FGCU, together with Florida State University, became the first public university in the state last week to kick off a new degree program for student entrepreneurs that will add mentors, practical experience, wide knowledge and even angel-fund grant money to their concepts-turned-business plans — no matter what their academic backgrounds or majors.
In theory, students can now study Shakespeare, engineering, marine biology or anything else and make money at the same time by starting with one good idea then learning how to design it, patent it, produce it, market it, and distribute it. A diploma from FGCU comes with it.
The new approach springs from the notion that creativity can come from any direction at the university. But it requires practical shaping of sorts before it can be of value to anybody.
It may also require angel investors — deep-pocket fueling agents of the future who bet on good ideas.
“This is a business-of-arts degree in entrepreneurship. Not a business degree,” explains Professor Sandra Kauanui, director and program chair at FGCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship.
“Lots of colleges that have an entrepreneurship degree just wrap it into just business school. But for a different, higher level of innovation, you want to connect with engineers, scientists, or many of our arts students: they’ve done things with digital media, created software applications, but they’re outside engineering or even business. They’re in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I blame Tim Cartwright,” she adds. “He came up here from Naples a few years ago and challenged us to do something like this.”
Mr. Cartwright, partner in Fifth Avenue Advisors and chairman of two of Florida’s biggest Angel Funds — the Tamiami Angel Funds I and II (now beginning a third iteration) — is chairperson of the investment committee that judges FGCU student projects on the runway.
A business incubator and important part of the of the program, students refine and then pitch their ideas in (or on) the runway. Like any other angel fund investors, the committee then backstops worthy ones with grants from the FGCU Foundation.
“We tell him how much we, the foundation, have and he and his committee decide how to distribute it,” says Dr. Kauanui.
To appear before the investment committee, students must have completed a semester in the runway program. They can and sometimes do become profit-making entrepreneurs even before they graduate, or just after.
“We saw 18 presentations about three weeks ago, and we invested $88,000 in 14 companies,” says Mr. Cartwright.
“The grants range from $1,000 up to about $12,500. It’s not a lot of money but it is money. They’re awarded to help students do some patent work, or do market research, or purchase a logo — to get a brand name and website services to launch their business — that kind of thing.”
Mr. Cartwright, who plans to teach a venture capital class at FGCU next year, knows whereof he speaks: the Tamiami Angel Fund II, for example, has invested a third — roughly $1 million — in a Naples-based medical technology invented by Dr. Steven Goldberg, chief of the Division of Orthopedic Surgery at Physicians Regional Healthcare System in Naples.
“He developed a new way to do a total shoulder replacement,” explains Mr. Cartwright, citing Dr. Goldberg’s company, Catalyst OrthoScience, and the device itself, the Catalyst CSR Shoulder System. “It’s patented, and he’s been issued his 510K clearance from the FDA. That means you’re approved to put your device into human beings.” There’s joy in such work, not just profit.
“This is the exciting thing, with ours being a (deep pocket) company: it’s really fun when you get to see that kind of development.”
And it’s also exciting to watch students emerge not just as thinkers, but as thinkers and doers.
Students with great ideas for products will not only put their minds together, but they’ll learn how to run the gauntlet of fiscal, legal, production and marketing challenges required to turn creativity into productivity.
“We spend at least 30 minutes each week with each student,” says Scott Kelly, assistant director of the Institute of Entrepreneurship, which includes the runway.
“From my perspective, going K through 12 and then the first year of college sort of (blunts) your creativity. So they get to feel out the ideation phase by coming up with a solution — it sort of beats the creativity back into them.”
Mr. Kelly, who graduated from FGCU with a degree in bio-engineering in 2014, had his own experience in FGCU’s Entrepreneurial program when he was a student there.
“I developed my first business in Dr. Kauanui’s classes — we developed the Aquaramp to help people with disabilities get in and out of swimming pools,” he says. “We got through the patent process and decided that the market wasn’t conducive to getting it to market.”
Getting it to market is one thing, but getting it to a stage that might work in the first place, is another thing, he acknowledges.
“What we teach here is the lean startup. The idea is to go to market with the minimum viable product. You have something you can take to market, to a very specific market, so you can test it, generate traction, and that can lead to expansion of your business or project.”
One student, for example, wanted to create an application that would help people working in or seeking real estate to find what they needed. But that was too broad, says Mr. Kelly.
“With him it was a matter of trying to get him to think more specifically. What is a major problem in the industry? What can you focus on that won’t cost a million to make happen — what can you start with tomorrow that will get people to buy into your idea?
“So, he spent the next few months working on getting down to that specific target market. He ended up creating an app called RoomDig. They’re in the process of (establishing) the IP, the Intellectual Property rights, now. It’s specific to student needs in housing.”
Helping students find what they need and want. Since roughly 20.5 million students enrolled in colleges and universities in the U.S. last fall, that housing app might be a very good idea.
“When you put people together from across the disciplines, the level of creativity is so much better,” says Dr. Kauanui.
And a promising truth emerges: You don’t have to be a business student to be an entrepreneur.