May 14, 2012/MiBiz
By Mark Sanchez
WEST MICHIGAN — What a difference a decade makes.
Ten years ago Jeff Padden noticed that "there wasn't much to talk about" in terms of entrepreneurial activity on Michigan college campuses.
Today, a cultural shift is in full swing and all of Michigan's 15 public universities have in some form embedded entrepreneurism, both in academic programming and community outreach, as a core part of their mission, according to new survey data.
"The difference between a decade ago and today is a night-and-day difference in the level of entrepreneurial thinking," said Padden, the president of Public Policy Associates Inc. in Lansing.
"There's been a huge increase in entrepreneurial activities all across the state. It means, I believe, that the universities have come to see their mission in a very different way than they did a decade ago," Padden said. "In those days, most universities were trying to train business majors to fit into a large organization. These days, most universities see entrepreneurship as at least an additional, legitimate and important career option for many of their students."
Public Policy Associates surveyed the public universities on behalf of the Michigan Sense of Place Council, a public-private collaboration that works to make communities attractive to young talent and entrepreneurs. The survey's results show that universities now support entrepreneurism on a variety of fronts — from increased academic programs and community outreach, to sponsoring student business plan competitions and on-campus clubs that are mentored by professors.
The results reflect that a new entrepreneurial culture is rising on Michigan's college campuses as the state recovers from the economic pain of the last several years.
Even if students who learn about entrepreneurship during their college days never start their own business, having them exposed to the concepts can still pay dividends in their careers and at the companies where they work because they know "entrepreneurial thinking," Padden said.
"What it really implies is a change in the way people think about the economy and their relationship to the economy," he said. "So even if you do go work for somebody else in a small firm or a large firm, the people who have been exposed to these ideas and these possibilities will behave differently on the job. They will act entrepreneurially, even if they are working for somebody else, and that makes companies more creative and, I think, dramatically increases their prospects for success and growth."
Among the survey's findings are:
• At least 10 universities have entrepreneurial degree programs and several have added majors or minors within their colleges of business in recent years. Grand Valley State University is developing a new double major in business and entrepreneurship. Other universities have expanded their entrepreneurship course offerings for all students as well and all 15 offer non-degree programs.
• Twelve of the 15 universities have formal ties between their entrepreneurship programs and business incubators or accelerators and two more are in the works. In Grand Rapids, GVSU hosts business incubators at the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences and the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon. Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo houses the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center and Michigan State University operates the Biotechnology Institute in Holland.
• Ten universities have formal links with technology transfer programs.
• A growing number of students are launching business ventures with the aid and support of universities and local economic development agencies and more universities are hosting student business plan competitions. The 2012 competition sponsored by GVSU's Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation recently drew more than 50 applicants from student-run ventures.
• Fourteen universities support student clubs or extracurricular activities on entrepreneurism.
• Nine reward faculty for entrepreneurial success.
"It's pretty phenomenal how much has begun happening in a short period of time," said Rob Fowler, CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan and chairman of the Sense of Place Council's Entrepreneurship Committee.
At GVSU, President Tom Haas noted that an entrepreneurial spirit "is in our DNA." The very formation of the university 52 years ago stems from efforts in the business community to create a local college that could retain graduates in the region.
"It isn't new. What we're seeing is other people are catching up," Haas said. "We are an entrepreneurial university and it's something we will use to distinguish ourselves for attracting good students and attracting great faculty and staff."
Haas recalls a meeting five years ago when he chaired the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan and he and his counterparts discussed the need for universities to become better connected to their local business communities. The Sense of Place Council indicates they are following through on it by supporting entrepreneurial activities.
"Now we understand our roles and are exercising our responsibilities to our communities, and the business community in particular," Haas said. "It's the whole tapestry of the educational system that needs to support new ideas and that supports the talent and the new businesses."
The survey data provides the Sense of Place Council a feel for how far a broader cultural change that many in Michigan have long advocated has progressed. Creating an entrepreneurial climate is a critical aspect to creating vibrant communities, downtowns and neighborhoods that can draw talent, businesses and entrepreneurs, Padden said.
"Entrepreneurship is very much what place-making is all about. It isn't just a matter of having attractive buildings and parks and night life and all that stuff," he said. "It really is a matter of having economic activity at a level that's sufficient to employ all of those smart people who we are trying to attract. There's a very close linkage between supporting the development of great places and having enough entrepreneurial activity so that there's a great environment for people to start their own thing."