Dreamers Turned Doers: How Michigan State University is Incubating the Next Generation of Student Entrepreneurs

– Originally published through Voices of The MSU Hatch – 

If you ask any successful entrepreneur about their journey toward triumphant innovation, they will undoubtedly reference someone who provided them with vital guidance along the way.

For Bill Gates, it was Warren Buffett. For Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs.

Yet the majority of aspiring entrepreneurs don’t have access to a revolutionary billionaire. And because starting a business involves many different kinds of expertise and all sorts of uncertainties, it can be difficult to find people and organizations committed to helping one realize their vision for a better tomorrow. Even at the most fundamental levels.

However, this is not the case at Michigan State University.

Thanks to a growing number of resources focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, such as The MSU Hatch and Spartan Innovations, there has never been a better time for MSU students to make the transition from a dreamer to a doer — no Mark Zuckerberg needed.

The MSU Hatch (aka, The Hatch) is a co-working space designed for student entrepreneurs. It’s where teams find freedom to explore their ideas, conduct research, collaborate, and develop their startups. But they are not alone in their exploration — The Hatch also provides hands-on mentorship from entrepreneurship experts as well as a fleet of business, marketing, design, and development interns. In fact, these interns are students themselves, sharing the same passion for innovation that drives student entrepreneurs and employing their distinct skills to help peers achieve necessary goals.

But this group of nearly twenty interns represents only one part of a teamconnected to Spartan Innovations, the organization that manages and operates The Hatch. And herein lies a great asset for MSU student entrepreneurs: direct access to individuals dedicated to connecting them with capital funding opportunities, mentorship programs, alumni lectures, networking events, and much more. So, regardless of a startup’s proposed direction — success is the priority.

The main entrance of Spartan Innovations.

Paul Jaques, Director of Student and Community Engagement at Spartan Innovations, was one of the first people brought on board to mold The Hatch and Spartan Innovations and expand the entrepreneurship program back in 2012.

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Paul Jaques

Previously, Jaques was working as an Internship Developer for MSU Career Services, where he doubled as an unofficial liaison between students who had business ideas and the external entrepreneurial resources they needed.

As an entrepreneur himself, he possessed valuable connections into the venture world. And by having his hand on the pulse of a budding student community of entrepreneurs, Jaques was a natural fit for the challenge of building Spartan Innovations from the ground up. (In many ways, Spartan Innovations developed similarly to a startup and remains one to this day.)

Although there was no exact blueprint for this type of organization, other universities, such as Harvard, Stanford and The University of Michigan, were also developing their own entrepreneurship programs. So, Jaques began researching how these universities were forming their plans and what types of strategies were prevailing. In addition, he began cultivating relationships with professors from both MSU and elsewhere who were passionate about entrepreneurship, gathering insight on effective ways to outline such a diverse professional escapade.

After assembling an initial foundation of knowledge, Jaques began to reach out to his target audience — MSU students. The goal was to compile a better understanding of their initial thoughts regarding entrepreneurship, helping to determine what was needed to spark enthusiasm and encourage achievement.

“Right away there was a huge interest from students who were getting involved with the Entrepreneurship Association and wanting to learn innovation and start companies,” said Jaques.

TempoRun, an app that enabled runners to categorize music based on tempo and create playlists complimentary to their various running paces, was one of the first startups from The Hatch and Spartan Innovations to see notable success. In fact, the five MSU students who made the app won a student startup pitch competition at SXSW; allowing them to fully develop and launch their product.

Indeed, the stage was set for other students to start building their own companies.

Then, in 2014, The Hatch underwent major renovations stemming from an influx of student interest, doubling in size and adding amenities. A sign of things to come, the appearance of the space continues to change as students offer new ideas on how it should look and what should be included.

“What we thought we had then has evolved every year,” Jaques said.

Some of the more obscure items to make the cut: space chairs, standing desks, a 3D printer, ping pong table, gumball machine, and kegerator.

For the more traditional types — a coffee maker.

A panorama view of The Hatch.

As The Hatch and Spartan Innovations continue to grow, additional resources are being implemented for students who are interested in entrepreneurship.

Intro nights, workshops, and Innovate State speaker events offer engaging, yet casual opportunities for students to learn and network with peers, faculty, and successful alumni entrepreneurs (not to mention occasional free food and drinks). You can view a full calendar of events by clicking here.

Another resource is Conquer Accelerator, which recently finished its second-ever cohort season. In partnership with The Hatch and Spartan Innovations, Conquer has become one of the premier business acceleration programs in Michigan, helping startups, many of which are founded by MSU students, overcome hurdles by providing $20k in funding and ten weeks of thorough hands-on mentorship and training.

There’s also a new dev shop competition hosted by The Hatch where students pitch their ideas to a team of in-house app developers, and the top four to five ideas are chosen for development. As it happens, the initial round of pitching yielded a whopping 19 business ideas!

When asked about The Hatch and Spartan Innovations and the role it’s played in shaping his business, Matthew Eleweke ’17, founder of Sympl., said, “I had no prior experience with running a business, LLC paperwork, business plans, executive summaries, or anything like that. Spartan Innovations introduced me to these things and provided me with network connections who helped me learn the things needed to move from idea phase to functioning business. If you are driven and are willing to put in the work, there is a lot you can learn from the Spartan Innovations program.”

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Matthew Eleweke

Like Sympl., there have been many other novel startups to come out of The Hatch and Spartan Innovations since its inauguration over five years ago, including: Conecter, The York Project, Protection, GoSpot, Prndl, and Vade Nutrition, among others.

However, getting involved with The Hatch and Spartan Innovations provides more than the opportunity to blaze a trail of entrepreneurship. It also empowers students to learn unique business skills and gain valuable experience, preparing them for future career work. Many former student entrepreneurs who have gone on to land jobs at intriguing startups and other incredible organizations credit their participation in MSU’s entrepreneurship program as a key step in their professional development.

Now, it’s your turn. If you have an idea for a product, service, app, or are simply interested in learning more about how you can get involved with entrepreneurship at MSU, visit The Hatch website. Also, did you know there’s a university-wide entrepreneurship and innovation minor? Click here to learn more, and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter!

You could even stop by and say hello. The Hatch and Spartan Innovations are located on the third floor of 325 E. Grand River Ave. in East Lansing.

We can’t wait to collaborate.

Fast Company and WIRED Offer Top-of-Mind Takes on Tech Trends and PR

Breaking down a Silicon Valley ‘Inside the Newsroom’ event featuring three prominent journalism figures and a discussion about tech, society, PR, and the elements of a great story.

This piece was originally published on the blog Ishmael’s Corner.

Fast-paced business, sky-high valuations, innovation-driven individuals and unlimited opportunity; a few of the ideas that came to mind when I pictured Silicon Valley nearly three months ago before moving here sight unseen. Although I may have relied too heavily on the fantastical experiences of Richard Hendricks and crew to shape my initial beliefs, I was nevertheless attracted to these enterprising qualities as a 22-year-old millennial Michigander who has spent his entire life in a mitten. However, surrounded by a sudden sphere of unfamiliarity, my eyes were quickly opened to a personal yearning for one thing — relationships.

Fitting then that I find myself immersed in a professional field where building relationships is the essence of the job — public relations. Critical to every aspect of our profession, especially at The Hoffman Agency, relationships flow throughout the pipeline — starting with the client and ending with the target audience. But press releases don’t typically serve as a means to the end, so there is a key relationship to be cultivated in between.

I’m referring to PR’s ever-evolving bond/battle with the media, of course. A storied juncture fostered by mutual understanding and effective collaboration, but at times held back by poor communication and a lack of invigorating material. In an ideal world, PR and journalism enable each other to do their best work, and upholding our end of the bargain requires much more than a daydream. To develop a better understanding of the types of client stories that will resonate, we need to consistently interact with editors, journalists and influencers to discover the trends and ideas shaping specific beats and industries.

Recently, several Hoffmanites and I attended an Inside the Newsroom: Media Talk Tech PRSA event focused on hosting this very type of conversation as it relates to technology. After a series of wrong turns, mostly due to my poor directional intuition, we arrived at Highwire PR’s office in San Francisco to listen to James Wilson, managing editor at GamesBeat; Sean Captain, tech editor at Fast Company; and David Pierce, senior staff writer at WIRED, share their thoughts on society and its shifting relationship with media and tech, the foremost tech topics and what elements embody an awesome story.

1. Tech & Society: Inextricably Linked

While I expected that the conversation would eventually shift to the election and President Trump, the panelists began venting their ideas on the subject within a matter of minutes. Whether involving little-hands-turned-big-Twitter-fingers, the Democratic Party email hacking or the facilitation of fake news across the Web, one thing is for certain — technology played a major in role in determining the outcome of one of the most important political competitions in the world. To add some perspective, David said, “WIRED is built off this idea that tech and society are inextricably linked,” an unavoidable truth that seems to grow every day, for better or worse.

Similarly, tech continues to revolutionize the overall media landscape by impacting the ways in which people consume information. David reiterated that the opportunity to connect with people is greater than ever before due to social platforms, video and the expansiveness of the internet in general, but this presents a complex situation.

In one sense, detailed journalism has gained a reinvigorated significance as more and more people feel overwhelmed by confusing news, i.e., anything having to do with the White House. And although statements such as, “Come for the list, stay for the investigative reporting,” contain some truth (Sean admitted he was guilty of this behavior), the panel was in consensus that the public is using widely accessible information to try and figure out what in the world is going on — literally.

Unfortunately, as the opportunity to communicate has grown, so has the amount of misinformation. Fake news and hate speech have emerged to become toxic factors in shaping public opinion, and the panel was adamant about the increasing pressure on Facebook and others to control this phenomenon. Sean summed up this issue by saying, “All platforms facilitate hate speech.” And while no one had a specific answer about what it’s going to take to stop, the point is that its effect is undeniable.

You may be wondering how all of this relates to PR and, to be honest, I think the answer is still unrefined. However, as people increasingly allow the media to shape their opinions, it’s important for PR professionals to recognize our potential impact. After all, our goal is to influence audiences, so we need to ensure that the standard of our storytelling remains high, while prioritizing honesty and credibility in everything we do.

But enough about what may be holding us back; let’s look at what’s pushing us forward.

2. Foremost Tech Topics — The Three A’s & IoT

Somewhat unsurprisingly, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, autonomy and the Internet of Things drove the conversation surrounding hot tech topics. Sean showed particular interest in AI, noting he is keen on the companies and people pushing this machine forward. He also went as far to say, “Every company is an AI company,” using the spell check tool as an example of how some forms of AI may be overlooked.

Meanwhile, David said he was looking forward to diving deeper into IoT and how people will live in a fully connected world. When asked how far away we are from a connected future, he offered an insightfully dim response, saying, “The sad answer is it’s going to be amazing someday, but it’s way further away than we want it to be, and it’s going to be super messy getting there.” Looking at the nearer future, he said that augmented reality will be “the story of the next six months,” singling out Facebook as a leader in the field.

In tech PR, it’s important to understand these overarching trends because they can be used to amplify the relevance of seemingly small advancements, therefore helping to define media relations strategies. David offered an example of something small effectively being connected to a larger trend in the form of Dropbox and its decision to leave AWS in 2016, recalling, “I actually cannot think of anything more boring than Dropbox leaving AWS.” But the author of the piece, Cade Metz, recognized that this supposedly insignificant news contained compelling context and represented the apex of a widespread shift in cloud computing — resulting in an incredible article.

At The Hoffman Agency, I’ve witnessed this approach be successfully deployed time and again, i.e., aligning an announcement with a broader trend, yet keeping the company at the center of the story and attracting coverage. I’ve also seen this type of creativity boost enthusiasm across account teams, helping us to more deeply comprehend how our clients are innovating within certain industries, creating a sort of win-win situation.

3. What Makes a Great Story? + PR’s Role

Finally, to kick off what was the most PR-focused portion of the overall conversation, Sean was quick to remark,

“In general, the best stories aren’t pitched.”

This comment, which elicited some polite laughs and simultaneously debilitated the aspirations of attendees scheming to secure a feature in Fast Company, made for a questionable start. Yet, hope was eventually restored as he began to outline some positive aspects of working alongside PR professionals. He focused on the idea that conversations with instrumental individuals can go a long way in developing a potential story, warm to the offering, “Come in, chat, and see where it goes.” Additionally, he knows PR contacts to be very useful in acting as a helping hand, assisting with requests and providing resources; a relatively dated opinion, to be sure.

David, on the other hand, let the audience dream a little by diving right into the elements which he thinks embody the best kinds of stories. He brought us back to the basic concept of a story, encouraging us to think about the question, “Who is the main character?” Along this line, he understands the worth of the fundamental storytelling arc, noting that conversations where the subject can provide some sort of narrative tension and venture outside of their comfort zone prove to be the most fruitful.

PR-shaming comments or not, the common theme bridging these ideas is that most intriguing, well-rounded stories require more than just hard news. Adding a human element is necessary to provide a genuine narrative. This reminded me of Lou Hoffman’s blog post in which he breaks down the vital importance of sourcing sessions, offering tips on how they can be utilized to unearth the best client-centric content before crafting a potential story pitch. So, if we are to disprove Sean’s opinion regarding the nature of outstanding stories being separate from pitches, re-examining the people involved with a business and gathering distinct background information is an essential first step.

Having never attended an Inside the Newsroom event before, I enjoyed learning from these influential media figures and conversing with them afterwards. An experience much more powerful than, let’s say, following them on Twitter or introducing myself via email. It may sound cliché, but journalists are people too; ones who thoroughly enjoy sharing their ideas and meeting interesting people. In turn, PR professionals need to continue to capitalize on these intimate networking opportunities as they allow us to gain knowledge, differentiate ourselves, and build a foundation for future working relationships.

I know The Hoffman Agency will.

Side Note: A lot can change in a couple of years. Compare current themes at the intersection of PR, tech and media to ideas stemming from a similar PRSA event which took place in 2015.