Local universities are helping student entrepreneurs

Higher Education & Research

UWM student entrepreneurs participate in the school’s Startup Challenge program.

Michael Van Kleunen is a student entrepreneur living in Milwaukee. Now enrolled in his first year of law school at Marquette University, he studied political science and economics as an undergrad at Hanover College, a liberal arts school in Hanover, Indiana.

Despite his educational background, his goal isn’t to practice law or go into politics, he said. He wants to go into business for himself. And he thinks a law degree could be useful as an entrepreneur.

UWM student entrepreneurs participate in the school’s Startup Challenge program.
UWM student entrepreneurs participate in the school’s Startup Challenge program.

In his spare time, Van Kleunen has been testing his entrepreneurial mettle. When he’s not in class, he’s sending out student surveys, gathering inventory and making deliveries.

He started a company called ProductsU to fix a problem he noticed classmates complaining about on campus – there isn’t a major grocery store within walking distance, and prices for things such as toiletry items are too high at local convenience stores.

He figured he could purchase the items for a much lower price than could be found near campus and deliver them to students in a shorter period of time than it would take to ride the bus to a store or convince a friend to let them borrow their car.

So he got to work. He identified more than 100 different products students indicated they would buy through his surveys, then purchased an inventory of about 10 to 15 of each item.

He rented space at the nearby Redeemer Lutheran Church at 631 N. 19th St. to stockpile his goods. And now he’s making deliveries.

In December, Van Kleunen got a check for $10,000 from Marquette’s Enterprise Seed Fund, a pool of seed money administered by Marquette and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

And now he’s trying every strategy he can to overcome a common problem for young companies – marketing.

Student entrepreneurs work in Marquette’s Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, located at the university’s 707 building.
Student entrepreneurs work in Marquette’s Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, located at the university’s 707 building.

“Since I don’t really know truly what the market’s going to respond to, I’m just trying everything,” Van Kleunen said. “Whatever comes to my mind, I’m just going to go with and see what happens. That’s the mountain I’m climbing – marketing.”

Van Kleunen is one example of the budding entrepreneurism on college campuses around Milwaukee, where there has been an increased effort in recent years to encourage entrepreneurial thinking and activity across disciplines. The $10,000 in seed funding, and the resources now available to him both at Marquette and around the city, might not have been available to a student with a similar idea five or 10 years earlier.

The Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, located inside Marquette’s five-story 707 Building at 707 N. 11th St., is buzzing with student entrepreneurs. The center has mentored more than 50 student startups over the past two years, and now has about three times as many students passing through each day as it did in 2015. The center is currently undergoing a renovation and expansion to add a co-working space called the 707 Hub that is expected to open March 27.

“It’s important to have an incubator space on campus because the right spaces can help make ideas happen,” said Megan Carver, associate director of the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship. “There is a growing understanding that real breakthrough comes from people working together and mixing their ideas and insights.

“The student experience at Marquette increasingly revolves around the value of innovation,” she continued. “That’s why (Marquette president) Dr. (Michael) Lovell has made it a presidential priority to elevate and expand established campus resources, including the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship and the Social Innovation Initiative – and students are truly getting on board with pursuing idea generation, entrepreneurial ventures and even commercialization as part of their academic experience.”

Marquette University is one of five schools in the Milwaukee area included in the National Science Foundation’s southeastern Wisconsin I-CORPS site. The others: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, The Milwaukee School of Engineering, Concordia University and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Institutions included in I-CORPS sites around the country use federal funding to accelerate the commercialization of research ideas developed on campus. In Milwaukee, the initiative has strengthened research ties among the institutions, pushed college leaders to build entrepreneurial talent pipelines into their curriculum and provided students and staff a clearer pathway to bring their innovations to market.

Student entrepreneurs work in Marquette’s Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, located at the university’s 707 building.
Student entrepreneurs work in Marquette’s Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, located at the university’s 707 building.

“About 30 percent of our classes on campus have either entrepreneurship or innovation as part of the curriculum or learning objective,” said Gene Wright, graduate management programs director at MSOE’s Rader School of Business. “The activity around entrepreneurship, especially around our engineering school, is vibrant.”

Wright said MSOE has been increasing its emphasis on entrepreneurialism since the school received a $1 million endowment from the Uihlein family in 1999 to establish an entrepreneurship chair. He said the move pulled MSOE’s business and engineering schools much closer together, which helped the school keep pace with a growing trend in academia.

“We’re starting to see this curricula that has proven to be very practical,” Wright said. “When you see great engineering coupled with great business, naturally there’s this outflow of entrepreneurial activity.”

Wright said he personally feels that the general public is becoming less patient with academic research, especially federally-funded research, that doesn’t eventually produce an innovation that reaches the marketplace.

“I think there’s less people that want to see career researchers and more that want to see some solutions coming out of the universities,” Wright said. “I think you’re starting to see more and more entrepreneurial activity out of the universities. People want to see solutions and they don’t want to wait decades for them; they want to see them soon.

“And companies also want to see graduates who are entrepreneurial thinkers, who are problem solvers.”

Similarly, UWM has taken dramatic steps in recent years to incorporate entrepreneurial lessons across disciplines. In addition to the university’s plans to break ground on its Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship before the end of 2017, the school has put in place several layers of programs and curriculum changes to encourage entrepreneurialism among students.

“There’s a dozen faculty that are really working with us to get our programs launched,” said Brian Thompson, president of the UWM Research Foundation. “Our goal is two-fold. One: we want to help create new companies that are going to support the economy. But no less important: we want to arm our students with skills that are going to make them successful. Our goal is to have these programs integrated across disciplines and at many levels.”

Renderings of The CoLab under construction at Marquette's Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, which is expected to open March 27.
Renderings of The 707 Hub under construction at Marquette’s Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, which is expected to open March 27.

During the fall 2016 semester, UWM offered 40 “pop-up” classes, in which teachers from unrelated disciplines come in to teach a class. Under the pop-up class model, an art teacher could come in to do a lecture for business students on design, or a business professor could teach a group of art students how to develop a business plan to sell their work. The idea is to expose students to skills and ideas that would allow them to go into business for themselves, regardless of their major.

“Whether or not you’re in business, engineering, arts, humanities, we think the entrepreneurial skillsets, entrepreneurial thinking, creativity, these sorts of skills are going to be critical to the future careers of the students that are going to be graduating from here today,” Thompson said.

UWM’s spectrum of entrepreneurial-focused programs includes Fresh Ideas, which organizes the previously mentioned pop-up classes; the Student Startup Challenge, which takes student startup ideas through enterprise development; the UWM App Brewery; and I-CORPS. And many more are being planned for the future.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly named the new co-working space being built inside Marquette University’s 707 building. The new space is called 707 Hub.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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