The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine have named University of Michigan’s graduate program in entrepreneurship one of the best in the nation, the university announced this week. Coming in at the No. 2 spot—the highest it’s ever been ranked—this is the third year in a row that the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business has landed in the top five.
“We’re excited,” says the Zell Lurie Institute’s executive director Tom Kinnear, despite acknowledging that a list created by people who “sell ink by the barrel” might not be scientific. “Twenty years ago, we weren’t ranked at all. Ten years ago, we were in the top 20. Now, we’re No. 2.”
Offered since 1972, the graduate entrepreneurship program had 2,192 participants during the 2011-2012 school year. In addition to teaching students how to be better entrepreneurs, the university oversees three student-run venture funds (the Wolverine Venture Fund, the pre-seed Frankel Commercialization Fund, and the Social Venture Fund), an incubator of student startups called TechArb, an array of business plan competitons and coaching, official entrepreneurial efforts in the law school and the medical school, and a busy tech transfer office that spins out about 10 companies a year based on U-M research and technology.
That full, campus-wide experience is what Kinnear says makes studying entrepreneurship at U-M unique, especially compared to the top-ranked Babson. “Babson is basically just a business school, but our students get to experience the breadth of interaction across departments and schools inside the university,” he adds. “Only a few universities in the world can do that, and it’s a real advantage to us.”
Of course, Kinnear points out at U-M “can’t turn stones into entrepreneurs,” but he says that if a student has entrepreneurial leanings, the university is a great place to nurture those inclinations. And even if a student doesn’t start a business right after graduation, Kinnear believes they’re building better future employees by teaching them to think outside of a narrow bureaucratic mindset. “Our faculty and outside coaches are very hands on, and that’s pretty unique,” Kinnear says, suggesting that it might be easier to find out your business idea isn’t going to succeed inside a classroom rather than out in the real world after expending a lot of time and money. “You don’t have to go to school to be an entrepreneur but, boy, can we help you.”
The Ross School of Business and the School of Engineering also announced a new entrepreneurial program this week geared toward inventors. Weaving together three semesters of practicums with entrepreneurial courses, the new inventor-targeted program looks at what’s coming out of the tech transfer office and other places around the university and tries to make a judgement about which ideas are worthy of turning into a full-scale business.
Kinnear says that the first semester involves vetting the ideas and putting teams together behind each of the ideas chosen, along with customer validation work. During the second semester, students take leadership and fundraising classes while getting down to the nitty gritty of product development and refining a business model. Finally, in the third semester, the students launch the companies they have created.
Students have already listened to dozens of faculty pitches and have chosen five technologies to work on commercializing during the course of the program: an inkless, color-changing fluid to be used in camouflaging applications; a nano-etching process that can make transparent electrodes; an electronic “nose” that is actually a gas sensor that can be used to detect the presence of chemical weapons or disease on a patient’s breath; a reusable heat pack; and a tiny, sub-millimeter wireless sensor.
The new program seems to be just the latest push from a university that has demonstrated a commitment to helping its faculty become entrepreneurs and turning its research into successful startups. Kinnear says the difference between this program and the iCorps program announced a few months ago is that, rather than helping researchers to think entrepreneurially, this program is for people who want to be entrepreneurs, not researchers. “These people have advanced engineering degrees—they just want to understand markets better,” he adds. “They’re working backwards and turning inventions into businesses.”