Like many college students who watch television online, Tom Coburn, 22, never paid much attention to the pre-loaded advertisements that often come before shows.
“My first instinct was to open a new tab and check my e-mail,” he says. “Then I realized — that brand is spending its own money to reach someone like me, and I’m completely ignoring it.”
Originally a biology major, Coburn thought there was a way to revolutionize the online advertising industry and co-founded a start-up called Jebbit in October 2011 with fellow Boston College students Jeb Thomas and Chase McAleese.
After expanding the website in 2012, the founders decided last year to take the risk and leave school in order to dedicate their attention full time to Jebbit. But there might be a new option for students torn between building a business or getting a degree: entrepreneurship accelerators.
Entrepreneurship accelerators are essentially hubs on campuses that allow students to work on their venture projects using university resources to deal with the demands and warp-speed timing that have come to characterize the start-up industry. They often connect students with mentors and provide legal advice, funding and office space, according to one Silicon Valley Business Journal article.
“Any new business venture is all about timing,” says Ted Zoller, director of entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “Having grown up on the Web, many students today have the skills to put out a new product. With all the market pressures they face, they have to ask themselves: ‘Will this opportunity still be here if I wait?’”
In Jebbit’s case, the answer was no, Coburn said. The site gave companies a novel way to interact with college-age consumers, traditionally an ideal but tricky demographic to court, by offering students rewards and discounts for learning about their brands. Investors liked the idea, and after winning a handful of venture competitions and being named one of the top 25 start-ups in the world by CNBC in May, the time was right to leave.
“Boston College was very supportive and said it would hold our spots for us if and when we decided to come back,” Coburn says. “We love what we do every day. We had initial traction, clients and users, and we wanted to make the most of that opportunity.”
Figures indicate the start-up phenomenon is luring college students: 54% of the nation’s Millennials either want to start a business or have already started one, according to 2011 survey from the Young Invincibles foundation. But with the rising cost of higher education, 33% of respondents admitted that one of the biggest barriers to starting a business was student loan debt, which is only expected to rise over the next decade.
In effect, today’s Millennials may believe there’s a choice to be made between finishing out school and entering the professional world of entrepreneurship, and the high cost of a degree — in 2011, the average student with loans graduated more than $26,600 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt — isn’t helping. But Zoller, who helped found the start-up accelerator Launch Chapel Hill this past May, says this is exactly why these programs are helpful.
“It’s a critical transformation from school to the real world, and we help provide a soft landing for that,” he says. “It is supported by UNC, but it’s not on campus and doesn’t compete with the academic infrastructure. Participants have complete freedom to operate.”
Plenty of schools have business programs and venture competitions that encourage student entrepreneurship, Zoller said. But so far, it’s relatively uncommon for schools to house independently run incubator programs that provide both support and total separation, two ideas that may seem at odds with each other.
But it does present a new alternative for students who may find themselves in over their heads with the demands of a new venture, a concept Zoller describes as the “Zuck distortion,” in reference to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who created a billion-dollar business plan as an undergraduate student.
“With an accelerator, students don’t have to make a tough choice. Some students may not be getting what they need out of a four-year degree, but typically, if students leave school, they will come back eventually,” Zoller says.
To date, there are more than 220 schools with a major in entrepreneurship. But Zoller says that to his knowledge, Launch Chapel Hill and Stanford University’s StartX accelerator are the only programs of their kind.
The StartX start-up accelerator began in 2010 by Stanford students to give students an experiential education that could prepare them for the start-up world. Organized and run entirely by students, StartX has launched more than 135 companies and raised more than $170 million since its inception.
Divya Nag, 21, currently heads StartX Med and founded her own biotech start-up, Stem Cell Theranostics, during her sophomore year at Stanford. She says StartX gave her and other high-potential entrepreneurs a forum to share their ideas and gain the business smarts to get their ventures off the ground.
Using the science she learned at Stanford’s school of medicine, Nag credits the accelerator program with challenging her to turn it into a business model.
“The founding team is all scientists with no business experience, so StartX was crucial in our ability to become a real company and give us the confidence we needed to become medical entrepreneurs,” Nag says.
With the support of the university behind it, Nag says she thinks it’s likely StartX’s model could be the future of entrepreneurship at the college level.
“The biggest learning we see from this is the value in having these different disciplines not be siloed in the university,” she says. “We’re seeing amazing technologies popping up at the intersection of these various industries, and we think higher education will institutionally cater to more as time goes on.”