Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series about entrepreneurship at Dartmouth.
When engineering professor Tillman Gerngross started teaching at the Thayer School of Engineering in the late 90s, he was surprised by how few students were considering starting their own companies.
"I remember meeting with the folks in Career Services in 1998, and they told me, This year we placed 20 people at Ford and 35 at Microsoft,'" Gerngross said. "I told them, I want to create the next Bill Gates, not send our best people to work for him.'"
Over the next 15 years, the situation Gerngross confronted flipped. New institutions formed by students and Tuck School of Business professors such as the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, the Tuck Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship and the Tuck Entrepreneurship Initiative helped compile the College's resources and facilitate a surge in student-led entrepreneurship projects.
These groups utilize not only faculty and alumni networks on campus, but the resources of local venture capitalist firms and innovation hubs.
Coupled with improvements to communication and information-sharing technology, entrepreneurship growth on campus and in the surrounding area has transformed the region into what one venture capitalist called "the center for entrepreneurship between Boston and Montreal."
BRINGING ENTREPRENEURSHIP TO DARTMOUTH
With the dot-com bubble surging in the late 90s, former Tuck Dean Colin Blaydon and Tuck student Philip Ferneau '84 Tu'96 had a number of conversations about Tuck entrepreneurs who were looking to transition their ideas into the marketplace but lacked the preparation and resources to do so.
"I had taught the entrepreneurship class for several years, and what I realized is that we did not have a class, or anything, that talked about financing entrepreneurial enterprises," Blaydon said.
With this in mind, Blaydon and Ferneau developed a class in 1996 called "Private Equity Finance," which aimed to provide students with a more thorough understanding of venture investing and leveraged buyouts.
Two years later, building on the success of the class and a donation from John Foster Tu'67, Blaydon and Ferneau founded Tuck's Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship. The center aims to increase students' understanding of private equity investors, who finance entrepreneurship projects and conduct field research.
Ferneau joined Tuck's faculty in 1999 as an adjunct professor teaching advanced courses in entrepreneurship and stepped in as the center's first executive director.
"What I started doing was involving alumni networks of practitioners involved in startups and entrepreneurship," Ferneau said. "Part of what I was trying to do is connect entrepreneurs with the resources they needed to build businesses and help them grow."
In 2003, the center intensified its focus on entrepreneurship, planning conferences like the Tuck Private Equity and Growth Ventures Conference and the Dartmouth Ventures Conference, formerly known as the Greener Ventures Conference. Dartmouth Ventures also includes a business plan competition that is jointly sponsored with other Tuck entrepreneurship groups.
Although the center was founded to cater to Tuck students' needs, many of its events are also open to undergraduates.
"My goal is to expand our center and really go after and serve the undergraduate community as well as the graduate community," executive director Tom Naughton '89 Tu'96 said. "It's a great win for everyone involved."
Tuck professor Gregg Fairbrothers '76 worked to expand the resources for entrepreneurship on campus even further, founding the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network in 2001 in order to provide mentorship, advice for business plans and open office and lab spaces. The network is run through the Provost's Office and is open to the entire Dartmouth community.
"I think an important part of the foundation and the approach is that we look at entrepreneurship as a collection of skills or attitudes," Fairbrothers said. "It's not about starting companies per se. That's a symptom, not an end goal."
The network hosts open seminars and entrepreneurship conferences on campus and runs the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, an incubator located in Lebanon. Over the past decade, the network has worked with about 300 projects and companies.
"The DEN was always intended to be one-stop shopping," Fairbrothers said. "Students can just call Sandy [Rozyla, the network's program manager], and we'll get them to the right place."
BRIDGING GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE RESOURCES
Tuck's newest resource for students is its Entrepreneurship Initiative, which launched fall 2011 under the direction of Joaquin Villarreal Tu'08. The initiative runs programs like the Barris Incubator Project, which provides initial support to graduate student teams looking to develop startups.
Barris organizers also worked with Riley Ennis '15 and Matt Ross '15 to help them organize a comparable accelerator program for undergraduates. The program, Mitosis, was founded last spring and took on its first group of student teams this fall. Barris and Mitosis co-hosted a Demo Day event at Tuck at the end of fall term, where teams from both accelerator programs pitched their ideas to professors and potential investors.
"It was a great event to bring together students at Dartmouth and show off the resources and funding that's available," Ennis said. "Why can't we have a Zuckerberg? We probably already do."
Besides official programs and networks, students from other Dartmouth schools are welcome to audit introductory Tuck classes, Rozyla said. Alison Stace-Naughton '11, an engineering student who co-founded Spiral-E Solutions based on a product idea from her Introduction to Engineering group project, called this opportunity "a hidden fact."
"So far I've audited three Tuck classes including Fairbrother's entrepreneurship class, where he teaches the formal process about how to start a company," Stace-Naughton said. "It's a great way to engage critically with the concepts and meet other Tuck professors."
Delos Chang '14, who has founded two startups that create iPhone applications, said informal meetings with Tuck professors like Fairbrothers have contributed to his success.
"Fairbrothers has an open Google doc with his office hours, so basically anyone can go into his office and meet with him," Chang said.
Undergraduates can also access physical resources at the graduate schools and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. A group in engineering professor Ian Baker's Introduction to Engineering class this winter was able to test its treatment device for bone fractures using cadaver bones from DHMC and the Geisel School of Medicine, as well as receive feedback from professors and researchers.
Stace-Naughton said the idea for Spiral-E Solutions came out of informal conversations she and her group had with DHMC surgeons about the problems they were facing in the field. Her group tested its vacuum device to stabilize a patient's stomach during gastroenterological surgery on sheep stomachs provided by DHMC.
UPPER VALLEY OPPORTUNITIES
Budding entrepreneurs and startup companies can find various resources and support networks locally, including venture capitalist firms like Hanover-based Borealis Ventures and the Manchester office of Wasabi Ventures. They can seek aid from innovation hubs like ABI, also located in Manchester.
New England has the advantage of not being over-saturated with students and other entrepreneurs looking to gain financing for their startup companies, Matt Rightmire Tu'96, a Borealis managing director and ABI board member, said.
While funding is still competitive, the resources are more available than they would be in other areas with high interest in entrepreneurship, such as San Francisco and New York City.
"Fifteen years ago, when the web was so nascent, there was a lot more benefit to being co-located in a place where lots of other innovation was going on," Rightmire said. "But right now, it's pretty clear that you don't have to have that to grow successful companies."
Borealis specifically looks to invest in business opportunities that come out of Dartmouth's undergraduate and graduate schools, DHMC and Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Of the 27 companies that Borealis worked with, nine had Dartmouth ties and half were based in New Hampshire, Rightmire said.
Rightmire said the success of its investments in local startups proves that the Upper Valley can foster energized tech startups.
Tom Kuegler, a co-founder and general partner of Wasabi Ventures, said that entrepreneurship and startups have been on the rise nationally and in New Hampshire over the past 10 to 15 years. His group hears about 150 pitches a week from interested companies, and selects one or two to receive funding.
Wasabi is different from many venture capital firms because it provides an incubator program for the companies in its portfolio, which involves mentoring and access to human resources, Kuegler said. This can be especially helpful to full-time students who are busy with classes or recently graduated alumni who would like to continue investing time into their startup while also working at another job.
Wasabi is currently incubating SquareOne Mail, a company founded by Branko Cerny '13, James Mock '15 and Sang Lee '13 for this very reason, providing the group with a chief of operations, software engineers and assistance with legal affairs and product development.
Cerny is a former member of The Dartmouth senior staff.