ASU’s most promising student entrepreneurs funding, office space and training to explore their innovative ideas for products and services. The winners of the Edson competition receive mentoring from faculty, researchers and successful entrepreneurs.

More than 80 ASU student teams have received more than $1.2 million in funding from Edson in the past few years, making it one of the largest privately funded business plan competitions at a U.S. university.

The Edson Initiative is so successful that ASU dominated the “College Entrepreneur of 2011” competition, with three out of the five finalist teams from ASU, including the winning G3Box.

Since Michael Crow made enterprise a design imperative for the New American University, the role of entrepreneurship has kept expanding at ASU. In a new Technological Entrepreneurship and Management program at the Polytechnic campus, students can earn degrees while pursuing their own tech-related ideas and working at internships. The program already has 200 students enrolled, online and on campus.

The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU has the Innovation Advancement Program and a patent law clinic; The Design School, in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, has InnovationSpace, where students from design, engineering and business develop products that create market value while serving societal needs; and the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication have innovation labs where students work on new products and ideas.

Many ASU faculty are deeply involved in solving local and global challenges through innovation. Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), the technology transfer organization for ASU, ranks in the Top 10 for invention disclosures, licenses and options, and startups formed per $10 million in research.

AzTE has 48 spinout companies based on ASU intellectual property, and the value of ASU portfolio companies and their sub-licensees is estimated at more than $200 million. Eight ASU companies have been acquired or merged, and two spinouts have issued IPOs.

ASU Venture Catalyst, an entrepreneurial unit at SkySong, helps both internal and external clients launch new startups or accelerate existing ones through an extensive network of mentors and service providers. It is a one-stop resource for help with market research, legal and technical assistance, and grant application support. It has clients from around the world.

An exciting new initiative at Venture Catalyst is the Rapid Startup School, a six-week, part-time program aimed at creating startup activity among postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. The program is taught by adjunct faculty from leading external organizations, supplemented by ASU online modules. A pilot program last fall drew intense interest from participants, and a full roll-out is scheduled for Feb. 21.

Across all the ASU campuses, in almost every department – among faculty, staff and students – entrepreneurship is taking hold. For students, it captures their energy, creativity and idealism, as many are figuring out how to make a difference in the world. For faculty, it offers real-world application for their research – the chance to extend their knowledge far outside the classroom.

It is an idea whose time has come.