Student innovation and entrepreneurship in Florida

“There is an ongoing debate about how to teach creativity and innovation. At the University of Florida we believe it is very closely connected to both research and practical experience,” says Dr Angel Kwolek-Folland, vice-president of an institution that is famously infused with a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation.

“The university has been very interested in developing undergraduate student success through programmes that highlight creativity and innovation across the campus in a variety of ways.” The freshman retention rate is 96%.

Inventions pour out of the University of Florida’s research activities and there are multiple programmes that nurture research and entrepreneurial activities among undergraduates as well as courses in entrepreneurship and a business incubator in partnership with the local town of Gainesville that has generated 60 companies and hundreds of new jobs in the past four years.

Kwolek-Folland described “Student innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Florida” at the South African Technology Network’s Eighth Annual International Conference 2015 on “Entrepreneurship Education for Economic Renewal”, held at Vaal University of Technology from 19-21 October.

Profile of the university

The University of Florida is one of the 10 largest universities in the United States. It has more than 33,000 undergraduate students, 16,000 graduate and professional students and more than 4,200 academic staff, nearly 2,400 of them tenured.

The institution came fourth nationally in 2010 in the number of doctorates awarded. The research budget is US$740 million and there are 674 postdocs and 3,900 graduate assistants.

“We are a very big school. We are also a land grant institution, which means that we have a special mission in the state of Florida to take research and turn it into products and information that can be used by industries, businesses and individuals.”

As a public institution, the university gets between 20% and 40% of its income from the state. The rest comes from research grants, industry contracts, tuition fees and other sources. “We are constantly looking for new ways of making money and earning what we need to run,” said Kwolek-Folland. The institution’s US$1.5 billion is not as big as some but “pretty good”.

“In addition to the national and state-wide mission that the university has, we also play a very special role in our local environment,” she continued.

Gainesville is a small town in north-central Florida with a population of 170,000 people. “We’re the largest employer in the county and one of the biggest employers in northern Florida. We’re very aware of being an economic engine for the county, we’ve got 30,000 people working for us in one way or another.”

Turning research into products

The university has a long history of translating research into products and inventions, said Kwolek-Folland. Its most famous invention is Gatorade, a sports drink created in 1963 and turned into a product in partnership with a business.

“It was one of the first of that type of technology transfer from a university environment into the public domain in the US. Gatorade was also the start of the sports drink industry, which is now worth billions of dollars and incorporates many other companies. The university has earned more than US$80 million over the years from Gatorade, in royalties and residuals.

“We have taken lots and lots of other products to market but it is very rare to have something as successful as Gatorade. You’d not want to base your ideal revenue calculations on it.”

The university develops plant cultivars, Kwolek-Folland continued, and also many new methods for treating diseases through its health sciences research.

Another, current product example is a micro-topographical film that was developed through studying shark skin, which has the property that nothing sticks to it. Researchers are developing paints and other kinds of coatings, including for the bottoms of ships to repel muscles and other marine things that stick to hulls.

“It’s not going to rock the world but is a really important invention for the shipping industry.”

All in all, the University of Florida has notched up 294 invention disclosures and 106 patents and licenses. In 2014 these activities earned US$34 million income, and in the same year the university generated 15 start-up companies.

Imbuing entrepreneurship

The university, said Kwolek-Folland, believes that teaching entrepreneurship and innovation is linked to both research and practical experience. “We try to create programmes that allow for both of those things. We start early in exposing our undergraduates to basic research and problem solving.”

She highlighted five among very many initiatives that involve students in research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

1- STEAM: Collaboration

Under its outreach activities, the University of Florida runs various programmes during the summer that bring school students to campus.

This year, for example, the colleges of engineering and of arts as well as the undergraduate research centre collaborated on an initiative called STEAM, which brought together science, technology, engineering, maths and the arts “to focus on how creativity happens in terms of inventing and using technologies”, Kwolek-Folland explained.

The students spend a couple of weeks on campus, interacting with each other and with academics as they work in teams and develop a project that is presented at the end.

“The idea is also that these young people will hopefully get interested in the subject and in going to college. Many come from under-served areas where they may not have had good mentoring to go to college, and so this gives them a leg up. We have similar programmes with other area schools in disadvantaged areas around the state.”

2- Undergraduate research: Early immersion

There are several initiatives that get undergraduate students involved in doing hands-on research, in the expectation that students will become more innovative thinkers if they engage in research early and often.

“The idea is also that the students might become interested in graduate school or in the process of research, as well as learn really good skills such as how to formulate a question, how to research for an answer, what to do when you think you have the answer and so on.”

In the scholars programme, for example, students work directly with staff on research projects and there are competitive awards and a small stipend for both the student and academic. “We have 200 students a year who engage in this across campus.” Their work is presented at the annual University of Florida Undergraduate Research Symposium.

There is an honours college for freshmen undergraduates with high academic performance that includes special courses with very small enrolments – “so it is the elite of the elite” – as well as research projects, special readings and the involvement of academics as teachers or mentors. There is a special dormitory where honours students can live together, if they wish.

3- Innovation Academy: University curriculum

The Innovation Academy admits students to matriculate in the spring and summer, and they use autumn for activities such as study abroad, community outreach or internships. “To make it a unique experience it has a special curriculum,” said Kwolek-Folland. Students study for major subjects but also take an innovation or entrepreneur minor.

“Those are smaller cohort courses and are very specific to learning and studying the process of creativity and the process of creating a business.” The students learn to think theoretically – what sorts of questions and problems emerge when you start a business, for instance – and also start putting together a business. By graduation, many have a business plan that they are able to shop around.

4- Entrepreneurship curriculum

The entrepreneurship curriculum is situated at various places around the university – “we are extremely decentralised” – with each unit involved operating on its own. Undergraduate, graduate and professional students are involved.

One example is the college of business, which offers a minor in entrepreneurship that includes coursework and experiential learning. Another is the college of the arts, which works with the college of business to offer courses designed to enable artists to treat their art as a business.

“All of this is to spur students to think more entrepreneurially, and also to think about the connection between what they’re learning in the academy and what’s going on outside,” Kwolek-Folland told the conference.

5- Infinity Hall: Enriched learning environment

The University of Florida has partnered with Gainesville to create a business incubator that provides services to people – including academics, students and local entrepreneurs – who want to start up a company.

Innovation Square and Innovation Hub are located physically between the campus and downtown Gainsville. The physical buildings opened in 2011 and take up around six blocks.

“Right now it has about 30 companies in residence and has graduated out about 30 companies into small businesses,” she said. “Together those 30 companies have created about 780 local jobs and have brought in more than US$50 million in private funding to the community.”

Infinity Hall, which is part of Innovation Square, is America’s first entrepreneurial-based academic residential community. Undergraduates live in a dormitory next door to the business incubator, and part of the learning experience is working in teams with the people they live with and with academics to bring products to market through the incubator.

“By the time they leave the university with an undergraduate degree they have a business proposal or a business already started.” That, laughed Kwolek-Folland, is a very direct way for higher education to produce entrepreneurs.