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Going Back to College--For Entrepreneurial Resources

Robert Heinmiller, Co-founder and Vice President, Omnet, Inc.

Is there a college, junior college, or university near you? If there is, and you're not making use of it, you may be neglecting a powerful business resource. Many colleges have set up "centers," frequently with state money, to assist entrepreneurs. In addition, you may be able to tap a wide variety of services earmarked for students but available to the larger community.

Three years ago, the importance of academia to entrepreneurship became apparent to my wife and me, when we moved our company from Boston to Staunton, Virginia. Aiming to refocus Omnet Inc. from a provider of proprietary electronic mail for scientists to a broad supplier of on-line services, we factored proximity to higher education into our search for a new place to live and work.

Shortly after we re-established in Staunton, we were introduced by our landlord to a local entrepreneur, who asked us to help him put together a presentation at James Madison University in nearby Harrisonburg. This was the beginning of a chain of connections that led us to cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships with three universities--University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known more casually as Virginia Tech, as well as JMU.

The people we met at JMU pointed us to the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, or CIT, a state-funded organization that networks technology businesses with one another as well as with universities and colleges in Virginia. CIT, in turn, put us in touch with faculty and developmental centers at the two other schools.

Tapping Resources

From what we've learned, academic support for entrepreneurship comes down to a cup overflowing with books, brains, and bodies. Here's what we've gained from having that access and how you can tap into these resources.

  • Books -- Let's start with the library. In some states, such as my own of Virginia, anyone with an in-state driver's license can automatically get free library privileges at any state-funded college or university. Other institutions may offer a library card for a very affordable annual fee.
  • To make it even more attractive, many schools offer access to the library catalog via the Internet. You can log on, determine if they have the book you need, and find out if it is on the shelf or out. In some cases, you can reserve the book until you can get there to check it out. Also, see if your local library can get books from the university library on inter-library loan.
  • Brains -- These days, many faculty members consult in both technology and business areas. Since they are local, you save expenses over out-of-town consultants, and having them nearby can greatly improve communications. A couple of chats over coffee in the faculty club can sometimes accomplish more than a dozen expensive long-distance phone calls or flying in an expert.
  • In addition, campus-related brainpower comes in the form of simple business contacts. Colleges and universities deal every day with a wide variety of business people as vendors, fund raisers, benefactors, directors, contractors, and even parents. Academic events of all types are opportunities to rub shoulders with such people. In the course of attending academic events, we have met web designers, programmers, bankers, and funding contacts.
  • Bodies -- Then, we have that great pool of energy: the student body. But don't just think of students as bodies you hire part time to stuff envelopes. Think of them as smart, ambitious people with credits to earn. Do you need software written? Check with the computer science department to see if anyone needs to do a project for credit.
  • You should also check whether the school has an internship or cooperative program. Or perhaps a team of undergraduates in a business course needs to do a marketing study or focus group.

Getting Results

Our company has benefited enormously from access to academic resources. When we were considering an opportunity to work with a local start-up, we turned to the UVA library for engineering books to help us evaluate the company's technology.

Through our work with local entrepreneurs, we met the president of JMU, who invited us to sit on the regional technology council in our area, spawning more contacts for our company. One of those contacts was a JMU professor, who is now our partner on a proposal for funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a new way of looking at environmental data sets.

During the past academic year, for a modest fee, JMU students did three marketing studies for Omnet, an invaluable resource as we attempt to find new markets. We briefed the student teams and their professors about what our business is and what we were interested in learning. After preparing plans and getting our approval, they did the legwork and research. (In one case, we were invited to watch the focus group session from an adjoining room through a one-way window and were given a video tape afterward.) Finally, they prepared presentations for us.

In these studies, we were trying to get a handle on the market among professional associations in the United States for managed on-line membership services. In some cases, we and the students interpreted the data differently. In one, they wrote off any organization which was not already providing some on-line services to its membership. We figured, however, that those could be prime prospects. In any case, we were able to discuss our differing interpretations with the students. After all, they're students. That's why they are taking the course. They learned something, and we got some very useful data, which helped us focus our marketing efforts in this new area.

This fall, another student, a senior majoring in computer sciences, will be onboard at Omnet, working on a programming project for us. She was steered to us by a professor in her department whom we had briefed on the projects we have available. She gets academic credit, and we get some software written, as well as--who knows?--a future employee?

You may also find, as we did, that making regular forays to the library and working with a bunch of bright young students and faculty will keep you on your toes. Just explaining your business forces you to think about what it is you are really doing. Working closely together 24 hours a day, my wife and I were perhaps a bit lax at writing down formal plans. In order for the business students to do our surveys, we had to give them a clear picture, in writing, of what we were doing and where we wanted to go. In the process of preparing those briefing papers, we discovered questions that we had never discussed.

Making Contacts

Suppose there is a school near you. How do you make contacts in that forbidding ivy-covered citadel across town? Each school -- each department, for that matter--has its own style, culture, and rules. You might start by walking around campus. Get a good map and a copy of the campus-activities listing. (You will probably find an events schedule on the web site, but frequently the printed version is more complete. At some schools, you'll find stacks of them at strategic points on campus.)

In addition to finding out about business-oriented outreach events, look for seminars and talks on technical topics that might be of interest. Sit in the back and listen. Frequently, such talks finish up with coffee and doughnuts and a chance to meet the speaker or chat with other people who were in the audience.

On the other hand, you may have a specific project in mind and need a carefully targeted contact. In that case, an organization like Virginia's CIT is invaluable. Most universities have set up special technical centers to, in part, facilitate working with businesses. Some federal and state technical-development grant programs, such as Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grants, require that you have an academic partner on your proposal. These technical centers are a perfect way to locate one.

Contact them and find out what they do and how they work. But note that these centers tend to be more project-oriented, so you need to know pretty much what you need and want before you make contact. We currently have one proposal pending with a federal agency in partnership with a lab at Virginia Tech, and another proposal in preparation in collaboration with UVA for direct funding by CIT. The universities supply technical expertise under our direction, and we will commercialize the product resulting from the development work. CIT puts in one fourth of the seed funding, and we come up with the remainder.

On the downside, be prepared to work within the academic year, and remember that neither the professors nor the students will work on your project full time, so it will take longer than if you bought a solution from a consultant or commercial outfit.

Your local institutions of higher learning are vast reservoirs of management training, business help, youthful energy, and technical expertise. Check them out and see what they have that you need.

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