Entrepreneurial center marks 15 years of success

By Gigi Wood

An online degree and a program designed to keep top students in Iowa after they graduate are two new initiatives at the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC).

A novel concept when introduced on campus 15 years ago, JPEC continues to develop new programs to address commercialization and the changing business world.

“Interest is at an all-time high; it’s really an exciting time to be here,” said David Hensley, JPEC’s executive director. “What separates us from most entrepreneurial learning centers across the country is we just keep doing. We keep innovating.”

The center is one of five was created through a multi-million-dollar donation from John Pappajohn, a prominent entrepreneur from Mason City, and his wife, Mary Pappajohn. They live in Des Moines. Others are housed at Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, North Iowa Area Community College and Drake University.

The UI JPEC is noted for its entrepreneur training, as well as its Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory, a repurposed fraternity house across the street from the college that serves as a student business incubator, and the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute, a summer program in northwest Iowa for top students at select Iowa colleges.

There are many other new JPEC initiatives. For example, the Iowa Medical Innovation Group was started in 2009 by UI students who were developing a business plan for a medical device. They created a collaboration among engineering, medical, law and business students to test the device and make improvements.

“You’ll have the engineering students leading the design-work effort, law students looking at intellectual property issues, you’ll have the medical students being the consultant on what’s appropriate in a medical setting and then you have business students working on commercialization,” Mr. Hensley said. “We’re finishing up our first two projects; next year we’ll be working on four projects.”

Venture capitalists and industry experts will get involved next year.

“The hope is, this time next year, we’ll have four medical devices ready to be licensed or sold to an existing company or creating a new startup company,” he said.

JPEC, through a partnership with the UI management and organizations department, is also launching an online bachelor’s degree in management with an entrepreneurial management track. The online degree program will allow place-bound students, those living say, in northwest Iowa who cannot attend the UI, to study business using UI resources.

“We are proud to offer a successful nationally acclaimed degree currently offered on our UI campus to those across the state who may not be able relocate to Iowa City for a variety of reasons,” Curt Hunter, dean of the UI business school, stated in a press release. “This is a great example of outreach to parts of the state where we continue to look for ways to provide entrepreneurial and enrichment opportunities to the workforce.”

The online degree includes a curriculum taught by faculty that have designed courses to meet the needs of traditional students and working professionals. Students will learn from UI professors who incorporate streaming video lectures with interactive and real-time class meetings.

“It is the same rigor, the same assignments, the same expectations and we have required online meetings,” Mr. Hensley said. “I certainly wouldn’t refer to it as ‘business school light.’ It takes a different type of person with a certain level of maturity to work in that environment.”

Online students have expressed a desire to learn quickly, so they can immediately apply their lessons to their personal lives and businesses, he said.

The new programs are part of an increasing trend toward offering more resources to budding entrepreneurs for starting businesses.

“There’s certainly been more of an emphasis over the last five to seven years on this campus about economic development and technology commercialization. Not to say it wasn’t there, but I think there’s been a more coordinated effort, and we’re working more effectively as various units within the university infrastructure,” said Mr. Hensley. “I think we can capitalize on those things and see many more tech-based companies being started here.”

The development of those businesses could attract more talent to the area and create more public-private partnerships between the UI and businesses, he said.

Training for entrepreneurs

JPEC is one of the few UI programs that has a direct affect on the community by educating and training entrepreneurs who go on to start businesses in Eastern Iowa and beyond. Its seven-session FastTrac program, open to anyone in the community, provides training on business planning, financial forecasting and market research, and connects potential entrepreneurs with bankers, accountants and others who can help a company launch.

“It forces aspiring entrepreneurs to take the time to really, properly assess their business idea,” Mr. Hensley said. “As part of that, they will work on, in essence, a business plan that should be ready to go to the bank or the funding sources at the end of that course.”

A major component of the FastTrac program is the ability to network and connect with other business professionals.

“(We also) get them to interact with successful entrepreneurs so they can get a sense of what it’s like to do business in the Corridor, what are some of the challenges, how they got past some of the early-stage challenges they faced and really give them a great sense of what it’s like to start a company,” he said.

Not every FastTrac participant starts a new company.

“I think that’s a success from the standpoint that they have learned to evaluate an opportunity and they presumably stopped themselves from making a mistake,” he said. “Or it’s not going to be successful or the expected outcomes don’t match up with their needs, whether it’s financial or lifestyle needs or whatever.”

Two prime reasons for business failure are lack of proper planning and lack of adequate capital at the start, Mr. Hensley said.

“Those are two things in FastTrac that we really focus on, making sure they have the proper assessment and planning and they really understand the kind of financial resources it’s going to take,” he said.

The amount of effort required to run a business is echoed throughout the program by professors, guest speakers and others.

“The majority of businesses we’ve had are meat-and-potato businesses that require an incredible amount of effort and work,” he said. “The first two years can be incredibly difficult and then you throw in what’s happened in the last two years; if you’re in the consumer business, you’ve struggled because consumption is on the decline, people are saving more, they’re being more cautious with their purchases, they’re looking for deals, and sometimes as a small business it’s difficult to compete with big box (stores). So we really try to cover a lot of situations so they understand what they’re facing, but at the same time help them develop strategies so they can combat those situations.”

JPEC also offers many seminars on topics ranging from QuickBooks to social networking to assist entrepreneurs. Consulting is another service provided by the center.

Small companies can request a student consulting team from JPEC to complete market assessment, financial forecasting and other services. The service is free to businesses and gives students valuable insight into how companies operate.

“It provides them with some quality data collection and analysis to help them presumably grow their business and at the same time its an outstanding learning opportunity for our students,” Mr. Hensley said. “And these are boots-on-the-ground things, doing the nuts-and-bolts primary market research, really taking a look at their financials and helping them put together a financial plan and go forward.”

The consultant teams work with about 65 companies a year, providing roughly 150-200 hours of consulting work to each business.

“It’s not just a learning exercise, the (students) give implementation recommendations to the companies so they can go out and use this information to go out and grow their business,” he said.

JPEC also provides direct, one-on-one mentoring for businesses in collaboration with the in-house Small Business Development Center. Mr. Hensley said there has been increased demand on campus in recent years for that mentoring, finding financial support and the FastTrac program. An increasing number of UI researchers have taken the initial steps to commercialize their ideas into marketable products, especially since funds such as the state’s Demonstration Fund emerged, making startup capital available to entrepreneurs.

“I work with brilliant people on this campus who are tremendous scientists; they don’t have much business experience,” he said. “They need the same education and support that someone who wants to start a retail coffeehouse needs.”

JPEC also provides teachers with entrepreneurial curriculum training to teach business development classes in K-12 schools.

Management institute

Last year, the JPEC began its Entrepreneurial Management Institute, which takes top business undergraduate students and prepares them for a future career in entrepreneurship.

“While most of my students want to start a business someday, they’re not going to start one when they’re 22; they don’t have the resources, they’re not mature, they’re not ready, they haven’t found that opportunity, whatever the reason, but they’re very interested in it,” he said.

The institute prepares eventual entrepreneurs with more immediate workplace opportunities. The institute offers seminars, workshops and other programs to provide soft skills, career training and planning. Students will also be introduced to job opportunities throughout the state, with the hope that some will stay in Iowa after they graduate.

“We realized we need to help those top students get their career going,” Mr. Hensley said. “As a part of that, to help them connected to the internships and job opportunities with an emphasis on the state of Iowa and connect them to various opportunities throughout the state, whether that’s in Okoboji or that’s in Sioux City or Atlantic or wherever, to help facilitate those connections to happen now.”

This story originally appeared in the May 16-22, 2011 Corridor Business Journal.