This post originally appeared in the Birmingham Business Journal.
Starting a business while pursuing an academic degree is a daunting task but is becoming increasingly popular here at Auburn University. Students with the goal of meeting a marketplace need by developing an innovative product or service are increasingly choosing Auburn because of the entrepreneurship education and programming it provides.
It all starts with a sound educational foundation and an entrepreneurship minor offered by the Harbert College of Business, which is available to students from any of the colleges and schools across campus. Students explore the fundamental principles of starting a business and develop the critical thinking skills necessary for success. In addition to their teaching responsibilities, faculty members are engaged in entrepreneurial research that provides value to business practitioners and contributes to Auburn’s recognition as an R1 research institution.
A series of business idea competitions supported by skills development workshops, as well as one-on-one coaching and mentoring provides the “learn by doing” component of Auburn entrepreneurship programming. Students from colleges and schools across the campus participate in these experiential learning events and activities. In addition, the competitions provide access to the early-stage seed capital required to start a business.
Student entrepreneurs and faculty members who are engaged in research with the potential to be commercialized can qualify for office space in Auburn’s New Venture Accelerator, which is jointly managed by the Harbert College of Business and the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation. The New Venture Accelerator serves as the hub for entrepreneurial “learning by doing” activities. The accelerator staff includes entrepreneurs-in-residence and visiting executives who have successfully started, continue to operate, have sold, or taken their businesses public.
Both the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation and the New Venture Accelerator are focused on supporting student entrepreneurs and faculty research efforts that contribute to economic development and job creation here in Auburn, in the state of Alabama, across the United States and throughout the world.
No longer are startups the purview of Silicon Valley and the northeast. Startup and technology hubs are emerging and spreading across the country and the world.
Auburn entrepreneurs enjoyed an award-winning year in 2021. In addition to winning business idea competitions locally, Auburn University student and faculty teams are winning, and being recognized, at the Southeastern Conference level, the state of Alabama level, on Alabama-UpStarts TV, and in international competitions such as the $1 million-plus Rice University Business Plan Competition. In the Rice competition, Auburn students have gone up against universities such as Stanford and MIT and taken first prize.
Auburn student and faculty entrepreneurs have been responsible for creating over 350 jobs in Alabama and beyond, have raised over $60 million and have a combined market capitalization of over $130 million. Their businesses include a cryptocurrency exchange service in Africa, construction management software, tools for power company line crews, software tools and services for independent convenience store owners, tennis ball retrievers using artificial intelligence and 3D-printed, custom fitted protective gear for athletes.
Recently the Harbert College, in conjunction with the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, was awarded a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Agency to explore the feasibility of extending the support and services provided by the New Venture Accelerator to entrepreneurs and startups in the local community and the Lee County area.
Since most venture capital firms don’t get involved in seed round funding, the Harbert College and the Auburn Research and Technology teams are exploring alternatives and possible relationships to expand the local entrepreneurial ecosystem and provide additional seed round funding to support startups and the commercialization of faculty research.
Overall, we are proud of the progress we’ve made, and the support we have received over the past few years, but we have more work to do. We have a strategic plan. The task now is to execute on that plan. A top priority is to improve diversity and inclusion in the entrepreneurial community, and its funding sources. Another priority is to find new ways to support and nurture our student and faculty entrepreneurs for they are the practitioners, the innovators and the future leaders who will be making a difference and changing the world.