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Incubating startups

For students at The Lab, starting a business and helping others do the same is a matter of course

Plenty of business students dream up ideas for companies. Few turn their ideas into reality. But for many students at the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, located in the University of St. Thomas's Minneapolis campus, creating a company and helping others do the same is a matter of course.

Take Marcin Kubiak and his business partner [the latter requested to not be named]. As UST students, they conceived of a company whose highly trained medical scribes handle transcription and documentation duties so that physicians can focus more on actual care. With such duties seeming to consume ever more time, they figured the idea had potential.

They took their idea to school's director, Dr. Mark Spriggs, who played devil's advocate and probed them with questions. "I wanted them to create some curriculum and find a couple of customers," recalls Spriggs.

About nine months later, the students returned to him with a list of potential customers long enough to suggest they were onto something  they were, in fact, on the leading edge of a market trend with only two or three major competitors across the nation.

At many business schools the faculty support would have ended there  helpful feedback from a friendly professor. But at the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, select students and recent grads with great ideas are invited to join The Lab, a kind of community with benefits where "ideas become businesses and students become entrepreneurs."

The students agree to participate in the community, and in exchange they get, among other perks, office space provided by the school - on a campus that just happens to be rather conveniently located in downtown Minneapolis.

Kubiak says Spriggs was instrumental in both the advice and in the invitation to join The Lab: "He gave us a lot of valuable feedback before we got the office as we were starting our venture - and when we proved our venture, that's when he invited us to the [business development] offices."

ustToday, Elite Medical Scribes  the result of the students' idea  is a rapidly growing venture based in Minnetonka that's been well received by hospital executives and others involved in providing health care services.

Joining The Lab means joining a larger educational ecosystem where students, alumni, and faculty teach each other about entrepreneurship and explore what it takes to start and sustain a new business.

Created in 2005, the school is an entrepreneurial center that sits on the boundary between the university and the business community. "The Schulze School is a little more integrated into the academics of the university than a lot of other centers that are out there," says Spriggs. "Our primary mission is the academic mission. We don't do a lot of outreach  just the business development center  and we focus on the student side." That said, it will focus on more outreach starting this autumn.

The business development program was created when the Schulze School opened; however, it didn't start to be fully utilized until about five years later. There were a few student businesses that went in and out of the offices, and some were even mildly successful. One challenge, though, was that the office spaces were located on the Minneapolis campus while the undergraduate population was educated mostly in St. Paul.

In 2010, Spriggs and some other faculty committed themselves to making the Minneapolis campus work better, moving offices and some classes to it from St. Paul. This helped students become more aware of the business development offices  and the advantages, like prime office space, that they offer.

"One of the primary reasons we built all the offices when we designed Schulze Hall was to create a space where students could have a nice office," Spriggs says. "We were going to be the landlord. We weren't charging any money."

In the offices, the entrepreneurs have access to furniture and equipment such as computers, copiers, and fax machines, plus a large common space.

Spriggs says the program is designed as an incubator but "not life support." It's designed to host a startup for 12 to 18 months, though many have stayed longer. "There's a thought in entrepreneurship that urgency makes these ventures work," he says. "And urgency is a matter of getting enough revenue to pay ourselves. So that's what we're looking at  if you can be self-sustaining."

Support network

The offices provide more than just equipment and physical space, of course. Equally or more important is the support network. The entrepreneurs in The Lab may have gone through the business classes at St. Thomas, but the faculty, it turns out, still has much to teach them  as advisors.

"We realized we could be very helpful by taking a more active role as advisors to these businesses," says Spriggs. "And now that we have seven to eight businesses down there, there's a lot of peer mentoring and coaching going on."

Jay Ebben, who has been teaching at St. Thomas for 11 years, has been a part of the business development program from the beginning. "We envisioned this to be the cornerstone of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that we wanted to develop," he explains. "It starts with the students being exposed to those offices, occupying those offices themselves, and then moving out of the offices at some point  and being engaged in what's happening in our program."

They can stay engaged in a variety of ways, including mentoring, judging in competitions, speaking in classes, providing internships, and even participating as case study subjects for undergraduate and graduate courses.

Mentoring is particularly important to the ecosystem. The idea of starting a business is ingrained in students during the undergraduate business classes. In the foundations of entrepreneurship class (or what faculty call the "lemonade stand" class), students are charged with starting their own business. The entrepreneurs in The Lab mentor the students in launching their companies.

"From day one, we are facilitating a relationship that continues on with the students," Ebben says. "One requirement is that they stay engaged with the program and the students."

Office space has been a huge driver for The Lab, and right now demand outstrips supply. A variety of entrepreneurs apply for the office space, including current students, recent grads, and not-so-recent grads coming back to launch a business.

"As a result [of the ecosystem], we've seen more students pursuing businesses while they are in school, which is leading to more demand for these offices," Ebben says.

In addition to the office space, there's also a large adjoining common space that's become a gathering area for the students and entrepreneurs, further encouraging the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Every Thursday, a group called "Practicing Entrepreneurs" gathers there to pitch business concepts. Such discussions pique the interest not only of seniors and entrepreneurial graduates, but also of younger students. The office residents usually come out and take part as well.

"They are able to provide some insight and feedback  coming from both students and alumni that resonates with them and reinforces some of the things that we're telling them [in class]," Ebben explains. "Students can learn about the art of pitching and how to present a business in terms of value proposition, see the different business models and the impact that a changing business model can have."

Whether students end up with an office space or not, they still have the opportunity to benefit from the dynamic of what's happening at the Schulze School. And though it may sound cliché, Ebben says that the program has turned into something of a family. "Everyone works together and is engaged and invested in what everyone is working on - and they continue to be after graduating."

When it comes to the business development program, Ebben defines success a bit differently than others might. "I look at [the experience] as successful if the entrepreneur comes out ready to do something bigger and better," he says.

Students might leave the program because their business is acquired, they outgrow the office space, or they pursue other opportunities. The variation makes defining success a bit subjective, but, says Ebben, he and the other staff like what they're seeing.

The businesses at The Lab are as diverse as the students or grads who start them. House of Talents was established by Kate Herzog, who grew up in Ghana in West Africa. Her company sells products from developing-world artisans to consumers around the word.

Solome Tibebu founded Cognific, an innovative software-as-a-service application that helps young adults undergoing mental health therapy with "homework" in a game format  and helps therapists with analytics. She won first place in the Undergraduate Division of the school's Fowler Business Concept Challenge in 2011.

Kubiak says that the program proved to be an amazing opportunity for Elite Medical Scribes. Access to the office space gave him and his partners a centralized location to meet and discuss their concept  and, ultimately, start growing the business.

Along with access to the office space, Kubiak found the knowledge he gained in his undergraduate business classes to be instrumental. Lessons in marketing, finance, and even public speaking proved helpful in launching a new business. "The classes we took gave us a good base and the jumping-off point that we needed, but there was still a lot of trial and error that we learned on our own," Kubiak says. "And we were prepared for that through the classes we took."

Elite Medical Scribes has also been able to give back to the St. Thomas community by hiring current students and alumni as medical scribes, and they are mentoring students as well.

After spending about three years in the business development offices, Kubiak and his team were able to move into their new office in Minnetonka earlier this year. Though Elite Medical Scribes has moved out of The Lab, the sense of gratitude for the business development program continues to run deep for Kubiak.

"We greatly appreciate what St. Thomas has done for us," he says. "Looking back and seeing what it's enabled us to do for the quality of patient care and providing hundreds of jobs for college graduates who want to be health care professionals  nothing compares to that."