In July, 22 bright, enthusiastic undergrads gave up a summer weekend to huddle in office space near campus and code. Working in teams and mentored by faculty members, they tackled some of the intractable problems that come with life in Hoboken. (Yes, parking was one of them.) Some of the kids toiled deep into the early morning hours.
The marathon session, dubbed “Let’s Help Hoboken,” marked the first in what is expected to be a series of “hackathons” designed to harness the creative energy and enterprise of Stevens students. It was also among the first events sponsored by the Stevens Venture Center, a new university initiative designed to expand and redefine the entrepreneurial experience that has long been an integral part of a Stevens education.
Located in a glass-walled space in a River Street high-rise overlooking the Mile Square City and shoulder-to-shoulder with the offices of Jet.com — Hoboken’s best-known startup — the Venture Center has a multi-part mission.
First, it aims to serve as an incubator, providing space, equipment, mentorship, networking opportunities and other resources to students and recent graduates who have promising science- and technology-oriented business ideas, and to faculty members whose research has commercial potential. Second, it plans to offer education in entrepreneurial practices and thinking through an ambitious schedule of workshops, meetings and events, such as the summer hackathon.
By launching the Venture Center, Stevens joins a growing list of institutions that are recognizing the value of their technology and the need to provide opportunities for students with entrepreneurial yearnings. The International Business Innovation Association estimated that in 2012, there were 1,250 incubators in the United States, about a third of them sponsored by academic institutions. Since then the numbers have only grown.
For Stevens, the Venture Center is part of an ongoing strategic effort to place the university among the top ranks of entrepreneurially oriented institutions, said President Nariman Farvardin.
“The Stevens Venture Center is a brand new and critically important element of the university’s portfolio of programs and services designed to nurture and accelerate businesses being launched by our students, faculty and alumni,” he said.
“With educational programs, technical assistance, mentoring, networking opportunities and other support services, the Stevens Venture Center brings a necessary complement to the existing educational programs that help students develop their ideas and projects into successful ventures.”
The Stevens Venture Center began ramping up operations early this year, with a formal opening set for this fall. The facility itself consists of a 1,000-square-foot space with 29 neatly arranged workstations, a conference room and a small lab area that includes a 3D design station, a 3D printer and, soon, a circuit board plotter — enough to help a fledgling venture develop its idea to the prototype stage.
A handful of companies are already working there, among them FinTech Studios, a firm built around a cloud-based “big data” investment research and analytics platform designed for the financial industry; Savizar, an innovative patent-search tool; Castle Point Learning Systems, a faculty-led educational platform based on artificial intelligence; MimicTrade, an investment gaming platform built to teach Millennials how to invest in the stock market; and a couple of biomedical startups focused on dental devices and technologies.
Students, faculty and staff can apply to be part of the program through the Venture Center’s website. Venture Center staff will also be scouting the annual Stevens Innovation Expo for seniors with promising ideas and helping teach the Entrepreneurial Thinking course required of all freshman engineering students. The center also plans events that will help identify and nurture potential entrepreneurs early in their academic careers. A future hackathon, for instance, will be geared toward incoming freshmen.
But the facility’s value extends far beyond the space it provides, said Werner Kuhr ’80 M.S. ’82, director of the Venture Center. The center also gives startups a chance to learn from each other and from experienced business people — including academics, seasoned entrepreneurs and Stevens alumni — who know how to turn an idea into a real, viable business.
Kuhr said the center has been recruiting entrepreneurs-in-residence to give Venture Center companies access to people with frontline knowledge and experience. Drawn from the ranks of business and technology companies, the entrepreneurs-in-residence serve as both counselors to Venture Center companies and as speakers at center events.
On board so far are Richard Cundari ’64, founder and chief executive of US Ventures LLC, an investor in early-stage small businesses; Sandra J. Doran, the CEO of Castle Point Learning Systems; and Roman Malantchouk ’10 M.Eng. ’11, the CEO and founder of walkTHIShouse.
An advisory board will also be formed. Kuhr said working with alumni and leveraging connections through the Stevens Entrepreneurs Network will be key to growing the Venture Center’s programs, as will funding that the center expects to secure through the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program. The Entrepreneurs Network, which began early this year as a LinkedIn group, now includes a couple of hundred members whose expertise could be invaluable for budding startups.
“To start, we’ve got a good mix of people with different levels of experience who can provide the kind of professional education you typically don’t get in an academic environment,” Kuhr said. “As we grow, we hope to develop the infrastructure to create a rigorous training program for our startups.”
The center’s resources also include its two leaders, who have entrepreneurial chops of their own. Kuhr, a chemistry professor, directs the university’s technology commercialization program. Previously, he founded and sold an electronics materials company called ZettaCore Inc.
Adrienne Choma, the center’s associate director, co-founded an oncology-focused diagnostic technology startup called Saladax Biomedical. Prior to that, she spent two decades in leadership roles in the pharmaceutical industry. She holds a law degree and was among 12 winners of the 2013 Ernst & Young Entrepreneurial Winning Women Award. She was also the first Stevens entrepreneur-in-residence.
A longtime resident of Hoboken, this is Choma’s first venture into the academic world after a long career in private industry.
“I was really looking for a different challenge and I felt I wanted to do something to give back,” she said. “Here, I found that I can use my background to help students who have an interest in business. It’s the perfect marriage.”
Choma added that so far, education at the Venture Center has been a two-way street.
“It’s a whole new world for me to be around these students,” she said. “It’s invigorating. I’m learning something every day. Until I came here, I didn’t even know what Snapchat was.”
For more information, visit the Stevens Venture Center website.