The New Way to SmartStart Your Business

By Randal Charlton
January 22, 2009

Academic institutions are normally the last places entrepreneurs think of as they look for ways to help set up a new business. Institutions of higher learning have long been developing relationships with business, however, and lately the process has accelerated dramatically. The recent announcement of collaboration between General Motors and the University of Michigan, plus Michigan State University’s partnership with IBM, are stunning examples of marriages of convenience between academia and business.

The individual who may have no more than an idea that he or she would like to set up a business can also find universities a smart, cost-effective first stop on their entrepreneurial journey. This includes the thousands of executives now receiving pink slips from the auto and other major industries.

All major universities have technology transfer departments that exist to patent research developed in their institutions, with the object of licensing them to the commercial world. They often will consider licensing this new technology to startup businesses. At the same time, universities also offer much more, particularly to entrepreneurs who need help to get that technology to the marketplace.

Take Wayne State University in Detroit, for example. It is home to Bizdom U, a novel experiment by Dan Gilbert, the entrepreneur behind successful companies like Quicken Loans and E-Prize. Bizdom U offers intensive courses in entrepreneurship backed by funding at the end of the courses to get new businesses off the ground.

Also on campus, the Wayne State University research and technology park, TechTown, offers a business incubator housing more than 50 new businesses -“ everything from one-person operations to Asterand, which has gone from idea to international public company without ever leaving the campus of the university. These companies get help -“ sometimes free, sometimes grant-subsidized, always at reasonable cost -“ from a wide variety of rich resources. Other possible services include free legal support from the law school, prototype development from the College of Engineering, business planning support from the School of Business, or help obtaining government contracts from the Center for Professional Development. The various research departments like the genomics core are always interested in working with industry to carry out contract research at a cost-effective rate to maximize the value of their labs, where expensive equipment may have downtime between university experiments.

Of course universities have their own important education and research agenda, and it is sometimes difficult to identify the partnerships and the resources you need even if you are armed with a global positioning system. This is why it makes sense to begin at TechTown, where a team exists to help you plug into the resources you need. TechTown is the place where entrepreneurs and academia connect either at one of the many networking events or in its new SmartStart program.

This program consists of a series of three-hour courses tailor made for early-stage entrepreneurs. Between courses, entrepreneurs receive assistance from volunteer mentors who have earned any gray hair they possess the hard way: by setting up and running successful businesses themselves. Now they want to pass on their experience in marketing, sales, finance, supply chain management, product development, human resources and all the other things you need to get 2009 off to a SmartStart.

And an added bonus -“ you often will find executives from Corp! magazine at TechTown ready to hear and report your business success stories.

Randal Charlton is executive director of TechTown in Detroit. He can be reached at [email protected].