Trinity Entrepreneur Program Grows Alongside San Antonio Startups

San Antonio — At a small university just north of downtown San Antonio, there are a few dozen students that, every semester, everyone expects will fail.

Don’t worry, it’s nothing nefarious. For the students studying at Trinity University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, experiencing a failure is almost a requisite for someone who wants to work at a startup, says Luis Martinez, the center’s director. It’s better to get failure out of the way early, while you’re still in college and don’t have to pay rent or a mortgage, he says, because it’s bound to happen.

“We’re trying to make an environment for a student where it’s safe to fail,” Martinez says. “The sophistication of ideas that they generate in that second round are better, and more scalable.”

In many ways the program operates just like others at the university, teaching students through curricular studies—including developing a business plan of their own—that can result in a minor or a secondary major in entrepreneurship. The program also offers co-curricular activities that are open to all 2,300 or so Trinity students, such as an accelerator program called the Louis H. Stumberg Venture Plan Competition, internships with local startups, and mentorship from entrepreneurs who have themselves found success, including an entrepreneur-in-residence.

Trinity’s work in developing student entrepreneurs is by no means unique. There are entrepreneurial-focused schools like Harvard or Babson or Rice in Houston in every corner of the U.S., not to mention public institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, a city that’s a hotbed for startups. Many programs are much better known than Trinity, a small school in a sprawling metropolis.

Yet, the work at Trinity is happening at a distinctive time in San Antonio, a city where entrepreneurial activity and culture is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Artists, workers, and entrepreneurs of all kinds are moving to the city partly thanks to its affordability relative to Austin, and also because of the increasing presence of both tech and life science startups.

Techstars Cloud has operated its accelerator program in San Antonio for the better part of four years, and groups such as Tech Bloc have been created to advocate for those budding entrepreneurs. More money and education is being funneled into the area, too, with accelerator programs like Tech Fuel offering early seed funding, co-working spaces like Geekdom, coding schools, and programs like Trinity’s.

“We as a city and community are in the process of figuring out what we are going to do when we grow up,” says Martinez, who himself attended Trinity before obtaining a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Harvard University. “From my perspective, we want to be the first place that people look for talent.”

Namely, Trinity hopes to create that talent pool. Its Stumberg competition, named for a San Antonio businessman who died in 2011, provides $5,000 in seed money for five student-led startups, which are selected as finalists from a larger group. A final winner is picked from among those five and awarded$25,000.

In the competition’s first year in 2015, Polva Chewing Gum won for a gum that the founders say has dental hygiene benefits. Another competitor, Denify, which has built an app that is focused on healthcare, has also found some success. It was selected as one of five companies that will compete for as much as $30,000 in May in the Tech Fuel accelerator program.

Even if learning from failure is a part of the Trinity program, the students also learn from the successes other Trinity students have seen. The founders of Rackspace (NYSE: RAX) were students at Trinity. Cybersecurity company Denim Group also had its beginning at Trinity, as did Parlevel, a company with vending-machine software that’s been backed by local investment firm Geekdom Fund.

“We want our students to be plugged into (local startups) as much as possible, whether that means interning, working at tech or biotech startups, learning from the community or mentors who are here in San Antonio about how they built their companies,” Martinez says.

About 100 students participated in 2015, twice the number from the previous year, Martinez says. Going forward, Trinity is expects to add a couple of specializations, such as on social entrepreneurship—companies that do nonprofit work in a sustainable business model—and international entrepreneurship. The program is also considering working with other educational programs, such as local coding schools.

“Students will ask, ‘Is this a horrible idea?’ It’s not for me to tell you it’s a horrible idea or not. If you can find someone pay for it, by all means it’s a good idea,” Martinez says. “Show me it’s just as great as you think it is. It’s in that process that they begin to explore that out and they realize, ‘Whoa, maybe there is a good opportunity here.’”

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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