Innovating How We Support Early-Stage Student Innovators

early stage innovators

Entrepreneurship education programs in the United States grew from humble beginnings in the 1970s to around 2,100 college and university entrepreneurship curricula in 2012. Following in the footsteps of other universities, we at the University of Virginia (UVA) have steadily offered more and more entrepreneurship education programs over the years. But in the spring of 2015, we noticed that very few student entrepreneurial projects actually continued beyond the formal programs. This issue isn’t unique to UVA; by talking with entrepreneurship educators at conferences around the country, we’ve found this to be a challenge faced by many institutions. Indeed, numbers reported by the Kauffman Foundation tell the same story: the rate of new entrepreneurs has been unaffected for at least the last twenty years.

We decided to focus on addressing this issue at UVA. Following the entrepreneurial approaches of customer discovery, the creative problem-solving process, and effectuation, our goal was to identify gaps within our university entrepreneurship programs that, if addressed, would generate more early stage innovators, technologies, and successful startups coming from our institution.

The Process

1. Customer Discovery
To kick off the process, we took the approach outlined in Giff Constable’s Talking to Humans: doing short, informal, conversational interviews to understand the perspectives of students pursuing entrepreneurial projects. We decided to start with current students who had participated in the entrepreneurship competitions, and ended up interviewing close to 500 students. We found that only a tiny sliver was pursuing entrepreneurial projects, and that this small fraction’s perspective regarding university support of entrepreneurship was radically different from the perspective of the large majority of students.

2. Creative Problem Solving
With the interviews completed, we cycled through the creative problem solving process, involving a combination of divergent and convergent thinking approaches. In the first phase, Clarify, we gathered as much relevant information as possible about this challenge and converged upon the key research that most closely defined it. Next, in Ideate, we came up with ideas that could be possible solutions and converged on the ones that appeared the most promising. Third, these ideas were molded into solutions in the Develop phase, and were then e­valuated and improved to pick the best one. Finally, we laid out the roadmap for execution of the solution in the Implement phase.

3. Effectuation
In deciding how to implement the wide variety of experimental programs developed, we turned to Effectuation, the process used by “expert entrepreneurs,” in order to forge key partnerships, leverage available resources, and validate key assumptions. Through this method, we identified and have started experimental offerings that have shown early traction around a thriving community of practice of early stage innovators. In less than two years, we have gone from identifying ten student entrepreneurial projects to 70 that exist outside of any formal programming.

The Lessons Learned

By going through the above three steps, we developed a set of best practices for supporting early stage innovators that we’re following in our implementation. They are:

  1. Identify the right group of students, and design for them. Sometimes the squeakiest wheels are not the ones who should get all of the oil. Most of the engaged early stage student innovators we found were not active participants in the entrepreneurial programming that is common at many universities, including student-run organizations. Because these early stage innovators are actively working on projects instead of participating in entrepreneurial programming and are only a tiny minority of the total student population, their voices can get drowned out. The majority of students in entrepreneurial offerings is just getting started and may be there for a variety of reasons. Designing programming for the majority obscures the needs of the minority of students actively working on entrepreneurial projects.
  2. Less is more; don’t over-structure it. You do not need a fancy building with slick furnishings, an eye-catching marketing campaign, or a staff of 30 people. These may serve to bring students in the door, but if their needs are not addressed, it will eventually make the serious ones jaded. Facilitating weekly or biweekly informal meetings combined with access to an immediate connection to a resource or expert as needed are the only necessary tasks for the facilitator. Most importantly, make it personal (one-to-one) rather than transactional (one-to-many). Gathering space can help attract outside support, but personal interactions can happen in any location, and those interactions are more important than anything else.
  3. The best resources for entrepreneurs are often those that are not heavily marketed. “The tiniest dog barks the loudest.” If you want to truly facilitate early stage innovation, you or your organization need to be the node rich with the personal relationships and connection to resources and expertise that have worked well in the past. If you connect students to these personally, rather than transactionally, and you make it an expectation that they do the same for those younger students that come after them, then you build a self-sustaining and scalable system without much overhead.
  4. Don’t discount the most powerful social influence, peer effects, which provide social norms that can counteract even the most fiercely anti-entrepreneurial institutional or regional culture. Design and provide offerings for early stage innovators that naturally select for those who are there solely because of intrinsic motivation. The best approach for the intentional design of peer effects is to develop a community of practice through strong dyadic ties and then strong small group ties with weaker bridging ties between the groups (a structure that has been described before as an entrepreneurial network). This social structure then provides for lifelong relationships between students, the institution, and alumni innovators.

About the authors

Alexander Zorychta finds, guides, connects, and builds community for student entrepreneurs. He has been guiding and building community for student entrepreneurs for the past four years. A former student entrepreneur himself, he pursued a biotech startup post-graduation for two years near the University. He has been working in the Technology Entrepreneurship program at the University of Virginia where he helped start the Works in Progress program to develop the community and culture necessary to support early student innovators and student entrepreneurs past the initial stages of their projects.


Elizabeth P. Pyle is the Associate Director for Technology Entrepreneurship at the University of Virginia. Her experience in business development, strategic planning, regulatory compliance, marketing, operations, and leadership have left a lasting impact business performance from start-up to turn-around situations. She has served on various boards including the Board of Directors for the Charlottesville Venture Group where she chaired the Business Plan Review and Annual Business Forum Committees. In addition, she has served on the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council and as a founding Director for the Business Growth Network. She worked on Phthisis Diagnostics, a biotechnology company, up until their successful exit. Known for her candor and high ethical standards, positive energy and astute people skills, she has become a valued resource for business incubator programs throughout Virginia and her success as a business consultant is reflected in the successful outcomes of her clients.

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