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University of Nevada, Reno Student Priorities

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The University of Nevada has a strong suite of entrepreneurial resources and programs dedicated to giving entrepreneurs and hopeful entrepreneurs the tools they need to flesh out their ideas and shore up their business acumen. Many of these resources are presented in the context of the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, a $50,000 annual business plan contest, but they are given with the subtext that even unsuccessful bids for the Sontag can be developed into sustainable businesses after the competition’s end. Nevada also maintains an active Technology Transfer Office with a proven track record of vetting viable research projects and successfully developing plans to commercialize them. Both of the two winners so far in the Sontag were TTO spin-out projects.

Academically, Nevada has a solid and growing entrepreneurship program. Four entrepreneurship classes are offered by the University as either high-level undergraduate or graduate courses. Together, they serve as requirements for an entrepreneurship minor, usually to complement a business degree, or as a specialization in the University’s MBA. The Department maintains two Endowed Chairs in Entrepreneurship, as well as an Entrepreneur in Residence.

The extracurricular environment for entrepreneurship is also active. The UNR Entrepreneurship Club holds guest speaker sessions and organizes events—including Pack Pitch, a miniature business plan and pitch competition. Other student organizations like Enactus and various engineering groups also maintain active chapters on campus.

However, the primary shortcoming of Nevada’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it is localized. Very little interest in innovation and entrepreneurship exists beyond the entrepreneurship community; even though there is interest, it hasn’t metastasized to the campus at large. Dan Langford of the University’s Technology Transfer Office agreed, mentioning that the campus’s community of entrepreneurially inclined business students and the campus’s research community very rarely overlap. Therefore, the first step in any effort to transform the University of Nevada should not be to add a resource to the existing supply for entrepreneurs; instead, it should be to fuel cultural demand.

Creating a culture of entrepreneurship, though, is no easy task: it requires a broad-based appeal to the nascent ambitions of students campus-wide. The best way to do this would be to drum up exposure for successful startups at Nevada and in Reno, as direct proof that students can be directly responsible for innovative shifts. More than enough successful companies exist at Reno, Tahoe, and Truckee to make this possible; for further reaching, Silicon Valley and Las Vegas are also nearby.

The second strategy in setting a cultural precedent for entrepreneurship is to ensure that the people who do get involved are given every resource to actually commit to their ventures. The students who enter business plan competitions today are too easily dispelled from taking their projects to market, either by attractive job prospects or by inability to take the final steps toward incorporation. Therefore, bodies that help bridge the gap between academic exercise and functioning company—functioning incubators, student venture funds, legal assistance groups—could result in more startups and in more student examples.

Link to Prezi overview of campus ecosystem

Strategy #1: Sow a Widespread Entrepreneurial Culture

Reno will need a critical mass of startups to really ignite its reputation as an innovative/entrepreneurial hotbed. To develop that community, the University has to fuel a culture of entrepreneurship over the next 2-3 years.

Tactic #1: Local Entrepreneurial Guest Speakers

The best way to change culture is by example: Reno and Nevada have to show, not tell, that they have an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurship and a culture that encourages it. To this end, publicized guest lectures that drive home entrepreneurial lessons, ambitions, and successes would start to put innovative thoughts in students’ heads—especially if these thoughts came from the entrepreneurs behind new, relevant, and important businesses. A hard-hitting series of entrepreneurial guest lectures would be the ideal way to pull this off. It’d require exceptional, national-level connections: local entrepreneurs, though directly relevant, might not have the kind of pull that this plan needs. Reaching out to Vegas and Silicon Valley is probably the best way to balance locality with notoriety; ideally, executives from companies like Google and Zappos would be able to contribute their wisdom and celebrity to the effort. 

  • Team Leader: Nolan Nicholson
  • Milestones: Reach Out and Plan Connections, 12/2013-1/2014; First Speaker, 2/2014 - and onward

Tactic #2: Mentorship Programs

Nobody is better at changing students’ perspectives than fellow students—and, if students don’t yet have the wherewithal to start their own successful businesses, then the next best thing is to give them a day in the life. Mentorship and shadowing are invaluable tools for entrepreneurs: they give students a chance to view, concretely, the inner workings of an inspirational company.

The idea here is this: Students compete for a chance to shadow high-profile, entrepreneurial companies. They visit the company for a day or more, learn everything they can about the work role there, and then return to—most importantly—give a speech on their experiences and impressions. This could work for a couple of reasons. First, it encourages connections between high-tech companies and the University by showing these companies the best and brightest that Nevada has to offer. Second, it helps develop of hopeful entrepreneurs by giving them visceral examples to shoot for. Third, it gives these students a chance to help share entrepreneurial lessons by putting them in front of an audience.

  • Team Leader: TBD
  • Milestones: Connections, 1/2014-2/2014; Application Process, 3/2014-4/2014; First Program Summer or Fall 2014?

Tactic #3: Inspirational/Entrepreneurial Campus Marketing

Even without specific experiences or examples, constant visual reminders and examples of entrepreneurship in action—probably in the form of inspirational quotes from entrepreneurs—can help implant the ideas of innovation and entrepreneurship into students’ minds and get them excited, even without advertising any particular project. This is a long-term endeavor: rather than try to drum up hype for anyone event, it tries to change overall mindsets until people come to start thinking entrepreneurially.

The hope is twofold. One, by making innovation and entrepreneurship look good on campus, this effort will reframe Nevada as a campus with entrepreneurship as part of its culture. Second, by increasing entrepreneurial sentiment among students, this campaign will increase the demand for and popularity of existing entrepreneurial efforts on campus—including the Sontag Competition, the engineering labs and machine shops, local makerspaces, the Small Business Development Center, and more.

  • Team Leader: TBD; ideally someone well-connected to PRSSA, AMA, or graphic design talent
  • Milestones: Collect Examples, 12/2013; Design, 2/2014; Start Disseminating, 4/2014

Strategy #2: Pushing Commitment

An excess of promising startups at Nevada are stopped in the development stage: either they abandon viable efforts once they fail to win a business plan competition, they stop their efforts at the legal and logistical barriers to incorporation, or they find more lucrative job opportunities right after college.

Tactic #1: Venture Support Center

The Nevada Small Business Development Center is already working on an incubator for student ventures; this effort would benefit from redoubled effort and student involvement. A Venture Support Center, a dedicated space where vetted ideas can go to receive legal assistance and licensure, would help immensely with students’ indecisions about taking the step toward incorporation. This resource would put wind in wantrepreneurs’ sails—especially those who are more inclined toward engineering innovation and have less experience with legal hurdles.

This space does not need to be an entirely new creation: it could instead be an expansion or rebranding of the NSBDC or the Tech Transfer Office. As preparation for developing such a center, interested groups will have to conduct research into the existing facilities (namely, NSBDC and TTO) and figure out what they already offer in the way of legal and logistical assistance. If their offering is already substantial, then expanding its availability and publicity to students is the only needed leap; if there are significant shortcomings or unassisted hurdles, more resources will be needed.

  • Team Leader: TBD from TTO or NSBDC
  • Milestones: Research, 1/2014 - 2/2014. Subsequent timeline depends on determined extent of facelift/resources required

Tactic #2: Student Venture Fund

The Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition is a windfall for Nevada’s current innovation/entrepreneurship ecosystem, but Rick Sontag and others only meant for it to be a first step—not a central pillar. The Sontag, despite the lure of its massive size, is limited in its impact. For one, it’s nearly all-or-nothing: aside from the $50,000 winner and a $5,000 second prize, nobody who enters the Sontag sees any return on their work or noticeable incentive to continue. For another, even though entrants are often told that their ventures will receive the attention of investors, this has not actually happened to any meaningful extent yet.

A student-run venture fund would address this problem head-on. First, a venture fund could disburse its money freely and proportionately instead of prescribing the single lump sum found in business plan competitions. Second, it could more closely simulate the investment climate of post-collegiate entrepreneurship. Third, it would professionally develop the students serving as fund members by teaching them to critically evaluate businesses’ viability, which would also inform their ability to plan successful businesses later on.

Finally and critically, highlighting recently invested ventures would publicize the fund, the University's endorsement of student entrepreneurship, and the ventures themselves.

  • Team Leader: TBD
  • Milestones: Solicit Fund Members, 2-3/2014; Gather Funds, 4-5/2014; Start Accepting Applications, 8/2014

Tactic #3: Angel Investment Pipeline

In the absence or complement of a dedicated, student-run venture fund, the University would still do well to develop connections with local venture capitalists, funds, and angel investors. This way, local investment figures can still be brought into the fold and given the chance to evaluate student businesses.

Having angel investors in on student ventures is an easy endeavor: most of the work would be in forging connections that should already exist. Their initial involvement could be investment in competition winners or contribution to the Student Venture Fund; it could also be as simple as agreeing to speak or provide advice on courting investors like themselves.

This option also has many direct benefits. First, it legitimizes the University as a venture space. Second, it connects students and their projects with the constant opportunity for endorsement and funding from external sources—even if they miss the timeline for the Sontag or another competition. Third, it connects the University’s entrepreneurship resources with those of storied and experienced investors, who could then be brought on as advisors, guest speakers, or competition judges.

  • Team Leader: Nolan Nicholson
  • Milestones: Connect, 12/2013-1/2014; Plan Events, 2-3/2014


Related Links

University of Nevada, Reno

Nolan Nicholson