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Reinventing high school with incubation and entrepreneurial education

January/February 2014

by Dennis Powell

Most innovations in business incubation are incremental, the fine-tuning of a broad general concept. Rarely does a program discover and capitalize on a whole new era of business development and education. It is this fact that makes the Center for Advanced Professional Studies stand out. The Overland Park, Kan., program has gained national attention in recent years for its program of comprehensive entrepreneurship training and student business building in a range of technical fields. The program has been endorsed by leading universities and businesses. Scores of educators from around the world have traveled to the CAPS facility in hope of cloning or emulating the program, and a dozen schools have begun CAPS programs of their own.

At CAPS, 500 high school juniors and seniors each semester spend half of each school day not in normal high school classes but in a facility that resembles a Silicon Valley research center. There, they work on projects with each other and with 18 instructors, 240 businesses, 320 mentors from business and academia. The students must apply to the program and agree to a stringent code of conduct that includes business ethics and a dress code. While the instructors are educators by trade, most have entrepreneurial experience. The businesses and mentors include executives from international businesses with facilities in the greater Kansas City area.

“We have taken the business world model and overlaid it on top of an educational model in the way we act and the way we hire as much as we can,” said Donna Deeds, CAPS executive director, in describing what sets the program apart. “That is why you see different behaviors.”

It is a high school program that has onsite staff to help in preparing and filing provisional patent applications.

“Our students develop self-confidence, follow their passion, connect with professionals,” said Deeds. “We give them a long leash. They’re developing projects all year, sometimes more. With our partnerships and our internal resources, it all comes together. It’s education, industry and community coming together.”

CAPS students follow one of five professional tracks: bioscience, engineering, business, technology and media, and human services, with professional sub-specialties under each track. For instance, the bioscience “strand” as it is called offers opportunities in research, environmental science and animal health, and molecular medicine and bioengineering; the engineering strand includes aerospace engineering, civil engineering and architecture, computer-integrated manufacturing, and digital electronics. The other strands include professions as diverse as international media, filmmaking, sports medicine and the law.

Within the overall CAPS program is a business incubator dedicated to fostering student-created businesses. These can be individual projects, businesses developed by several students, and even businesses developed by several students from different disciplines. Here students have created internet and applications companies, developed physical products, and even invented licensable green-energy technologies. CAPS seeks to prepare student entrepreneurs not just for college but for the world.

Encouraging entrepreneurship at an early age is a great idea, said Jon Newcomb, business development manager at CAPS. “I think there’s a quote, ‘We’re all born curious and creative, and then we go to school.’ We try to keep that curiosity and creativity alive and help it grow,” he said.

The CAPS program began with a conversation between the district’s board of education and the superintendent in 2007. The superintendent was asked how education could be improved, to toss out the existing assumptions and models. In 2009, CAPS opened with 250 students. It has grown to where it now has a capacity of 1,000 students per year. It draws students from the five high schools of the Blue Valley district, six private high schools, and from the ranks of home schoolers, whose participation increases the state payments to the school district. Students in their junior and senior years may participate for one semester or for as many as four.

The local community, Kansas suburbs of Kansas City, is strongly behind the program. The costs in excess of normal education funding were met by a small local bond issue. Residents have found value in an educational track aimed at making their children employable. “I think the current state of young professionals graduating from college is that they are finding the hard facts that they have a degree but no skill sets to sell,” says Deeds. “This is a really solid time to be thinking of a model like this.”

CAPS students get to know industry leaders from companies such as Black & Veatch, Garmin, Bayer, Sprint, Cerner, Cisco, IBM and many others. They sometimes obtain paid internships with competition including college students. “We have students who head off to college with post-graduate job offers already,” said Deeds. “We have others who need to decide whether to continue with the businesses they created after high school graduation or go straight to college. That’s not a bad position for them to be in.

“It’s possible here to come up with a product that guarantees your college is paid for. The networking skills and contacts extend through college and beyond.”

While the first CAPS graduates are now college seniors and therefore it’s too early to determine their long-term success, the program has tracked them and found that they tend to do better in college than their non-CAPS peers, and find better summer jobs, often leading to full-time positions after graduation.

The program’s success has drawn attention. CAPS has been featured in television business reports. So many representatives from other school districts around the country and the world came to tour the program that last year CAPS sponsored what it called “the Huddle,” with 100 representatives from 20 different districts, including one in the Netherlands, meeting to learn about the program. The CAPS program itself is consultant to several other school districts seeking to emulate it. Last fall, about a dozen districts throughout the country opened their own CAPS programs.

“It will work in any school district,” said Deeds. “It doesn’t have to be a wealthy district; all it needs is someone with tenacity and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies
Incubator Innovation Award

Center for Advanced Professional Studies
7501 West 149th Terrace
Overland Park, KS 66223

Year established: 2009

Incubator size: 66,205 square feet

Incubator clients: 584

Incubator graduates: 1,221

Organizational structure: A program of the Blue Valley K-12 School District, CAPS combines classroom learning with industry mentoring to high school juniors and seniors. The students follow one of four “strands” – bioscience, engineering, business, technology and media, and human services – in creating companies, learning to become high-value employees of existing companies, or both.

Mission statement: The Center for Advanced Professional Studies is the partnership of education, industry and community, providing students a unique, immersive experience resulting in highly skilled, adaptable 21st century global innovators. Its goal is to increase the number of patents, LLCs, licenses, clients and companies assisted.



Students at the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies in Overland Park, Kan.

Keywords: incubator management, NBIA programs, client services – general, incubation network

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