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University incubation programs that help students to start their own businesses create jobs, aid university recruitment and foster interdisciplinary activities. As interest in student incubation continues to grow, student-specific practices and services are developing. NBIA members formed a working group to share advice, experience and best practices.

The university-incubation connection: a series

October 2013

by Dennis E. Powell

NBIA ReviewWell over half of NBIA member incubation programs have some association with institutions of higher learning. That statement, though, doesn’t tell us much: the relationships between academy and incubator are widely varied; perhaps no two university-incubator relationships are identical. There are, though, some useful general categories.

Some universities or colleges wholly own and operate incubation programs or networks, while others collaborate with economic development organizations. University-based programs may focus on faculty-generated technology transfer, commercializing advances made in the schools’ labs and workshops. Others are hybrids of technology transfer and businesses not related to university research, though a subset of the latter may make use of facilities at the institution.

Many incubators enjoy an informal relationship with a university or college. A surprising number have relationships with more than one school and some are associated with as many as a half-dozen, which offers variety when an incubator professional or client seeks expert help. The informal associations are as varied as the programs that engage in them.

Like all business incubators, university-involved programs innovate and change over time. The current state of the practice is the subject of a series of articles in NBIA Review, beginning with the one below. It explores the rapidly developing and increasingly popular student incubator movement.

Part One: The next generation of entrepreneurs is doing business while still at school

Incubation professionals who regularly survey the industry landscape might conclude that student incubators – incubation programs aimed at helping students, often undergraduates, to start their own businesses – are a new phenomenon. Though there are more and more programs either created for students or including a new student-focused component, the student incubator movement has been around for more than 17 years.

The University of Northern Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, began serving student entrepreneurs in 1996.

“Being a smaller comprehensive university program, we don’t have the exposure that larger institutions get,” says Katherine Cota-Uyar, associate director and entrepreneurship instructor at John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. “Our entrepreneurial center was established and began helping student entrepreneurs in 1996. We began speaking on student incubation at NBIA conferences in 2009 and began our incubation program in 2004-2005.”

Initially the program offered courses, advising and mentoring, which proved popular. Through funding provided by private donors and the U.S. Department of Commerce Small Business Administration, the school launched its physical incubator for students. The program has evolved into an entrepreneurial-educational system that accepts student clients on a semester basis; and to remain in the incubator, students must demonstrate business progress. The incubator offers services to both resident clients and affiliate clients, who receive all incubation services except space.

JPEC collects no fee for services. “Students pay back by being available for recruitment efforts and visits by dignitaries, legislators, government officials and so on, and prospective donors,” Cota-Uyar says. “We also have a fellowship program where current students and graduates can donate to the center to help other student incubator businesses.”

Toward the end of the last decade, interest in student incubators grew. Two of the people leading the charge were Jennifer Fowler of The Louisiana Business & Technology Center in Baton Rouge, La., and Thea Chase, at the time on the faculty at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colo., and executive director of the Business Incubator Center of Grand Junction. Both had explored the idea of student incubators and both would soon put their research into action.

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This article also is available as a PDF Quick Reference document through the NBIA Bookstore.

Keywords: best practices, incubator management – general, client services – general, student incubation, university partnerships

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