Monday, January 22, 2018

Can Sac State become a startup university?

Stanford reports spinning off 6000 companies. Forbes lists 50 most productive startup universities, and if the top of the list is not at all surprising, the lower half is worth examining. For example, our sister campus in San Diego is there. Well, she may be a wealthier, more popular, and better looking sister, but a sibling nevertheless. The list is not as exclusive and elitist as one may expect.

The big question is whether such schools as our, with a different mission and more limited resources can enter the race, and if yes, to what degree. Well, Dale and Katy Carlsen apparently believe so, hence the major gift they provided to boost innovation and entrepreneurship here. The question is - do we on campus believe it is possible?

Here is a short case why we cannot: We do not do as much sponsored research, and just do not invent many technologies worth commercializing. Our faculty teach too much to have any time for anything else, let alone working on startups. Moreover, most of them really like teaching, and embrace our mission, and may not be willing to spend time on anything else. Pending the entrepreneurship center, we do not yet have much in a way of supporting spin-off companies. There is little culture of entrepreneurship on campus.

However, last Fall we had this informal group called Bigger Ideas in Education. Among other things, the group has casually generated a dozen startup ideas, about half of which I believe are viable. For disclosure, I have seen hundreds of pitches for educational startups, and generally follow the field. You can trust my assessment somewhat. It was easy to do, actually, and I am sure our faculty and students can generate dozens more.

While we do not invent many technologies, we collectively possess a ton of in-depth knowledge of our fields, which is a prerequisite for generating valuable solutions. I would not underestimate the value of the rich contextual knowledge. Startups often rely on technologies in search of applications, but we can offer applications in search of technologies. In education, specifically I find most of solutions offered to educators were never asked for. Innovators imagine that a teacher might like something, but they really do not know much about teaching. We do.

As for the second half of the doubts, here is an interesting thing. Right now, there is a huge interest to educational innovations among investors. In 2011, the US private VC investment in educational innovations was $224 million. In 2017, it reached $1.4 billion. Because of the influx of venture capital, it is just possible to bypass the stage of inventing a new technology, and go straight to products. There are not that many break-through technologies and investors are looking broader. For example, some of the best-known startups spun off by Stanford and MIT do not have any new technologies: EdX, Udacity, Coursera. Our lack of time and support are obstacles, but money can buy all of that if we can access it at earlier stages of startup development.

Just and FYU, typical entrepreneur is a married 40-year old with children, and with significant work experience.

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