One of the most important changes to the University of Michigan during the past few years is a nearly exponential increase of entrepreneurship and innovation first among our students and now also among faculty and staff. I believe this comes from the temporal alignment of two drivers for this change.
The first one is bottom up: More than half of our students are from Michigan and have experienced first-hand that “life as we know it” does not lead to life-long success. Students understand that there is no such thing as a free ride. They realize success much more likely comes from the ability to out-innovate others and create value for an employer. Students understand that reward and risk are related and they want to know how they can experience that by themselves. There are some very important characteristics of Michigan entrepreneurs: If you ask these students why they are interested in entrepreneurship, they will never respond with a financial type of motivation, but one that relates to purpose and impact. “We want to reinvent the way hospitals work because our healthcare system is not working right now.” “We want to make this technology useful in the developing world and provide energy for poor farmers.” It is impact-driven entrepreneurship that is the brand of entrepreneurship that drives Michigan. Also, we noticed that some of the most interesting companies and projects come from teams that span multiple units. In fact, we joke about “Michigan teams” if we see an engineer teamed with an MBA working with a person from the School of Natural Resources they are all from top-ten programs, but they find each other here like nowhere else. In fact, we have the most connected entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus than any other peer institution. Finally, we noticed many Michigan entrepreneurs want to make “stuff.” Many of the items have strong software, cloud or data components, but there is something there you can touch. Thus, the bottoms-up entrepreneurship movement is driven by the students seeking to make an impact and by students connecting across disciplinary boundaries and taking advantage of the excellence over breadth Michigan can offer. It is also about building – that is in the DNA of our students.
There is a top-down driver as well: There have been clear signals for change from President Coleman, Vice-President Forrest and Dean Munson as well as many others that basically helped to drive entrepreneurship at a speed and to a size that others can only dream about. When the bottoms-up movement started to grow, people at the top encouraged it and in fact helped channel it to become more successful. That second piece is critical for success, we should not forget that.
This academic year alone, 2,500 students campus-wide were in entrepreneurship related classes, over 5,000 took part in co-curricular activities. These numbers were around 100 or 200 respectively about 5 years ago. So, we are at 25X over five years – I hope your investments are doing that well… You should also know that we are still in the knee on all key metrics – this year’s metrics are approximately 1.25 times last year’s metrics. During the past 5 years, UM students have funded around 100 student-started companies, again rapidly increasing in quality and success. They have raised well over $5M in funding and they have employed over 200 people.
The first thing critical to this discussion is a shared understanding to entrepreneurship and its programs in Engineering and beyond. Entrepreneurial thinking is not just found in startup companies, but is a mindset that seeks to create impact. It’s a mindset that understands the critical importance of controlled risk-taking and the importance of resiliency and the ability to successfully pursue goals that are not commensurate with the currently controlled resources. Thus, entrepreneurship programs on campus seek to engage, train and allow Michigan people to experience entrepreneurship.
I would argue this tremendous momentum originates in one very simple, but radical thought: if we empower Michigan students to be leaders, they will make the impossible become possible. So, in this sense, the entrepreneurial wave is one that is powered by student leadership.