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College startup hubs become essential during an uncertain semester

by Maija Ehlinger

In a fall semester fueled by uncertainty, the buzzword around most college campuses seems to be “innovation.”

Universities are rethinking how team sports can be played and how dining halls should be restructured to safely handle the coronavirus. Teachers are finding ways to transform their lectures into engaging online experiences. 

While each university has taken different approaches to learning and living during a pandemic, it is their new — or renewed — focus on innovation that has brought students together even during social distancing. 

Because as sports stadiums closed and dorm rooms emptied, startup hubs and innovation centers kept their (virtual) doors open, becoming essential outlets for student creativity and engagement.

Now as universities across the Southeast begin the new semester in a mixture of in-person and online formats, Hypepotamus spoke with several college startup programs to learn more about how each campus is working to make entrepreneurship part of the ‘new normal’ across campus. 


Georgia Tech: Create-X

Since its founding, Georgia Tech’s Create-X has helped launch over 200 companies, including Atlanta-based Fixd, Stord and Gimme Vending

It has also worked with over 5,000 Georgia Tech students to “instill entrepreneurial confidence” in all those looking to bring a new idea or product to life.

During a typical summer, Create-X hosts an on-campus accelerator. With the pivot to remote programming, Create-X’s founding director Dr. Raghupathy Sivakumar told Hypepotamus that they received over 460 applications from students looking to launch new concepts in industries ranging from biotech to transportation to virtual event management. 

While running a fully remote accelerator had its drawbacks, Sivakumar was quick to point out that there were several hidden benefits. Remote programming allowed Create-X to take on 70 student-run companies, giving more students an opportunity to hone their entrepreneurial skills when traditional summer internships disappeared. 

While several startups wanted to address the pandemic directly, Sivakumar noted that he is excited that many of the projects already have a path to pivot and “persist beyond COVID.” 

While Create-X is designed to help Tech students bring their ideas to life, the initiative knows that collaboration across the city is essential to keep innovation flowing on campus. Earlier in spring, they added a Covid-related Hackathon in partnership with Emory University’s Global Health Institute.

For Steve McLaughlin, Dean of the College of Engineering, entrepreneurial programming put on by the university filled an important void during an uncertain semester. 

McLaughlin smiled when thinking back to the Hackathon, “Students were home and they were bursting with energy and ambition. In a way, it was a perfect storm, at least for us, the hackathon and the accelerator. They needed something to do.” 


Georgia State: Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute

Ranked number two on US News & World Report’s list of most innovative campuses, Georgia State is known for turning out the next generation of business leaders. According to the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute (ENI), it is State’s class demographics that make it ripe for entrepreneurial growth.

“Our student body has to be innovative. If they’ve gotten to GSU, they’ve overcome obstacles and hurdles…that drives innovation,” said Jennifer Sherer, Director of ENI.

Sherer told Hypepotamus that Georgia State doesn’t just view entrepreneurship as an extracurricular activity: it is deeply woven into their curriculum. Students, particularly at the undergraduate level, are encouraged to take business and entrepreneurship classes.

ENI is working to make innovation part of both the academic and extracurricular lifeblood of the university, particularly as students grapple with the continued coronavirus pandemic. 

Whether it is an idea born in a virtual classroom or through other campus extracurricular activities, Sherer believes that Georgia State has the infrastructure in place to help students bring their businesses and products to life. Even in the wake of an uncertain time, Shere says she is telling students “it is a great time to start a business.” 

To spark innovation in the wider Atlanta community, Georgia State also recently launched innovative-focused immersive tracks in AI, entrepreneurship, and Fintech that are opened to non-degree seeking students looking to learn “in bite size pieces.” Such tracks encourage non-traditional learners to continue on their entrepreneurial journey without having to spend the time and money on a full degree. 

“Opportunities abound in times like these for people who are entrepreneurial,” Sherer continued.  Everyone is doubling down on supporting enter and small businesses.” 


Morehouse: Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center

Morehouse Men have left their mark on politics, culture, medicine, business and entertainment. Now, the Morehouse Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center (MIEC) is looking to build on their legacy by placing entrepreneurship at the heart of both academics and extracurriculars.

MIEC Director Tiffany Bussey told Hypepotamus that the center spent the summer preparing to bring their standard programming virtual. Which, she hopes, is a good lesson for any budding entrepreneur. “Instead of dwelling on problems, focus on solutions,” Bussey tells students.

While Morehouse has made the decision to keep students remote for the fall semester, MIEC Director Tiffany Bussey believes the work happening at her center will continue to foster more startups and campus innovation in a remote world. 

In the new school year, Bussey told Hypepotamus that all incoming freshmen will be required to take the class Black Entrepreneurial History. The college will also add the capstone class Black Businesses Matter: Building Black Wealth.

Students interested in scaling their own business still have resources at their fingertips through the MIEC. The center will continue to provide remote office hours and pitch competitions to engage students and their ideas throughout the semester. The center will also host workshop series specifically for those interested in blockchain and real estate innovation. 

Students interested in building their startup can also connect with alumni volunteers who have launched their own successful ventures. For Bussey, each of these programs helps students develop the entrepreneurial mindset needed for success down the road. 


University of Georgia: Innovation Gateway 

Equipped with a new engineering school and a strong overall research culture, the University of Georgia has long focused on collaboration between students and faculty to bring new ideas to life. 

Now in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, UGA’s Ian Biggs points out that “virtually all aspects of our ecosystem need innovation,” and UGA’s collaborative model might keep student entrepreneurs engaged in the months to come.

Even in the best of times, “student-based projects find it difficult to achieve the outcomes that maybe the project is capable of,” Biggs told Hypepotamus. “We tell our students to find others who will work with them to move their project forward.” 

To better help students get hands-on experience, and to help the university increase the number of commercialized startups they can bring to market, UGA’s Office of Research has fellowships, bootcamps, and other programs to help bring new student ideas to life. 

These programs haven’t halted during coronavirus shutdowns; in fact, their need has only become more crucial. “During this time of uncertainty and the coronavirus, one of the things that many of our students – especially are grad students – are interested in is understanding the world of commerce.” The university helps to pair student entrepreneurs and projects together to help students get industry experience. 

“There was a view that things that aren’t absolutely essential to the University will diminish [due to COVID]” Briggs said. “In fact, what we found is that whether its faculty or staff or students — or our commercial partners — for all of them, this is an essential activity. And I would say over the next twelve months we’ll be doing more.” 


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Entrepreneurship Center

Nestled right in the Research Triangle, UNC-Chapel Hill has no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit pulsing through campus. And COVID shutdowns have anything but dampened that spirit.  

Vickie Gibbs, Executive Director for the Kenan-Flager Business School’s Entrepreneurship Center, also sees opportunities to focus even more on campus innovation during coronavirus restrictions. 

Since our team embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that we inspire in our students, we have entered this unique season with new found energy and creativity,” Gibbs told Hypepotamus. 

According to Gibbs, the university was quick to add virtual programming to help student entrepreneurs navigate changing times. New content like the Navigating the Great Pause Series, Coaches Corner, and Ask An Innovator have helped students stay engaged with the local community while launching new projects. 

Like Georgia Tech’s Create-X, UNC’s accelerator, Launch Chapel Hill, pivoted to remote and used it as an opportunity to take on more student teams interested in tackling COVID-related issues.  

Ultimately, these online programs are an extension of the Entrepreneurship Center’s main objective. “Our goal is to create an environment where everyone, from any background, can feel supported as they explore their unique path. With the right combinations of diverse experiences working together in teams, with spaces and programs and curriculum to guide our students, you have all of the ingredients to support and promote innovation here at UNC.”

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