The VPM Blog

Student Startups + Higher Ed Incubators

Posted by admin on Mar 25, 2013 6:39:17 AM

No doubt, you've heard the romantic story of the college student who launched their new idea from a dorm room and turned celebrity-status startup founder.

The university and the startup business have been connected for centuries. Innovation is always flowing from young, passionate minds who are under seasoned researchers and industry professionals.

No doubt, you've also heard all the buzz about the shift happening with higher education. Every university board room has been grappling for new ways to keep pace with the shifting economic and educational landscapes.

The business incubator isn’t a new idea, but it's one that's popping up more and more in marketing and communication committees. In fact, the National Business Incubation Association announced that one-third of the 1,250 business incubators in the United States are now housed at universities - up from just one-sixth in 2006.

It makes sense for the academy, in theory. Business incubators can build momentum, awareness and social buzz around a University when they become a source for innovation, entrepreneurship and top talent.

What campus wouldn’t want the founder of Facebook as an alum? Successful students make successful schools.

When asked about the intersection of startups and higher education, Doug Warrington of Auburn University's Office of Tech Transfer stated that "Startups offer the student and the University a seat on the front line of innovation. Students will learn more and Universities will gain more from the startup experience. A startup is a research project with an economic result."

When an idea finds wings, it grabs the attention of industry, investors and prospective students. Graduates then land better jobs. Alumni pride runs wild. Development flourishes. Better programs can be built which attract better students. It's a beautiful cycle - but unfortunately, this romantic success story isn't being realized by most.


Universities do a great job of growing entrepreneurship on the educational level, but the celebrated characteristics of successful entrepreneurs can't be taught by a book, lecture or project.

Writing a business plan and performing a comparative market analysis is a good place to start, but one thing that's absolutely vital, and that you can’t teach, is passion and the lessons from failure.

The colleges that are making it work behave like business incubators, not just through a program, but also through a surrounding culture. The school's leaders and top administrators think, in part, like venture capitalists; this means seeking sustainable cash flow models and high-growth opportunities, and - yes - getting comfortable with the inevitable risk. These behaviors are a far cry from current educational models, with legalities and conservative formalities baked in.

The college ecosystem itself is a natural incubator. Universities organically maintains a diverse business network with individuals from around the world. Campuses enable access to the technologies and research surrounding them. Students are connected to professors, researchers and industry professionals who can validate ideas and provide the credibility to push them forward.

But ability alone isn't enough. Success demands a unique culture, mindset, and community to get new ideas off the ground.

Warrington spends much of his time working directly with student entrepreneurs. He believes that biggest challenge facing campus-based student startups is leadership, "student leadership that drives and blazes the path through the startup process". When a student has a crazy idea, they need to be around other crazy people who make them feel sane.

Should schools spin off all entrepreneurship programs outside the the traditional teaching format? Should you build a non-curriculum-based competition? I don't know. But I do know that the young entrepreneurs need a place where failure is allowed, even encouraged.

As far as programs are concerned, the answer isn’t necessarily more complicated than free workspace and an espresso machine - as long as they have access to guidance and like-minded peers. The culture comes first.

Few student start-ups will ever become Facebook. Most never even make a profit. The dollar value of a business incubator or resulting startup may be $0.00. But what's gained from the resulting community is invaluable for all parties involved - development, admissions and all.

If you came here looking for the right program to pitch at your next committee meeting, I didn’t come with the perfect solution. There are, however, a few doing it well, or at least taking steps in the right direction.

Pitch Programs

Officially Recognized Entrepreneurship Clubs with Budgets

Entrepreneurial Scholarships

Mentorship Programs

Business-Plan Competition

Entrepreneurship Labs



Author: is the Social Architect and Co-Creative at Verge Pipe Media. Verge Pipe Media assists public institutions, enterprises and the non-profit sector with Imaginative Inbound Marketing strategies + campaigns. We also have a development team chock full of Marvelous Mobile Migrators, poised to help transition our clients into a mobile + social world with custom software, iOS and Android mobile apps.

Topics: higher education

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