Universities have always played a significant role in society. Just 16 years after landing on Plymouth Rock saw the founding of New College — becoming Harvard College three years later. And an even shorter time, 12 years, transpired between the end of the Revolutionary War and enrollment in America’s first public university, the University of North Carolina.
What gets lost in the discussion of higher education is that beyond the value of both learning and creating knowledge, the value of universities lies in their dual roles driving culture change and economic prosperity.
I write this while attending the National Innovation Network with my colleagues from Dartmouth College. Both Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire were each recently awarded prestigious grants from the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.
I-Corps’ sole objective is to accelerate the commercialization of ideas at universities through using the principles of lean startup. This training focuses on speaking directly with potential users of a research project before development is complete. Unlike traditional inward-facing research programs common in academia or corporations, I-Corps teams are constantly asking themselves “is this research path relevant to my potential end-users of the technology?”
I-Corps is one of the most transformative programs to hit basic research since the Small Business Innovation Research program was developed in the mid-1970s. The current numbers supporting I-Corps education are staggering. With an average investment of just $2,500 per I-Corps team, in just three short years ideas presented by teams throughout the country have launched 324 companies (with three already acquired), raised over $80 million in additional funding and created over 1,200 jobs. Together, UNH and Dartmouth are tasked with helping 60 ideas each year go through I-Corps education and training. This is a tremendous opportunity for the New Hampshire innovation ecosystem and for the state’s economy.
The impact of this program goes beyond its direct effect on early-stage ideas. Some 67 percent of researchers who have gone through I-Corps say the training has positively influenced their teaching by bringing real-world applications to the classroom. At the launch of the national I-Corps program three years ago there were 200 entrepreneurship centers in academic schools — today there are 500.
While Dartmouth has long focused on entrepreneurship through the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN), UNH was among the 300 new entrants when I helped found the Peter T. Paul Entrepreneurship Center (ECenter) in the fall of 2014. The ECenter was created to bring more entrepreneurial activities to UNH and to complement the long history of teaching entrepreneurial principles in our business school and activities like the Holloway Innovation-to-Market Prize Competition (the third-oldest business competition in the United States) and the Social Venture Innovation Challenge.
Why does this matter? In some ways programs like I-Corps and organizations like DEN and the ECenter are new and exciting additions to academia. As a good friend of mine once said, these programs teach people to “make a job not take a job.” The toolbox of entrepreneurial thinking and doing that is packaged within I-Corps can be used with any technology and taught to scientists and non-scientists alike. Indeed, there is even talk of extending I-Corps education to SCORE in an effort to bring these principles to Main Street. (SCORE, a nonprofit organization and a resource partner of the U. S. Small Business Administration, provides free business mentoring by retired executives.) At the same time, these programs work so well because they underscore the critical role of universities to the innovation ecosystem and remind us that the U.S. economy needs both ideas AND the delivery of those ideas to the market to stay successful. The more students, faculty and staff of New Hampshire universities are exposed to the principles of entrepreneurial thinking and doing, the more likely they are to start companies, create jobs and contribute to the regional economy.
These nascent businesses will populate local accelerators like Alpha Loft and attract investment capital focused on high-growth opportunities. And even if they don’t ever start a company, exposure to I-Corps and the entrepreneurial activities at places like the ECenter and DEN teach students how to try and solve real-world problems, to work collaboratively and to effectively communicate strategies and results — all skills in high-demand by New Hampshire employers.
Entrepreneurship and innovation is alive and well in New Hampshire. Our state’s universities are making that sustainable by teaching the next generation of change-makers, working and learning best practices side-by-side with schools like Stanford, MIT and Carnegie Mellon.
Who knows? Maybe the next great technology company you want to work for is just an experiment away …
Marc Sedam, managing director of UNHInnovation and associate vice provost of innovation and new ventures, has been with UNH since November 2010. Sedam has an extensive background in intellectual asset management, licensing and startup formation.
In addition to his position with UNH, he is the founding director of the Peter T. Paul Entrepreneurship Center, and he serves as the executive director of the New Hampshire Innovation Research Center.