Entrepreneur Innovation Center provides space, resources for start-ups

FSU’s Entrepreneur Innovation Center, a workspace for local entrepreneurs to collaborate with FSU faculty and student interns, opened on Tuesday, Jan. 21, the same day the first entrepreneurship classes held their first meetings.

The six entrepreneurs, who are working on five projects, had to apply in the fall and be accepted into the program, sign a contract and pay $95 a month to use the center. In exchange, they get help from student interns, possible advice and collaboration from FSU faculty, access to the work space in the Maynard building and a connection with Workbar, a company that provides a network of similar shared-workspace environments.

The center will be visited by “local and greater Boston people that it would be helpful for the entrepreneurs to talk to,” said Director of the Entrepreneur Innovation Center and FSU Professor Robert Krim.

“The one that is sort of the highest pay off for an entrepreneur is to actually meet investors,” he said, adding that some are already lined up from Framingham and Natick. The center will also be visited by “marketing specialists who will deal with intellectual property,” which entails aspects like copyrights and patents.

Tara Hill, an entrepreneur, said while the work from the student interns and the connections with business professionals will be important to her, she also values being in a workplace with like-minded people – namely, other entrepreneurs.

“Starting your own business seems really risky to a lot of people I was working with,” she added, “so it’s nice to get out and talk to other people who are doing something and pursuing their own business ideas.”

She said she had been working out of her home for the past five years, and looks forward to working alongside other people in a workplace again.

“We’re all here to pursue something that is maybe not the guaranteed paycheck. … I really hope there will be that sense of community between people who are starting their own businesses and have the opportunity to learn from one another.”

Hill’s business will sell DIY (do it yourself) wedding invitation and website templates. She will sell them digitally, so the customer will be able to buy the pdf version of the invitations and the rights to use the matching website.

She said she is still making her products. “My goal is within this quarter, so between now and the end of March, I want to have a store up, and get that launched,” Hill said.

She said she also would like to get marketing help from the student interns and possibly advice from FSU faculty with computer science or graphic design expertise.

Another entrepreneur, Arturo Fagundo, is working on a way to back up information on cloud environments which people may lease out for use rather than buying the physical hardware.

“We’re building a turn-key solution that will let you back up your public cloud environment without having to write a lot of custom software,” he said.

Fagundo said this was “an unsolved problem, and it was a problem, based on my background, that I knew I could solve very well.”

He said he had bumped into Krim while he was at an advisory board meeting for the Business-Info Technology Program at Framingham State, where Fagundo has worked for the past couple of years.

After discussing it with Krim, he said, “It just seemed like a natural fit with where we are with the company.”

He added, “We’re basically a virtual company right now,” with employees working remotely from as far away as the west coast. He said it’s valuable to have a physical place to do his work and conduct business.

The entrepreneurs are encouraged to ask the student interns to work on particular projects. Krim said that in the first week open, each of the six entrepreneurs submitted “somewhere between two and 10 projects to be working on. So the good thing is we really need the interns.”

He added that when working on a difficult project, entrepreneurs often will put off aspects that aren’t their areas of expertise, but when they have students with different skills asking for projects to work on, they’re much more motivated to get something done.

Krim explained that on any given day, the student interns might work on projects based on web development, sewing or marketing, among other things.

The classes and the center were designed to “intertwine,” according to Krim, creating a dynamic which entails the students learning from the entrepreneurs as they help them develop their burgeoning businesses.

Vice President for Academic Affairs Linda Vaden-Goad said the idea for a center focused on entrepreneurship arose in a strategic planning meeting, and when administrators brought the idea to the business department, they “already had ideas about this. We just strengthened the idea by offering more support.”

She added, “This is one of our first centers that is not state funded, so we needed a new model” for financing this center. While there is only a small cost to run the center, according to Executive Vice President Dale Hamel, Vaden-Goad said that Academic Affairs will help support the center for the first couple of years until it is self-sufficient.

Sandra Rahmen, chair of the business department, said, “We decided to make a commitment to an entrepreneurship program and an entrepreneurship center” because of the support the business department received from Academic Affairs.

Rahmen added that Krim and Assistant Director of the Entrepreneur Innovation Center and FSU Professor Erastus Ndinguri, who were both hired after the decision was made to create the new center and curriculum, are “fabulous,” and have both “the academic background as well as the professional boots-on-the-ground experience in getting an entrepreneurship center operating.”

The two new classes, which are part of the entrepreneurship minor, are called Entrepreneurship: Starting Your Business and Entrepreneurship Interns Practicum. They are both taught by Krim.

Krim said he has had to teach in more “innovative” ways in order to give students a real sense of what entrepreneurship is. “There are a lot of books out there about entrepreneurship, but in the end, each person and each company takes its own path. There are some things that are better to do and worse to do, but in my opinion, there’s no exact formula.”

He said the classes received a good amount of interest from students. “Although some of our faculty didn’t think so, we had more students apply for the course [Entrepreneurship Interns Practicum] than there were seats.” The other class was only a few seats shy of full enrollment.

The students who are enrolled in the practicum class are also interns at the center in order to give them real world experience as they learn about entrepreneurship in class, Krim said.

Krim added that the center itself is a new business, and is an example of entrepreneurship from which students can learn.

Ndinguri said the classes and the center “complement” each other because the students “are learning firsthand what goes on when you’re starting up a business.”

He added that even the students who aren’t interns at the center are benefitting from the connection to the center because the entrepreneurs sometimes visit classrooms to discuss their projects.

The six students enrolled in the practicum class are now interns at the center. They get paid through either the CHOICE internship program or the CELTSS program and work about 10 hours a week.

“We had more than enough people who applied for those internships, so we’ve got a very strong group,” said Krim. The interns staff the center in a receptionist capacity and also work on individual projects for the entrepreneurs who submit requests for projects on a regular basis.

The current location of the center, in the Maynard building, was beneficial to students, Krim said, because it is in walking distance of campus, and beneficial to the entrepreneurs and faculty because there is available parking.

However, the property has recently been sold so the location is only available for the center’s use until the lease expires in the fall of 2015. The building will then be turned into a museum owned by Danforth Art.

Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said, “finding space that made financials work” was one of the main difficulties of initially getting the center “off the ground.”

The current center uses space that used to be reserved for continuing education studies, “with a predominance of the courses being English as a second language,” said Hamel.

While there isn’t a clear consensus among faculty and administrators about the new location for where the center may be, Vaden-Goad said, “We will be looking for a good location that makes access easy for our entrepreneurs, the people with whom they need to meet, and our students and faculty.”

Krim said the main difference between FSU’s model for the center and other innovation centers is the direct connection between the university’s curriculum and the real-life experience. “So I love this,” Krim said, “because I love starting new things that help people to learn and to get jobs. It can’t be better than that.”

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