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An Innovation Environment

"RIT is uniquely situated to provide strong programming in innovation and entrepreneurship because of our traditional strength in experiential learning and the diversity of our programs in technology, design, art, and business," notes Richard DeMartino, the Albert J. Simone Chair and director of the Simone Center for Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship. "Our degree programs, course work, research efforts, and multidisciplinary projects focus on engaging students in the learning and discovery process with a real- world, entrepreneurial bent."

The overall goal is to imbue entrepreneurship and innovation training into multiple aspects of the student experience and offer numerous outlets for student creativity.

"We seek to build entrepreneurs from the 'ground up' using our students' innate curiosity and ingenuity to assist them in becoming society's next innovators," says DeMartino.

Putting the Left and Right Brain to Work

Experts note that the central problem in entrepreneurship revolves around the need to take good problem-solving ideas and turn them into workable solutions, prototypes, and products and then create a business that can successfully market and sell these innovations. RIT's academic programs in entrepreneurship and innovation attempt to meld "left brain" analysis with "right brain" creativity to provide students with the balanced skills they will need to be successful in all aspects of entrepreneurship.

"Entrepreneurs need to be dreamers and managers, artists and engineers, designers and product developers—all at the same time," says dt ogilvie, dean of RIT's E. Philip Saunders College of Business. "So our academic efforts in this area need to focus not just on business or management but on the technical skills, design skills, artistry, and imagination that are essential to creating true innovation. What we at Saunders teach our students is not only idea generation, but the science of entrepreneurship so that they can take these creative ideas and turn them into viable businesses."

The Saunders College offers a number of entrepreneurship-focused academic initiatives such as an experientially based entrepreneurship minor, a master's degree in innovation management, and MBA concentrations in product commercialization and technology management. These programs are unique, ogilvie says, because of the experiential, coach-enabled, and multidisciplinary nature of the learning process.

The curricula are offered to all RIT students and feature multidisciplinary course work in management, design, and technology as well as group development projects consisting of students from different backgrounds and expertise areas.

An example of the college's real-world, multidisciplinary focus is its Field Experience in Business Consulting course, which is open to undergraduate and MBA students and is part of the entrepre- neurship minor. It pairs multidisciplinary student teams with startup firms to develop business plans or market analyses for potential products. The class provides real-world experience for students, while assisting current entrepreneurs in further developing their businesses.

By putting together scientists, engineers, artists, and managers in these types of courses we get better idea generation and more diverse methods for addressing problems," says Richard Notargiacomo, adjunct professor and manager of the Saunders Student Consulting Group. "We also ultimately produce more well-rounded, innovative, and valuable graduates."

The Saunders College also offers a number of outreach initiatives that give students the opportunity to work in the community and experience entrepre- neurship first hand.

For example, the Technology Commercialization Clinic, co-managed by DeMartino and Notargiacomo, pairs student teams made up of MBA and innovation management master's degree students with entrepreneurs and universities to develop commercialization plans based on currently held patents or intellectual property. The program is in partnership with Syracuse University and is funded by New York's Empire State Development Corporation.

In addition, Del Smith, an assistant professor of management, is working with current RIT entrepreneurship students and the Rochester City School District to engage inner-city high school students in business planning and development. The Future Business Leaders Experience Program, now in its fifth year, pairs high school and RIT students with a faculty mentor to assist minority-owned businesses in market planning, product assessment, and intellectual property analysis. The program introduces inner-city students to entrepreneurship, while also enhancing the mentorship and team-building skills of RIT students.

"Our students get to interact with a diverse set of entrepreneurs, which can inspire their own business ideas," adds Smith, who also integrates real-world business planning assignments into his graduate entrepreneurship class.

Turning Ideas into Business Motivation

RIT's entrepreneurship programming also gives students an opportunity to take what they have learned, and the ideas they have generated, and turn them into their own business ventures.

The best way to develop good entre- preneurs is practice, practice, practice," says Victor Perotti, associate professor and academic area leader of entrepre- neurship, digital business, and innovation within Saunders College. "We try to give students numerous avenues to come up with business ideas and test them out."

For the last five years Perotti has led the Digital Entrepreneurship Program, developed with funding from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). The effort involves both classes in digital business development and a unique social networking arm, the Digital Entrepre- neurship Network (or DigEnt). DigEnt allows students to communicate their digital concepts, seek complementary partners, and locate business mentors.

DigEnt serves as a real-world digital laboratory in which participants can learn by doing without significant risk," Perotti adds. "And as digital business becomes a larger portion of the economy, our students will have a leg up on how to operate in this environment."

Students wishing to advance their business concepts to real startups can apply to the Applied Entrepreneurship and Commercialization course. The class pairs student teams with entrepreneurial mentors who assist them in transforming ideas into an initial business plan. Teams with the best plans are encouraged to join the Simone Center's business development program to further the creation process, with the chance to eventually join Venture Creations, RIT's startup business incubator, which is open to students, faculty, and RIT alumni.

One of the more powerful success stories of the RIT approach is the software firm dotSyntax, LLC, which produces the social networking platform Digsby. The company was originally conceived during an MBA class by student Steve Shapiro, who also received mentorship support from the Simone Center. dotSyntax later spent three years as a tenant with Venture Creations before being purchased by the social networking company Tagged in 2011.

"The curricula offered through the Saunders College is a tremendous gestation environment for future entrepreneurs," adds Bill Jones, director of Venture Creations. "dotSyntax is a great example of the potential that exists on the RIT campus."

Taking Motivation to Market

In an effort to increase campus opportunities for entrepreneurs and enhance connections to external resources, the Simone Center for Student Entrepreneurship and Innovation was formed in 2007. Today the center houses numerous programs, which serve as the "connective tissue" between entrepreneurship degree programs and business development through Venture Creations.

"The Simone Center seeks to enhance early entrepreneurship activities by providing mentorship, commercialization facilities, seed funding, and access to external capital that can transform our students into professional businessmen and women," notes DeMartino.

The center hosts the RIT Student Incubator, which allows potential entrepreneurs to test out business ideas and create commercialization plans with the support of mentors and faculty associates. Participants can receive course credit or cooperative education credit allowing them to spend three months focusing on maturing their concept.

The Simone Center also runs Entrepreneurs Hall, an "entrepreneurs community" in the RIT Global Village, which includes a residence hall, entrepreneurship courses, cooperative education opportunities, business mentoring, and access to the student incubator.

Finally, students can test out ideas and designs through the Simone Center's innovation testing and prototyping program in partnership with the Brinkman Machine Tools Laboratory in RIT's Kate Gleason College of Engineering. The program provides lab space and faculty mentors who can assist in technology development, product testing, and design for manufacturing.

Sean Petterson, a fifth-year industrial design student, and Justin Hillery, a fifth- year multidisciplinary studies major, worked with the Simone Center to design and prototype Strong Arm, a lifting assist vest. The device, which could greatly reduce ergonomic risk for workers in the material handling industry, won the Best Cutting Edge Innovation Award at the 2012 NCIIA Open Minds Student Design Competition. The team has also been accepted into the 2012 MassChallenge Startup Accelerator, an entrepreneurial training institute and business plan competition.

One of the biggest issues many student entrepreneurs face is not having enough time or assistance to develop their ideas," says Carl Lundgren, professor of mechanical engineering technology and a faculty mentor in the Simone Center. "We provide the resources and technical expertise to make entrepreneurship possible."

More recently, the Saunders College and the Simone Center created Summer Startup, a three-month concept development program designed to help student teams advance their businesses and, in particular, flesh out the elements of the business concept that go beyond the product or service to be sold. It includes business coaching, assistance with market and product planning, and a chance to present to potential investors at the culmination of the program.

2012 Summer Startup participant GradeSnap began as a project in Saunders' Applied Entrepreneurship course. The firm is developing a Web application that will allow teachers to more easily grade multiple-choice tests and derive statistical data on student performance.

"I have always been interested in running my own business and RIT's support of venture creation was a major draw," says Nikko Schaff, a third-year computer science major and co-founder of GradeSnap.