How South Florida universities are revving up to be engines of innovation

Vigilant Biosciences CEO Matthew H.J. Kim and scientific founder Dr. Elizabeth Franzmann co-founded Vigilant, based on Franzmann’s research developed at the University of Miami. Vigilant develops solutions that aid in the early detection and intervention of cancer.
Vigilant Biosciences CEO Matthew H.J. Kim and scientific founder Dr. Elizabeth Franzmann co-founded Vigilant, based on Franzmann’s research developed at the University of Miami. Vigilant develops solutions that aid in the early detection and intervention of cancer.

South Florida’s colleges and universities have made the leap into experiential entrepreneurship education, with training and programs that go beyond the classroom, beyond the business plan contests, beyond the E-clubs. Yes, there are still clubs and contests, and entrepreneurship classes have multiplied too, but on today’s campuses, startups, growing small businesses and entrepreneur wannabes can even base their companies on campus, drawing support from fellow entrepreneurs, university resources and a South Florida mentorship community at large.

Some of these programs are solely for students and some are open to the non-student community, but all have this in common: It’s real-life entrepreneurship with a support system close at hand, and the end game is startup or scale-up development. They are part of a larger effort underway to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem in South Florida.

Universities typically play a critical role in an ecosystem, attacting young people to an area and turning out talent, bringing thought leadership to a community and being hubs for research and collaborations that spawn companies. They can serve as anchor institutions; Stanford and MIT are often credited for sparking much of the entrepreneurial success in their areas of the country. In recent years, as South Florida’s effort to build an ecosystem got underway, some community leaders have questioned whether the region’s colleges and universities were too siloed and could be contributing more.

That may be changing.

What we tell universities is keep doing what you are doing turning out awesome talent.

Amisha Miller, Kauffman Foundation

South Florida universities are developing campus hubs for entrepreneurship, as interest in all things startup increases and economic realities make entrepreneurial skills a 21st century necessity. In addition to entrepreneurship courses in their colleges, Miami Dade College and Florida International University have started major interdisciplinary initiatives that help entrepreneurs from the idea-on-a-napkin stage to funding and scaling their businesses.

[Read more: StartUp FIU and The Idea Center at MDC]

The University of Miami has ramped up its technology commercialization program, and partnered with a well-known entrepreneurial organization, the Cambridge Innovation Center, to reinvigorate and rebrand its Life Science & Technology Park into Converge Miami, a more inclusive hub for innovation.

[Read more: UM steps up innovation strategy]

“What we tell universities is keep doing what you are doing turning out awesome talent,” said Amisha Miller, a senior program officer for the Kauffman Foundation, a national nonprofit that researches and supports entrepreneurship. “Universities can play a convening role as well. When they are working in great depth with other organizations in the community, which enables them to give more experiential education, that seems to be one of the best practices among campuses we have worked with.”

The Kauffman researcher said other best practices she has seen on campuses include connecting entrepreneurs with mentors, internships, clubs and other immersive experiential learning programs. Endeavor research found that company founders who have access to high-growth company founders are much more likely to be high growth themselves, she said. Business plan competitions and idea gathering events on campuses can also be effective. “There is really new research that shows participating in business plan competitions actually does have an impact on the student’s success later on,” Miller said. Another trend is incubators becoming more like accelerators, but the limited data isn’t showing an impact from those programs yet, she said.

Nationwide, entrepreneurship course programs in universities and colleges have grown from roughly 100 offerings in 1975 to more than 5,000 in 2008, Miller said, and Kauffman expects that number to go up in its next research report. But the new courses as well as co-curricular programs are not all in business schools. For example, the National Science Foundation’s I-corps program works with universities to teach scientists and engineers to identify product opportunities and the TI:GER program at Georgia Tech brings engineering and business students together to do entrepreneurship education as a team. “There is a lot of that cross-departmental collaboration beginning to happen,” Miller said.

She cautions that university programs need adequate staff resources allotted to them to make an impact, but “what we do know is that entrepreneurship rates in metro areas around the U.S. go up as the population is more educated.”

Universities are an asset, and “brain circulation” is one of 10 key areas of opportunity for building a greater South Florida economy, according to a 2016 report from Florida International University and the Creative Class Group, “Miami’s Great Inflection: Toward Shared Prosperity as a Creative and Inclusive Global City.”

Greater Miami is home to 438,000 full-time and part-time students, making it the eighth largest “college town” in the nation, the report said. It ranks 16th of the 50-plus metros with populations of over a million with its 67 percent retention rate of graduates. “As a community we have challenges but also golden opportunities to shape our future. We must harness the entrepreneurial energy in South Florida into ventures that will lead to jobs and wealth accumulation,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg, in releasing the report this summer.

To that end, MDC and FIU host free community programs tailored to existing small businesses in South Florida on the growth path in addition to their startup initiatives. The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses at MDC puts selected entrepreneurs through an intensive three-month curriculum developed by Babson College and augmented with mentorship and connections to help companies scale. The Small Business Development Center at FIU helps startups and scale-ups through one-on-one coaching and through its workshops and events, such as a recent FinTech Forum in partnership with Citi Foundation.

It’s important for schools to remember that everyone’s in this together ... and that means all the schools can work together as well. It shouldn’t be a competitive situation.

Andrew C. Corbett, Babson College professor

In September, Nova Southeastern University in Davie officially opened its Center for Collaborative Research, one of the largest research facilities in Florida. The 215,000-square-foot, six-story CCR is equipped with wet and dry labs and state-of-the-art research equipment, including access to a high-performance computing environment.

Reflecting an investment of nearly $100 million, “the CCR is purposely designed for researchers, students and industry to come together, pool resources and develop effective and innovative solutions in healthcare, bio-informatics, technology, cybersecurity and business,” said NSU President Dr. George Hanbury at the opening. Once completed, a new HCA hospital on NSU’s campus will be within walking distance from the CCR, providing opportunities to further integrate research and clinical trials.

Florida Atlantic University’s Tech Runway recently started its fourth Venture Vintage class of startup and early-stage companies in its business accelerator program in Boca Raton. Tech Runway is a public-private partnership formed to foster technology startups and early-stage companies; selected companies receive a $25,000 non-equity grant, participate in a 16-week intensive boot camp, engage in a yearlong mentoring program with a team of five business mentors, and are provided workspace for one year. Since its inception in late 2014, FAU Tech Runway has supported 15 companies that have produced more than $3 million in total revenue. Farther south, Broward College opened its Innovation Hub. It offers an incubator for startups, with a special track for sports-related ventures, and a one-stop-shop for small business assistance.

“What you see in these co-curricular programs is that once students get engaged with professionals in the community, you see a switch get flipped. They start to believe this is real and I can do this,” said Andrew C. Corbett, professor and department chair of entrepreneurship at Babson College, the top-ranked institution for entrepreneurship education in the United States.

For universities, no action is too small, whether it’s a new course or a competition or an incubator for students, said Corbett, also a Babson research scholar. Whether the goal is building an ecosystem, or generating economic development in the region or combating brain drain, these are important issues to everyone and no one can do this alone, he said. “It’s important for schools to remember that everyone’s in this together ... and that means all the schools can work together as well. It shouldn’t be a competitive situation.”

Click on the links below to read about some of South Florida’s university entrepreneurship programs:

University of Miami: UM steps up innovation strategy and renames life science park

Florida International University: Blastoff for StartUP FIU, with food, art and tech incubators on way

Miami Dade College: At the Idea Center, innovation is everwhere, even on skateboards

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg

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