Entrepreneurs in Residence: Molding a new type of university innovator

Any alumnus of Iowa State University is familiar with the work of Christian Petersen, even though it’s been more than 50 years since he set foot on campus in Ames. Petersen was artist in residence from 1933 to 1955 and left his mark by crafting 12 major sculptures for ISU while teaching and mentoring students.

The Fountain of the Four Seasons stands as a reminder of an artist in residence at Iowa State. Now, ISU hopes its entrepreneur in residence program will produce notable works of a different sort.

Any alumnus of Iowa State University is familiar with the work of Christian Petersen, even though it’s been more than 50 years since he set foot on campus in Ames. Petersen was artist in residence from 1933 to 1955 and left his mark by crafting 12 major sculptures for ISU while teaching and mentoring students.

Artists, musicians and writers — and the institutions where they study — have long benefited from the mentorship of artists in residence. Now, universities throughout the Midwest are applying the same formula to entrepreneurship.

Iowa State University is in the process of hiring an Entrepreneur in Residence. NUtech Ventures at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln brought an EiR and fellow on staff earlier this month. The University of Missouri-Kansas City invited three executives to volunteer EiR positions within the past year.

Although similar programs exist at other universities, including Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania, each program being created in the Midwest is developing its own flavor.

“It seemed that everybody’s program was tailored to their specific needs, and their environment, so it became pretty apparent that’s what we needed to do,” said Marvin Jaques, senior technology agent at NUtech Ventures.

Bringing “that entrepreneurial mindset” to faculty

NUtech Ventures hosted an entrepreneurship bootcamp in May (above), and earlier this month the organization brought aboard an entrepreneur in residence to help aspiring entrepreneurs.

At Iowa State, the EiR will work in the department of tech transfers, which brings university research done by professors and graduate students into the marketplace. The university is looking to hire a full-time position for a one-year term. 

Although ISU has a legacy of research in specialized fields of science and technology (past products to come out of the tech transfer department include lead-free solder and new varieties of seedless watermelon), executive director Lisa Lorenzen said the EiR would not necessarily have to be from one of those fields. More important, she said, would be experience starting multiple companies, raising funds and commercializing products.

“We do a pretty good job at Iowa State of developing the technology,” Lorenzen said. “It’s very important for faculty to understand entrepreneurship and have that entrepreneurial mindset”

Lorenzen said they had 10 impressive applicants for the position, and they hope to have the person in place by Sept. 1.

Likewise, at UNL, the two new positions will work with faculty through NUtech Ventures, the department that patents and commercializes university research. 

“Faculty talked to us about an interest in starting companies,” Jaques said. “Even though they are brilliant in their field, they felt ill-equipped to start a business.”

NUtech executives said they got such a wealth of qualified applicants for the EiR position that they created the second position, the NUtech fellow, to volunteer from afar. 

Brian Ardinger (left), a co-founder of The Big Plate and the former chief marketing officer at Nanonation, started working as EiR at NUtech Venture on Aug. 1. Luke Smith, a serial entrepreneur based in Arizona, will also regularly mentor over the phone and in person.

The goal is that by the time a company is done at NUtech Ventures, it will be ready to go out into the marketplace and pitch to customers and potential investors. 

Executives at NUtech said Ardinger was an attractive candidate because of his previous involvement in the Lincoln entrepreneurial community, including his work creating The Big Plate

“I’m very challenged by the opportunities here to be immersed in new ideas,” Ardinger said. 

Fostering student entrepreneurship

UMKC has taken a different approach: Its three EiRs are volunteers and work primarily with undergraduate students. 

“It’s a matter not of whether to spend money, it’s a matter of where you put it,” said John Norton, associate director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UMKC, noting that UMKC has chosen to invest in the university’s 3-year-old Entrepreneurship Scholars program. 

Norton (left) said UMKC’s EiRs, who come from backgrounds in technology, finance and law, will have a one-year term, during which they’ll typically be on campus one day per month. When they’re in the office, students and community members can make an appointment or drop in to seek their mentorship. 

Over the next year, the e-scholars will launch up to 40 new businesses, Norton said, that can benefit from the wisdom of the EiRs. 

UMKC already had a mentorship program, but Norton said the EiRs were recruited because they were senior-level executives, had a wide range of experience and were dedicated to the program and Kansas City as a whole. 

“I think the reason they were initially appointed was they were just very committed to the program and very committed to the students,” Norton said. 

He said UMKC was pleased with the results and is about to invite two more entrepreneurs to the program. 

Mutually beneficial

While the EiRs are bringing their years of experience and connections to the universities, the institutions hope the relationship will be mutually beneficial. 

Lorenzen said that the future EiR could potentially exit to work with one of the companies he or she mentors. 

Smith said he’s excited to see the process of entrepreneurship in action, and potentially write some articles about best practices for incubating entrepreneurship. 

In many cases, the reward is simply the satisfaction of giving back. “They appreciate the fact that somebody helped them at some point in their life,” Norton said, “and they want to help somebody else.”

Though they won’t likely make any iconic artistic contributions to their campuses, these EiRs hope to leave their mark on the economies of the Silicon Prairie. 

“No one person can create an ecosystem by themself,” Ardinger said. “We’re looking to be very much a part of the overall entrepreneurial ecosystem, not just within the confines of the university.”


Credits: Fountain photo from ISU Photostream, NUtech Ventures photo from facebook.com. Photos of Ardinger and Smith from nutechventures.org.


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