January 10, 2011

Carey School program trains entrepreneurs-to-be in region

INNoVATE program counts 25 students in inaugural class.

Quin Chen, a member of the first cohort of students in the Carey Business School’s INNoVATE program on the Montgomery County Campus, makes a presentation to other future entrepreneurs and faculty. Photo: David Chisham

When 25 budding entrepreneurs signed up last year to be part of the inaugural class of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School’s INNoVATE program at the university’s Montgomery County Campus, they all had big dreams but knew they needed some direction and education to reach their goals. The program, which is founded on the idea that participants will actually start their own companies working with either a technology they bring in themselves or one offered by local academic or government institutions, provided that direction.

And now, a year later, 22 have completed the program. And while many of the students have not yet finished the legwork necessary to start a business, six have launched new companies. Included in the list of graduates-turned-business-owners is Nexercise CEO Ben Young, who credits the INNoVATE program with helping him—and others—prepare for success.

“I’m fortunate to have been a part of the INNoVATE program. It forced me, as the head of Nexercise, to ask probing questions about our business and the direction in which we are headed,” said Young, whose company has created a smart phone app that rewards exercise with discounts on healthy items. “INNoVATE is creating a class of entrepreneurial leaders in this region that will help sustain industries that this region is known for, like technology. It’s needed,” he said.

Helping launch six new tech-based companies in one year is an impressive result for the program, which was established with a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation and is run in partnership with Rockville Economic Development, University of Maryland Baltimore County and the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.

The 12-month non-degree program is broken up into two 15-week sessions consisting of classes one night a week plus one Saturday a month and also includes a summer project. Instructors are largely serial entrepreneurs who instruct from personal experience. The first session focuses on project selection and feasibility studies, and the second on business plan development.

During the run of the program, students become educated on topics that include evaluating the commercial potential of technologies, incorporating a business in the state of Maryland, writing a business plan, establishing start-up operations, acquiring funding, patenting technologies and identifying potential commercial partners. Once students complete the program, they’re offered post-course activities that provide additional support on corporate formation, technology licensing, fundraising, networking and other topics integral to a start-up’s success.

“Starting a company in the high-tech arena is a very difficult thing to do, especially with other people’s technology,” said Lisa Beth Ferstenberg, an INNoVATE faculty member and serial entrepreneur. “Beyond the mechanics of registering the company—the easy part—you have to investigate the intellectual property and make sure it is worth devoting all of your energies to. This is not for the faint of heart.”

“There are more than 4,800 postdocs in the state of Maryland,” said Cherie Nichols, INNoVATE program manager. “This program gives those scientists and researchers the opportunity to develop the entrepreneurial skills needed to move innovations to the market. Moreover, the program will help us accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into commercial technologies.”

As recruitment of a new class of scientists and postdocs begins, Nichols points out that one strength of the program is its adaptability. As the first year came to a close, faculty and students discussed ways to improve the program, such as by adding a business “boot camp” to introduce scientists to the language and basics of business. The program also will strengthen its curriculum in certain areas that are specific to science and technology start-ups, such as FDA regulations and how to work with federal and university technology transfer offices. In addition, Nichols said, the program is looking into ways it can start a seed fund to incubate and grow the companies after the students graduate.

“In the end, the success of the program cannot be measured simply by how many companies get started,” Ferstenberg said. “INNoVATE is not a company-generating machine. It is an education in entrepreneurship. Whether those skills and insights are used to start a new company now or in the future, or to make a postdoc a far better employee for someone else’s start-up venture, the result is the same: Highly intelligent people who have been trained in our educational institutions have far more options for staying in Maryland and being valuable contributors to our economic power. The more skills and opportunities we give to our highly trained and educated people, the more options they will have right here.”

Nichols agrees, and stresses that the success is best measured by student input, which she says has been overwhelmingly positive. She even points out that one student, Keith Nalepka, CEO of BioLOGIS, went so far as to say the program had “saved my life.”

INNoVATE is currently recruiting for its next cohort. Classes are expected to begin in mid-February and run through December. For more information, e-mail innovate@jhu.edu.