Soya was at the meeting, which took place during the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, thanks to his Georgetown connections.
“It was Georgetown … that provided the business the ability to mature and find the right market,” Soya says.
His company, Aquicore, provides companies with real-time monitoring and management of their electricity and other energy consumption. Small sensors installed throughout their building let clients know if they’re being wasteful or losing money. One of the company’s biggest clients is the D.C. government, a contract that includes more than 400 office buildings, fire stations, schools and other facilities.
Grad schools around the District are catering to the rising numbers of entrepreneurs-in-training — through classes, internships, mentorships and competitions meant to give students an edge when starting a business in the real world.
“More and more young people are interested in entrepreneurship,” says Jeff Reid, director of the Entrepreneurship Initiative at Georgetown. “The university that doesn’t provide this is less likely to attract the best students.”
You don’t have to look too far to find entrepreneurial programs in the Washington area. The University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, which opened in 1987, is one of the oldest entrepreneurial studies program in the region.
And the entrepreneurial enthusiasm has spread: Georgetown’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, or Startup Hoyas, is a community formed to cater to students’ demand for entrepreneurial classes and other programs. George Washington University has an Office of Entrepreneurship, focused on hands-on learning through internships and other real-world experiences, and the Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence, focused on entrepreneurship research and classes.
American University even offers students an MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship.
These programs are out to disprove the adage that “entrepreneurs are born, not made.” While the urge to be a pioneer may be more nature than nurture, it seems some essential startup skills can be taught in a classroom, program administrators say.
“Some would argue that academia has no business in entrepreneurship,” says Elana Fine, managing director of U-Md.’s Dingman Center. “That’s not really true.”
Entrepreneurial skills can be taught just like medicine or chemistry or accounting, Fine says. Of course, following the curriculum won’t guarantee that every graduate is the next Mark Zuckerberg. “But you’re giving someone a skill set that they hopefully can apply when they identify a new opportunity,” Fine says.
Classes on raising money, identifying customers, and launching and managing a new venture help students test drive ideas before they invest a lot of time and money, and perhaps eventually launch a business.
“We focus ideas down into something that’s manageable,” says George Solomon, director of George Washington’s Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence.
Like Soya, who launched Aquicore in his first year at Georgetown, many students don’t even wait until graduation to start their businesses.
Between the first and second years of an MBA program at American University, Tim Richards, 27, started ReefCam, a Northern Virginia-based company that streams live, high-definition video of coral reefs and other marine environments to a computer or mobile app. You can stream for free with ads, or pay $9.99 a month without ads. In addition to providing a cool screensaver, ReefCam hopes to raise awareness about reef conservation, and gives 25 percent of its proceeds toward reef conservation, research and education.
“It’s our way of putting [the reefs] right in front of the everyday casual nine-to-fiver,” says Richards, who graduated in May 2013. “Some people are never going to be lucky enough to see it in person.”
Richards says study abroad programs when he was an undergrad and a grad student piqued his interest in other parts of the world. Then American helped him work out ideas in class and learn to cultivate and manage ReefCam.
Jason McCarthy, 34, also drummed up business strategies in the classroom and then immediately tested them in the real world. Before starting his MBA at Georgetown, McCarthy had the idea for Goruck, a company that makes military-quality gear like “rucksacks,” or backpacks, and organizes intense endurance events to test out the gear.
“I used Georgetown to incubate it,” says McCarthy, a former Green Beret. “I submitted applications to get tutorials taught about Goruck. It was like a live case study. [In class] we would look at what was going on, and I’d go home at night and make decisions.”
Not every student with a startup entered grad school with business aspirations, though. Mariam Adil, 27, says her coursework at GWU inspired her to innovate.
“Being at school made me realize that the way we’re taught development is very different than the way we do development [in the field],” she says. Now, with the help of GWU, she’s developing a business and working at World Bank, all while completing her master’s in international development.
Her venture, GRID, is developing low-cost video games to teach people how to do international development work, such as how to monitor and evaluate projects overseas.
GRID was a finalist in GWU’s Business Plan Competition, run by the school’s Office of Entrepreneurship.
And immediate success is far from assured. As UMD MBA students, Derek Shewmon and Federico Campbell came up with the idea for their business, LetsMoveDown, an app that allows teams and individuals to sell unused or extra tickets during a game, so spectators get an instant upgrade.
“We thought there might be a unique opportunity,” Shewmon says.
The idea didn’t take off at first, but Shewmon and Campbell persisted after graduation, and in 2012, signed on with their first client: the UMD men’s basketball team.
Shewmon credits the school’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship with helping them refine the idea and business model, and landing their first client. LetsMoveDown has since expanded to nine college and professional sports teams.
Even if students in these programs don’t launch their own business, they still benefit, says Jim Chung, executive director of George Washington’s Office of Entrepreneurship.
“The skill sets they learn about innovation and idea generation are really skills they can use in any profession,” Chung says.
Not Just MBAs
Don’t assume that MBA students are the only ones launching startups: “There is a growing interest in master’s and Ph.D. students on commercializing technology that they create in their labs,” says the University of Maryland’s Elana Fine.
Along with George Washington University and Virginia Tech, U-Md. is part of the DC I-Corps program, backed by the National Science Foundation, which helps translate research in fields like engineering and life sciences into new technologies and startups.
At GW, many of the businesses launched by grad students are tech startups, including some science companies launched out of academic research there.
While working on her Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Maryland, Deborah Hemingway, 30, came up with the idea for CellTrace, a software tool for scientists that quantifies information seen in their microscopes. U-Md.’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship was a big help in figuring out the business, says Hemingway, who has also won about $5,000 in seed money from the center’s business competitions.
“They taught me so much,” Hemingway says.
Women on the Rise
Grad schools are increasingly seeing women interested in their entrepreneurship programs.
George Washington University’s George Soloman says in the past several years, female participation has increased from about 10-20 percent to 40-50 percent.