Grant funds Startup Aggieland student-ran business incubator

Entrepreneurial education and opportunities offered to students at Texas A&M will receive a major upgrade from a three-year, $300,000 Tier One Program grant from the Office of the Dean of Faculties and the Associate Provost, the result of a joint proposal from the College of Architecture and Mays Business School.

The grant will support Startup Aggieland, which assists any student entrepreneur in any degree program or classification who operates a business, has a strong business idea or is generally curious about entrepreneurship and innovation.

“The funds will help the lab support the generation and maturation of ideas and creativity that foster both business development and job creation,” said the proposal, submitted as a collaborative effort by the College of Architecture’s Jorge Vanegas, dean of the college and professor of architecture, Rodney Hill, professor of architecture, and the Mays Business School’s Richard Lester, clinical associate professor and executive director of the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship and Don Lewis, adjunct professor of management.

Aggieland Startup provides, free of charge, business resources including workspace, mentoring and networking opportunities, all within a student community of innovators and collaborators.

“Aggies are constantly developing business and product ideas on their own, but what’s really exciting is that all students are welcome to grow those ideas here,” said Blake Petty, assistant vice president for innovation and business development at Texas A&M, who helps guide the startup’s student operators. “We’ve got students in ag, engineering, computer science, architecture ― it’s not just business majors.”

Petty hopes that as the startup grows, so too will a network of mentors and service providers such as attorneys and consultants who can offer their services and advice, making Startup Aggieland a hub for students to network with and learn from successful entrepreneurs.

The College of Architecture’s standing as a center of entrepreneurial activity at the university is due to The Design Process, an undergraduate class open to all majors with a track record for producing patentable inventions and related innovative ideas with potential market applications.

Students sign nondisclosure agreements and attend lectures from the Technology Licensing Office on patents, trademarks and copyright laws. Students create knowledge for individual and group projects, and they must document and conduct patent searches on at least two innovative ideas each week. Numerous projects have placed well in social entrepreneur competitions, and Hill’s students routinely generate and post YouTube videos to further illustrate their ideas.

Design Process students’ projects have turned into award-winning entries in national design competitions including a beach umbrella with solar panels that can charge electronic devices, an exercise wheel that deskbound office workers can use to exercise, a kiosk where one can file income taxes, and many more.

Class alumni have gone on to create critically acclaimed iOS accessories, eco-friendly dollhouses, and design firms.

Small businesses play a crucial role in the U.S. economy, said the College of Architecture and Mays Business School’s Aggieland Startup proposal.

Net job creation between 1994 and 2008, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, was due almost entirely to the efforts of entrepreneurs running small businesses, said the College of Architecture and Mays Business School funding proposal.  

“At present, however, there is a fragmented emphasis at Texas A&M regarding the promotion and encouragement of student entrepreneurial experiential learning and education,” said the proposal.

"Entrepreneurs are one of the most important elements in a scenario of economic vitality," said Vanegas, "with this grant, the university is responding in a cohesive way to the nation's growing entrepreneurial evolution and providing an ecosystem to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit."

The proposal cited a successful entrepreneurial center at Louisiana State University as an example.

“The LSU Student Incubator provides a home for students to pursue their business ideas in an environment of collaboration and mentorship while they complete their studies,” said the proposal. “As of July 2011, less than 6 months in operation, the incubator had assisted 20 existing student businesses and launched 11 new student businesses, with four additional new business starts pending. These new businesses had already generated 12 paid student jobs and raised more than $600,000 in capital funding.”

The Texas A&M plan calls for:

  • Enlisting at least 200 undergraduate and graduate students from all of Texas A&M’s colleges/units each year;
  • Creating and implementing an annual series of lectures, courses, workshops, seminar series and experiential learning opportunities;
  • Focusing attention and initiating a process to engage students in exploring, evaluating, building and launching new business ventures;
  • Creating an educational platform for entrepreneurship research;
  • Linking educational curricula to the lab, and
  • Implementing an interdisciplinary faculty fellow program for guidance and support by utilizing fellows’ research, educational or commercialization expertise.

Tier One grants, awarded for projects lasting up to three years, help fund interdisciplinary education programs that turn emerging scholarly work, experiential and high-impact learning practices into curricular offerings for students at Texas A&M.

“The tier one program is possible due to a budget reallocation, which granted it $1 million in recurring funding,” said Antonio Cepeda-Benito, dean of faculties and associate provost, when it was announced in 2012. “That money is going to improve and expand the education experience of undergraduate and post-graduate students.”

posted March 6, 2013