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Student entrepreneurship fuels Michigan's economy

Allen Kim of Baberoo at TechArb
Allen Kim of Baberoo at TechArb

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Encouraging innovation is key to revitalizing Michigan's economy. The days of "employment for life" are long over, and people are increasingly making their own jobs by opening small businesses, striking out as solo practitioners or grouping with like-minded friends to bring a great idea to fruition.
URC institutions are training the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs with thriving student entrepreneurship programs. From starry-eyed kids with a big idea who need guidance on how to make it work to students already well-versed in the business world, these creative spaces are meant to nurture the Michigan students who are next in line to change the world.
All three URC institutions have launched some sort of student entrepreneur incubator in the last few years. At U-M, TechArb began in the summer of 2009 when a few interested students approached Thomas Zurbuchen, associate dean for entrepreneurial programs. They explained that they’d been working on ideas for companies and were concerned that they would lose momentum over the summer, and asked Zurbuchen to help them find a space where they could continue collaborating. It was such a success that the Zell-Lurie Institute For Entrepreneurial Studies and the Center for Entrepreneurship signed on to manage the program. Six groups of students have since moved through TechArb, with the seventh starting this fall.
TechArb is designed for students who have already have done serious work on commercializing their product – true early-stage companies rather than prospective entrepreneurs fleshing out a business idea.
"The target company we want has a societal need they are addressing in a way that is scalable, who think of an idea in a different way," Zurbuchen says.
They’ve had some success: 40 jobs have been created and revenue is estimated in the millions. Their biggest success has probably been Mobiata, which started at TechArb and was acquired by Expedia earlier this year.
But that’s not to say only sure things need apply.
"The objective is to give students an environment where they can learn by doing -- a successful outcome might be the complete failure of their idea when they discover the technology wasn’t feasible or the customers weren’t that excited," says TechArb director Doug Neal.
Wayne State’s entrepreneurship center, the Blackstone LaunchPad, and MSU’s, The Hatch, are geared more toward students who think they have a good business idea, but aren’t sure exactly how to make it happen.
The Blackstone LaunchPad at Wayne State came about when a delegation visited the first LaunchPad, at University of Miami. The Blackstone Charitable Foundation approached Wayne staff about doing something similar, and they jumped at the chance. The LaunchPad opened in September 2010 on the first floor of the high-traffic Undergraduate Library. Such visibility helps draw in students who might never otherwise know about the resources available there.
Blackstone LaunchPad gives students a safe place to explore their interests in entrepreneurship while they are still pursing a degree.
"It allows them to try something, and if it doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world – they’re still pursing their academic programs and making progress," says Ahmad Ezzedine, director of the Blackstone LaunchPad. "It forms that safe place for them to take risks and explore their options."
Michigan State’s student entrepreneurship center, the Hatch, opened this summer, and eight companies are already operating out of its space in downtown East Lansing. While it was something students requested, many groups immediately saw the potential. The Eli Broad College of Business, the City of East Lansing, the Lansing Area Economic Partnership and the office of the vice president for research all helped make it happen.
Hatch fits within a larger picture of encouraging entrepreneurship at Michigan State, says Bryan Ritchie, director of the MSU e-Net entrepreneurship network. It’s part of a web that includes the Gumball student entrepreneurship group, MSU e-Net, an entry-level course on the entrepreneurial mindset, and several other local entities all focused on creation and innovation.
Student pay $75 per month for access to the Hatch, which provides them with all the accouterments of an office including a receptionist and conference rooms, as well as access to networking opportunities with other entrepreneurs and even potential funders.
For these students, the "make your own job" approach makes sense whether they decide to remain their own bosses or work for someone else.
"Successful careers will be entrepreneurial careers," says Zurbuchen. "I don’t think sitting in the back seat and cruising along is a good career plan."
Teaching students risk taking and innovation in a low-risk atmosphere is key to not only Michigan’s future, but also the country’s.
"Historically, much of what we’re able to accomplish in this country’s history was accomplished by entrepreneurs," Richie says. "I think the economy going forward is going to rely heavily on innovation and entrepreneurship." 
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