At College Park, an all-encompassing focus on entrepreneurship
By By Carrie Wells and The Baltimore Sun
May 06, 2014 | 6:00 AM
Foluke Tuakli hopped on a bicycle and weaved around her classroom at the University of Maryland, College Park, acting out the problems that cyclists encounter on the road. "I'm turning, I'm turning," she shrieked as the bike wobbled.
The demonstration was part of a student pitch for a bicycle GPS app in a freshman entrepreneurship class in the honors college. Other student groups had their own pitches:a new type of sustainable drinking fountain where water is squirted directly into the mouth, a Third World slum development project, and a day care center that emphasizes healthful eating habits.
The class is part of the vision of University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh, who has made it his priority to establish the university as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship — not just in the business school but in almost every discipline.
More than 4,000 undergraduates are now taking elective innovation and entrepreneurship classes that span a variety of fields. The university is in the midst of launching a flurry of new, entrepreneurship-oriented academic programs, additional "living and learning" programs where students live among classmates in their field of study, and fellowships.
"The odds are in your favor that if you educate students in entrepreneurship, they can have a big impact on the state's economy, create the next Under Armour," said Loh, referring to the global athletic apparel company started by alumnus Kevin Plank.
Loh, now approaching four years on the job, says the still-sluggish economy means all students should have the skills to create their own livelihoods. And he believes that all students, whether in business, engineering, arts or science fields, should learn how to be entrepreneurs.
Students and faculty members alike are being encouraged to develop business proposals, seek patents for their research and think beyond the traditional post-college job. The university also is launching new classes that emphasize practical experience over theoretical learning. In one such course to be offered in the fall, students camp outside and develop outdoor-related products.
As part of the entrepreneurship program in the honors college last month, professor Jay Smith offered critiques to the students recently making their pitches. "How are you going to get that message out?" he asked. With another group, he pointed out that customers "don't buy retail like that."
University officials, including Dean Chang, head of the university's new Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, stress that being entrepreneurial is more about "a mind-set" than expecting every student to become a business person.
Loh called the model of a research university that doesn't create anything practical a "20th-century construct."
"It's very different today," Loh said of the changes to the U.S. and global economy. Students are "very concerned about making a living, and they're competing on a worldwide basis for jobs."
Anirban Basu, head of Sage Policy Group Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, said universities are turning to entrepreneurship to boost their income. Licensing university-owned intellectual property can be lucrative, he said, and successful alumni might choose to donate to the place they feel contributed to their entrepreneurial knowledge.
"As the state's flagship university, at least arguably it has a professional responsibility to the people of Maryland to create economic opportunities and to support innovation," said Basu, who added that the university is a client of his firm. "Like many universities, the University of Maryland, College Park can't rely on state support to the extent that it has in the past. It needs new sources of revenue."
Students say they see a practical business focus across a range of fields. Samantha Zwerling, president of the university's Student Government Association, said that in a required professional writing seminar she was asked to write a grant proposal, choosing to pitch a potential national conference that an environmental organization could host.
The university is "making sure Maryland students are not only able to get jobs but create them," she said. "Everyone expects that they'll need to change and adapt, but I think our generation is really good with that. ... This is where we see the country moving ... and this is where jobs are."
A report by the U.S. Department of Commerce in October found that at least 450 colleges and universities nationwide had some kind of entrepreneurship program, including a patent-drafting clinic at the University of Illinois and a bachelor's degree program in innovation at the University of Colorado.
Other universities in Maryland, including Towson University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Morgan State University, also have entrepreneurship centers, though none has reshaped their mission around entrepreneurship to the degree that University of Maryland has.
"The focus on innovation is becoming a dominant theme in higher education," said University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "We are coming to understand as a country that our niche, our contribution to the global economy is in the general area of innovation and entrepreneurship, and that doesn't mean just in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines."
The Maryland General Assembly recently approved legislation to establish areas around universities where businesses and nonprofits can be eligible for tax breaks, called the Regional Institution Strategic Enterprise Zone Program. The idea is to help the universities lure startup firms near their campuses.
A two-year-old agreement between the University of Maryland's College Park and Baltimore campuses called MPower Maryland also has brought a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.
Before the agreement, only one professor had a joint appointment at the two institutions, according to Loh. Now they have launched a joint school of public health, a center to bring together College Park engineers and Baltimore health scientists, and an office to guide professors through the patent and licensing process.
A year into the MPower agreement, a UMB neurosurgeon and a College Park engineer developed a prototype of a minuscule robot that can crawl into a tricky part of the human brain and remove tumors. Given the success of the collaboration, Loh said, it was "unimaginable" that College Park and Baltimore campus researchers rarely did so in the past.
The two campuses also recently began a program to invest up to $500,000 through next year in startup companies that license university patents or other intellectual property.
In addition, Loh is pushing for more "living and learning" programs that are partially sponsored by outside firms or that work in tandem with government agencies. For example, Northrop Grumman Corp. gave $1.1 million to the university last fall to help launch a cybersecurity program for undergraduates, with the defense firm promising to work closely with the students.
"I know Northrop Grumman is just salivating to hire them," Loh said.
For entrepreneurship success stories, Loh points not only to Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, but to people like Ben Simon. As a student in 2011, Simon founded a nonprofit to collect uneaten food in dining halls to distribute at homeless shelters. The Food Recovery Network is now in 53 colleges in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and the organization now headed by Simon says its chapters have recovered more than 250,000 pounds of food to distribute to the needy.
The university hosts more than a dozen competitions and events annually to encourage students and faculty to develop new businesses or inventions in areas like clean energy, health care and social welfare.
Loh has even dropped the university's 2009 slogan, "Unstoppable Starts Here." Instead, the university is now a place for "Fearless Ideas," a play on the popular "Fear the Turtle" slogan that captured the university's athletics prowess in the early 2000s.
Partnerships, with other institutions, including the Universities at Shady Grove in Montgomery County, private business, the military and federal agencies, are also part of Loh's innovation and entrepreneurship agenda. The proximity to Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground and federal agencies in the Washington area provides a unique opportunity, he said.
"The University of Maryland would not be what it is if not for its location," Loh said.