By Emily Puckett Rodgers
The new UMSI Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program features a series of courses, projects and events designed to introduce students to entrepreneurial pathways and skills that will enable them to create innovative solutions in their careers and pursue their passions.
As one of the program’s first events, 31 UMSI students took an Innovation Trek to New York City over fall break, October 13-14. The Trek included visits to six businesses where students met with company founders, directors and key entrepreneurs. They learned what work life is like at Startup Health, Tumblr, the New York Public Library’s Digital Labs department, JSTOR, Next Big Sound and TechStars. While the whirlwind trip may sound like a game show prize, the New York Innovation Trek was actually the culmination of five weeks of preparation and training for participating students.
This year’s Trek was organized by Nancy Benovich Gilby, the Ehrenberg Director of Entrepreneurship, and myself, the entrepreneurship program manager. Students from a range of specializations and from across the university applied to join, with each committing at least ten hours of preparation in the weeks leading up to the trip. Trekkers included students with backgrounds in nonprofit management, user experience, academic and public libraries, social media, venture capital firms, health informatics and other startups. The program was open to all U-M students, and included two LS&A undergraduates and a PhD student in computer engineering.
The students committed at least two hours per week for five weeks before the Trek to get hands-on experience developing an idea into a solution that solved a problem. The first week, they started by “speed-dating” an idea, with six teams created around ideas that their peers pitched to the group. Local mentors were paired with each team to ask questions, give feedback, and help the students work through the early stages of entrepreneurship. Team ideas sprang from a variety of passions, including authentic food experiences, patient-controlled health records, volunteering in a community, automating basic data science tasks, building a better talent recruitment solution and improving financial literacy.
Over the next four weeks, students developed their ideas by interviewing potential users in multiple rounds of customer development, sketching solutions and wireframes, and developing pitching skills to share their passion and the solutions to entrepreneurs in New York City.
They identified and interviewed dozens of people related to their initial idea: directors of area nonprofits; peers on the diag; human resource directors in the health sector; data scientists; and patients.
In New York City, students pitched their team idea to experts in one of the six organizations we visited. Over the course of the two days, our teams took the feedback they received at various locations and refined their individual pitches for the next presentation. On the Trek, our students excelled. The progress they each individually made through the five weeks and on the trip illustrated just why our students at UMSI truly are some of the leaders and best, even within the University of Michigan.
Because this experience is not part of a course, each student put time and energy into the Trek in addition to their academic responsibilities. Each student from the Trek is eligible to receive certification in the form of digital badges in customer development and pitching, illustrating the skills they gained.
Teams and individuals from the New York Trek who are interested in continuing to pursue their ideas have also been invited to apply to TechArb, U-M’s entrepreneurial incubator, as well as SPARK’s Business Accelerator, a local organization dedicated to the economic prosperity of the greater Ann Arbor region. While we understand that not every student team will continue to pursue their ideas, some will and others will take the skills gained through this experience to new opportunities, work and ideas.
Emily Puckett Rodgers (MSI ’10) is the UMSI entrepreneurship program manager. She helped plan and attended the 2014 New York Innovation Trek.