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Ideas that fly

August 30, 2007

Some 99 percent of all independent businesses in the United States employ fewer than 500 people, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. More than half of U.S. workers – 52 percent – pick up their paychecks at these smaller concerns. In fact, nearly 20 million Americans work for companies that have fewer than 20 employees.

Clearly, entrepreneurial ventures sustain the U.S. economy. But, such ventures don’t proliferate without entrepreneurs, and that is a primary reason ASU strives to provide entrepreneurship education and support.

Such backing is part of ASU’s “University as Entrepreneur” focus, a university-wide drive to support creative risk-taking that spurs economic competitiveness and social development, says Kimberly Loui, executive director for the Office of University Initiatives.

In December 2006, the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a national leader in the advancement of entrepreneurship education, recognized ASU’s commitment to this purpose with a $5 million grant.

This money will go a long way toward extending opportunity-generating programs and curricula, which already are abundant around campus. In fact, such programs are one reason ASU earned the Kauffman grant in the first place. Long before the grant was awarded, ASU had spread the spirit of enterprise throughout the university.

Do Your Own Thing 101

What makes ASU’s programs so extraordinary is the scope of them, Loui notes. For many universities, entrepreneurial education starts and stops with some kind of center and a few classes in the business school. “At ASU, our programs are certainly at the business school, but also in the engineering school, journalism, theater and film, design, law, arts and sciences, human services and non-profit management. We’re trying to give students from any major access to entrepreneurial support and education,” she says.

To this end, one program at ASU originated in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. Called the Entrepreneurial Programs Office, it was implemented in 2004 and quickly began offering a curriculum for wanna-be business starters.

“We have a course on intellectual property, which is very important for technology ventures,” explains Thomas Duening, who is director of the program, a faculty member and a successful entrepreneur in his own right. In fact, he started his first business in graduate school.

In the curriculum he developed, students learn how to meet the practical challenges of launching and operating a technology-based venture.Courses are offered on intellectual property development and management, a key issue for keeping businesses of this type innovative.

There is also a class addressing what to do when “your worst fears come true, and your business is now running,” which covers human resources, financial planning and other issues. In addition to the coursework, the office has established an angel investor group, the Arizona Technology Investor Forum, to close the funding gap for high potential seed and early-stage ventures.

Beginning this fall, undergraduate students will be able to earn a certificate in technology entrepreneurship. This credential, which will appear on a student’s transcript, represents 15 credit hours of scholarship and a hands-on practicum designed to hone skills in all the elements of starting and steering a successful technology business.

At bottom, entrepreneurship education in this and other ASU schools aims to impart skills. “You try to teach people to become the best entrepreneurs that they can be,” Duening says. “You help them understand that entrepreneurship is an option for everybody at various times in their lives.”

Not surprisingly, since entrepreneurship education is occurring all over campus, often it takes place in cross-disciplinary settings.

For instance, students at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law can join with graduate and honors undergrads from business and engineering schools to participate in the Technology Ventures Clinic. It’s a for-credit course and teaching laboratory where students learn the ins and outs of patent investigation, market assessment and other skills that come in handy when you’re turning inventions and intellectual property into products or services you can sell.

Or, in the College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation, students now may earn a Master of Healthcare Innovation degree. This program is open to a wide variety of professionals – nurses, physicians, even architects interested in designing healthcare facilities. Its goal: encouraging students to develop innovative problem-solving skills to meet today’s healthcare challenges.

InnovationSpace is another cross-disciplinary program. Drawing on faculty from ASU’s College of Design, Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and W. P. Carey School of Business, this two-semester course for upper-division undergraduates guides participants in the design and development of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable products.

“New product development is a complex undertaking, and you need a lot of different perspectives, talents and backgrounds” to get a new product launched, notes Heidi Fischer, InnovationSpace program coordinator. She adds that occasionally schools pair design students with business majors or fledgling engineers, but she can’t think of any others that bring together all the disciplines InnovationSpace unites.

In the university’s version of a corporate cross-functional work group, InnovationSpace teams students from industrial design, visual communication design, business and engineering to work on product development. Here, students who come from different disciplines don’t “go off into their own silos,” Fischer says. “They work in tandem right from the start. Our corporate sponsors point out that this is how their employees interact in the workplace.”

Jump-starting start-ups

Business, engineering and design are disciplines where you might expect to find entrepreneurial souls. But, what about something a little more creative, such as theater or film production?

“To be an artist, you have to be an entrepreneur,” says Linda Essig, director of the Herberger College of the Arts School of Theatre and Film and its Performing Arts Venture Experience — known as p.a.v.e. — which is a door-opening enterprise for students from across ASU interested in arts entrepreneurship.

“I don’t think artists often see themselves as entrepreneurs,” she says. “The arts and business don’t traditionally go hand-in-hand. But, for people to make their way in the world as a theater artist or filmmaker, they have to create their own opportunities.”

Curriculum at the school certainly supports entrepreneurship. For example, independent film production is taught, which is inherently business related, Essig notes. Unless you’re working for a studio, “Every time you produce a film, you’re starting a business,” she says.

Her organization also is working toward starting a company that will provide experiential learning opportunities both on and off campus for student filmmakers. “When students shoot a film, they take on tremendous liability unless they’re shooting on campus.” Having an umbrella production company will give students more freedom in choosing filming locations.

In addition, p.a.v.e. invests in students’ visions. For example, two graduate students now are applying for grants to help them launch a “fringe” theater festival to spotlight the work of “alternative” theater artists.

Essig’s arts-investment program is modeled on ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, which is one of the broadest entrepreneurship programs in the country, according to Julia Rosen ’95 M.B.A., assistant vice president for ASU’s Office of Economic Affairs. The initiative is a place where students can get seed-money for their business ideas; the three-year-old center already has backed a variety of undertakings.

According to Rosen, grant recipients have pursued a variety of businesses, including ones involved in advertising, wound healing, water purification, non-profit agency work and peddling a device for “cooking turkeys faster.”

She notes that the initiative does not merely provide financial support for students to launch their new ventures. Students also have access to a state-of-the-art, fully staffed office complex, as well as practical entrepreneurial training and mentors with experience specific to their business area.

Learning vs. Teaching

It’s clear entrepreneurship can be learned. But can a university teach it? Rosen thinks it can, and research from the University of Arizona backs her up.

A survey conducted by the university in 2000 found that five years after graduation, students who had focused on entrepreneurship education fared better than their business-school peers. Overall, average income for the entrepreneurial students was 27 percent higher, and those enterprising types were three times more likely to start their own businesses than basic B-school grads. Even those who worked for established companies had higher earnings: an average of $23,500 per year over the salaries of those who didn’t take entrepreneurial courses.

As Rosen notes, “An entrepreneurial mindset can make a teacher more creative in the classroom or help a nurse invent a new way to deliver patient care. We view entrepreneurship as a series of skills, beliefs and talents that collectively help each student make a bigger mark on the world.”

By Betsy Loeff, a freelance business writer based in Golden, Colo.