Sean Branagan is bullish on college startups. Not just the wunderkind, drop-out-of Harvard Microsofts and Facebooks; he believes that there are thousands of students across the country who can build and run sustainable businesses, all while staying in school.
“We want students to start businesses while they’re in school, a real business,” says Branagan, describing his day job as the Director of the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Syracuse University.
Like many in the entrepreneurial community, though, it’s not Branagan’s only responsibility. Four years ago, he founded Student Startup Madness, a national pitch competition modeled on the NCAA Basketball Tournament. There are regional contests and last year’s were at Bucknell, Georgia St., Michigan St., St. Louis, Syracuse, and UT-Austin. From there, teams advance to an “Entrepreneurial Eight,” which takes place in March at SXSW in Austin, TX, before a panel of entrepreneurs and investors. Applications for next year’s event went live on Thursday, with Branagan anticipating more than last year’s 150 entrants.
Ivy League schools see boost in computer science popularity
The upward trend in entrepreneurial activities has been particularly acute at elite colleges like Stanford, where computer science recently surpassed biology as the school’s most popular major. Harvard also has 700 students now enrol each semester in the school’s introductory computer science class. Overall, a growing interest in entrepreneurship, computer science, and other engineering disciplines is a nationwide phenomenon.
For example, traditional computer science powerhouses like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Illinois were represented in this year’s “Entrepreneurial Eight,” but it was a team from Seton Hall, New Jersey, a note-taking application company called Noteful.ly, that took home the top prize in 2014. The year before that, it was TempoRun LLC, a company from Michigan State University.
Another recent development in the college entrepreneurship landscape is the trend towards building mobile-first applications. Students are mobile natives, having in many cases gone through high school with smartphones. Whether it’s securing a car, paying the rent, or ordering pizza, college students have been conditioned to expect convenience through a mobile device, and if it isn’t available, they see a business opportunity. Developing and releasing a mobile app is relatively inexpensive, both financially and in terms of technological demands. At schools with robust computer science departments, well-endowed entrepreneurship programs, and innovation-minded students, the elements are in place to excel.
It’s not surprising then that there are companies run by college students applying inventive, mobile solutions to otherwise staid industries. One of these is Valet.io, a fundraising app that handles credit card processing, allows donations to be projected in real-time, and caters to non-profits. Founded by Columbia University student Ben Drucker, the business has expanded with help from friends of his at Harvard and Northwestern. “The market is pretty archaic these days,” explains Jordan Cohen, a Northwestern student, high school classmate of Drucker’s, and Valet.io’s Chicago-area Sales & Marketing Coordinator. “Our product is minimalist, lean, it’s fast. You just sign-up, throw in three fields of information, and you’re done.” After getting an early boost by current U.S. Senator Cory Booker [D-NJ], who used it to facilitate fundraising during his 2013 campaign, the service is in the process of scaling nationally.
School programs provide opportunities
Since 1990, the number of on-campus entrepreneurship programs across the country has grown from 180 to over 2,000, as colleges have responded to the interests and aspirations of their students. The interest in entrepreneurship has been reflected by a steady increase in the number of undergraduate students pursuing degrees in engineering. According to data released by the National Science Foundation in 2012, enrolment in engineering programs peaked in 2009 at 468,100 after flatlining through much of the 1990s.
Venrock’s New York City-based partner Nick Beim is excited by the ideas and talent that the New York college campuses are producing today, but believes that the number of engineering students needs to grow if it is to keep pace with demand for their services. In fact, Beim characterizes the shortage of engineers, “due in large parts to our education and immigration systems,” as a “national problem.” It’s not insurmountable, though, especially given the emphasis of college campuses on entrepreneurial and engineering education today. “It’s a very significant need but I think it will be filled,” he says.
Branagan, meanwhile, points to several reasons for the uptick in entrepreneurship among college students, ascribing weight to the obvious answers, like lower startup costs and more opportunities for funding, but also cultural phenomena like ABC’s Shark Tank and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. The ultimate reason, however, is actually nothing new. “The option of creating your own job,” explains Branagan, “is freedom, and people love it.” College students in particular.