The Care and Feeding of Student Startups
Philanthropy key to nurturing entrepreneurial mindset at Tech
When a budding entrepreneur demonstrates “proof of concept” for a product or service, what happens? More investors jump in.
A similar cause and effect seems to be playing out with Georgia Tech’s Initiative to Enhance Entrepreneurial Confidence, started back in 2015.
Leveraging years of entrepreneurial expertise at Georgia Tech and branded CREATE-X, this initiative was developed to bring even more students into the culture, with structured classes and support for the three basic elements of the startup process: Learn- Make- Launch. Now these efforts, enhanced through the gifts of earlier donors and starting to yield success, have attracted another generous philanthropist to the cause.
This past spring, an anonymous donor pledged a $30 million gift designated for student entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech. The endowment comes with but one stipulation — that it be used for “programs, activities, and initiatives designed to advance entrepreneurship in the student body at the Georgia Institute of Technology.” Distributions from the fund will be expended in perpetuity at the direction of the provost or his or her designee.
Not much can be revealed about the donor, except that he is from Asia and is himself an entrepreneur.
His own experience as an entrepreneur drew his attention to Georgia Tech’s e orts to support student startups, but his gift was not made lightly," says Marta Garcia, associate vice president for international development.
“He did a lot of research on our programs like InVenture Prize, TI:GER, and CREATE-X — where technology developed in the lab and classroom is being advanced toward commercialization — and that convinced him Tech was being led strategically and with great forethought in this arena,” she says. “He could see his gift would be game-changing and well stewarded long-term.”
Tremendous Leap Forward
The program that piqued this donor’s interest the most, Garcia says, is CREATE-X — flourishing in no small part thanks to its first philanthropic fan, Chris Klaus, former Georgia Tech student; founder of one of the first internet security companies, ISS, and social gaming company Kaneva; and namesake of Tech's Klaus Advanced Computing Building.
Impressed by the trial run in 2015 — a pilot called “Startup Summer” — Klaus stepped up with an expendable $2 million gift to go toward operations as the program became established. He also set up a separate seed fund that makes a $20,000 investment available to any team accepted into the Launch component of the program. “I’m thrilled to help the Institute’s efforts in getting students excited about innovation and entrepre- neurship,” he said at the time.
“We are very grateful to the donor for this incredibly generous commitment. The funds generated from this endowment are going to allow us to greatly expand pieces of CREATE-X, along with other entrepreneurial competitions and programs going on at Tech.”
— Steven W. McLaughlin, Dean of the College of Engineering, Southern Company Chair, and CREATE-X Co-Founder
Klaus’ gift was estimated to provide three to four years of funding for CREATE-X. As the program started scaling up — going from eight teams in 2015 to 30 teams in 2017 — and it became clear more operating funds would be needed to sustain and grow student participation, the Marcus Foundation pitched in with $400,000 grants in 2016 and 2017.
This new $30 million commitment is a “tremendous leap forward to help the Institute achieve its ultimate vision,” says Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president of Academic Affairs and K. Harrison Brown Family Chair. “We are very excited about the opportunities that the funds from this endowment will open up, both near- and long-term — they will bridge much of the gap between where we are and where we hope to go in building entrepreneurial confidence at Georgia Tech.”
Tapping Into A Culture
The 10-year vision for CREATE-X is to engage 100 percent of each class in one of their many programs so that every Tech student will get a taste of entrepreneurship before graduating.
“We’re hoping that all students will at least take the first course, the Learn course, Startup Lab,” says Steven W. McLaughlin, newly named dean of the College of Engineering and Southern Company Chair, and co-founder of CREATE-X with Raghupathy “Siva” Sivakumar, Wayne J. Holman Chair and professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and CREATE-X director, and Ravi Bellamkonda, a former Georgia Tech professor, now dean of engineering at Duke University.
McLaughlin compares this introductory class to the drown-proofing course Georgia Tech required back in the day. “It was a life skill the Institute thought every student should have,” he says. “We talk about Startup Lab as drown-proofing 2.0 — every student needs to know how to create their own job, and if they take Startup Lab, they will know what it takes to do that.”
From each class of approximately 3,000 students, it’s assumed that fewer will continue on to the Make component — Idea to Prototype — and fewer still to the final component, Startup Launch. Still, based on previous performance, this sequence could yield about 300 startup teams per year, which would engage around 1,200 student entrepreneurs.
“CREATE-X has tapped into a culture where we thought we were pretty good, and we were, but we’re going to be that much better at it — I think it’s going to be defining for generations of students who come to Tech,” McLaughlin says.
“Having 300 student-led startups per year would position Georgia Tech as the No. 1 startup campus in America — no contest,” he adds. “That’s a lot of entrepreneurial confidence for our students.”
Touching Lives and Fortunes
The resources it will take to own this “signature space,” McLaughlin says, are significant, but not beyond reach — especially now. “We are very grateful to the donor for this incredibly generous commitment. The funds generated from this endowment are going to allow us to greatly expand pieces of CREATE-X, along with other entrepreneurial competitions and programs going on at Tech.”
McLaughlin recalls when the seed for CREATE-X was planted. “A student came to see me from the InVenture Prize and said, what do I do next? I thought, you’re kidding, you don’t know what to do next? How could that be?”
And how many other students were stuck in first gear with innovative ideas and no clue where to go with them?
When McLaughlin, Sivakumar, and Bellamkonda teamed up to think about the best way to fill this educational void, they realized that if the initiative worked as planned and scaled up as hoped, it would touch the lives and fortunes of every student at Georgia Tech and also go a long way toward helping Atlanta become the top-tier, high-tech hub it aspires to be.
So far, so good. Even students whose startups faded or flopped — as most do — have come back to campus with stories of a job snagged or a more successful venture launched because of the experience they had and the lessons they took from it.
Atlanta’s high-tech sector is also taking notice of Tech’s stepped up commitment to instilling entrepreneurial confidence, McLaughlin says. “We’re talking to the Georgia Research Alliance, the Metro Chamber, TAG (Technology Association of Georgia), all of the other incubators in town — everybody sees CREATE-X students and their startups as a very promising source of talent.”
As for Donor X, Garcia says, he sees this interplay between student entrepreneurs and the larger community as one of the most exciting prospects from his gift. “He has seen how entrepreneurship can generate wealth and prosperity, for not just inven- tors and owners, but for a whole segment
of society.” •
This story was originally published in the Philanthropy Quarterly magazine.