To Boost Economy, UConn Establishes Entrepreneurship Graduate Program

UConn, looking to boost entrepreneurship and bring innovation to the state’s lackluster economy, is launching a graduate program to help aspiring business owners establish moneymaking ventures.

The master’s of engineering in global entrepreneurship, which is expected to begin next spring, is a partnership between the UConn engineering and business schools, Trinity College and the University of New Haven.

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It’s intended to create support initiatives for business development and help reverse a failure rate among startups approaching 90 percent. It will teach best practices to “novice entrepreneurs” and give students an opportunity to learn from veteran entrepreneurs.

The program will recruit worldwide, in search of prospective students who are in the early stages of developing startups or have shown an “impressive penchant for entrepreneurship,” UConn said. Students will receive a full tuition scholarship, a yearly stipend and other resources to help them commercialize their ventures.

Funding will support five students in the first year and, officials hope, another five in the second year. UConn’s intent is to expand the program depending on its success and funding, according to a spokesman for the School of Engineering.

Mei Wei, associate dean at the UConn School of Engineering, said the program is part of the engineering school because students will work to develop a product. “You need to have something to commercialize,” she said.

Students accepted into the program will train in business, learn how to write a business plan and enroll in engineering classes. They also will try to connect with entrepreneurs in Connecticut, Wei said.

“We have to create an environment for them,” she said. “If they have connections and investments here why would they want to leave?”

Support for the program comes from CTNext, a network for entrepreneurs that’s part of the state’s venture capital firm, and a funding match from UConn’s engineering and business schools, Trinity College and the University of New Haven.

State legislators, alarmed at Connecticut’s persistently high unemployment and weak economic growth, considered earlier this year a measure to foster entrepreneurship at the university, revising UConn’s mission with the objective of educating the “population at large” and considering state, national and world economic dynamics and labor force trends.

The bill, which ultimately failed, would have required up to four members of the UConn Board of Trustees to have experience in entrepreneurship and that two must be under 40. And it directed that future UConn presidents must have experience in entrepreneurship and that a vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship be hired.

UConn pushed back, saying that focusing the university’s mission primarily on economic dynamics and entrepreneurship would attack the heart of the institution and diminish its role as a comprehensive public research university.

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, the bill’s sponsor, said at the time he was not trying to change the university’s mission. Instead he wants to see UConn “at the heart of our revival economically.”

Fonfara said this week he’s obsessed with finding ways to reverse Connecticut’s economic slide, including pushing UConn to do more to promote entrepreneurship.

“If you can’t get it done one way, you can get it done the other way,” Fonfara said. “There needs to be a culture change at UConn to embrace entrepreneurship.”

Bill Aulet, director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said because job growth is more common at small businesses than large employers, entrepreneurship is gaining favor among students.

In addition, entrepreneurship and the prospect of establishing a successful business are developing a following among college students who increasingly say they want to better control their careers, he said.

“People want to create their own jobs. They’re socially conscious rather than just getting a paycheck,” Aulet said.

“The data show the more time someone spends as an entrepreneur, the better they are at it,” he said. “They learn from being entrepreneurs.”

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