By Holly Hammersmith | Photo by Doug Khrenovsky
Enter NEOLaunchNET, a program that provides mentoring and resources to student entrepreneurs and serves as an aid in putting their ideas into action.
With the assistance of the program, students have created smart phone apps, a device that helps charge cell phones without using electricity, a device that can test for certain medical diseases, a “master key” for mobile devices and web-based accounts, and a group conversation platform. “It’s a wide range of ideas and products,” Deborah Hoover, president and CEO of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, based in Hudson, says.
The initiative has been around locally since 2012, previously as Blackstone LaunchPad but recently rebranded under the NEOLaunchNET name, and is funded, in part, by the foundation.
Participating schools are: Kent State University, Baldwin Wallace University, Case Western Reserve University, and Lorain County Community College.
The partnership between Blackstone and the Northeast Ohio program ended in 2015, and Blackstone has now moved on to fund and develop other initiatives that support entrepreneurs. The foundation’s mission is “to champion the entrepreneurial spirit,” Hoover says. Because of this, the foundation is a natural fit to continue to provide funding support for the program, she adds.
“We decided that we would rename the program here in Northeast Ohio to become its own network,” Hoover says.
The concept for NEOLaunchNET was originally developed in Florida, she says.
“The University of Miami program is based on the philosophy that we are introducing students in college to entrepreneurship on a university campus,” she says. “The main purpose of that is focused on the educational experience for the student, and while many students do start ventures and many of them go on after graduation to operate those ventures, make those ventures grow and be successful, the main purpose is really to enhance the student’s education. That is what we believe and why we support collegiate entrepreneurship and this program in particular.”
Recreating the program in Northeast Ohio was logical, Hoover says. “We already had a pretty robust collegiate entrepreneur ecosystem,” she says. “There is also a national network of schools in other states as well. Blackstone continues to grow and support the program.”
In addition to the support from the foundation, the program also receives assistance from the four participating schools, including in the form of staffing and technology, Hoover says. “Offices are on the campuses, very centrally, very visible in a place where students are passing by each and every day and can just drop in and have a chat,” she says. “In the office (at each school) there are people who are able to provide initial counseling.”
There is also a web-based platform that helps to track student ideas and development, Hoover adds.
An in-office counselor will help determine if or when students are ready to take the next step in developing their business ideas. Under the coach’s guidance the students will then present their ideas to a team of 20 Northeast Ohio “venture coaches.” After presenting their pitches, each student is paired with a volunteer coach, Hoover says.
“Like Shark Tank, it’s about the adventure,” she says. “But here all the venture coaches are selected because they have a mindset that they value the educational side of this. They are approaching it where they provide the student with the next level of learning to build their skills, their confidence and their judgment.”
Coaches advise students on business matters such as marketing a product, how to obtain a patent, and how to set up an operating agreement, she says.
Coaches represent all industries, including retail, software, law, investment services, technology, the medical field, and the manufacturing industry. They bring their own business acumen to the table. There are also some female coaches, Hoover says.
“We are able to often pair those female students with the female entrepreneurs,” she says. “They just help women to feel more comfortable in this space. In the startup world there are more male entrepreneurs than there are female. On our campuses they are beginning to close the gap on that so we try to do a lot of things to encourage the female entrepreneurs.”
Traditional and nontraditional students take advantage of the program. Students also do not have to be studying business and can come from any discipline within the school, Hoover says.
“That’s one of the main points of this program — students from whatever discipline, whether they are studying music or French or the arts, all of those students have ideas,” she says.
To date the foundation has contributed just over $2.7 million to NEOLaunchNET and the program in its previous form. Forty students or student teams have presented ideas to venture coaches.
For more information: bdmorganfdn.org/launchnet
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