[Update, 8/3/18, 8:29 a.m., see below.] Between July 2017 and July 2018, the University of Notre Dame launched 27 student and faculty startups, which is an accomplishment on its own.
But when you consider that before 2017, the school had previously launched a total of 33 startups over the course of its entire 175-year history, that accomplishment signals a sea change in the way Notre Dame approaches the commercialization of technologies born at the university.
Nick Swisher attributes the activity to the 2017 opening of Notre Dame’s IDEA Center, where he’s the director of marketing and communications. The university, he explains, received $138 million in research funding last year. (By comparison, in fiscal year 2016, Johns Hopkins led all other universities by dedicating just over $2 billion to research efforts.) “And with new research money came new ideas and inventions. Notre Dame understood it needed to take advantage,” he says. [Editor’s note: Swisher clarified that Notre Dame has been a research university for some time and is growing.]
The IDEA Center, which stands for Innovation, De-Risking, and Enterprise Acceleration, is the campus hub for “all things related to startups and entrepreneurship,” Swisher says. According to its website, the center provides “space, services, and expertise for idea development, commercialization, business formation, prototyping, entrepreneurial education, and student entrepreneurial efforts.”
To get into the IDEA Center, startups must be licensed as a business, have a business plan and management team, and undergo assessment for market potential. Among the 27 startups launched in the past year, 13 were in the healthcare sector, with the remainder divided between IT, law, and media companies, Swisher says. Collectively, the startups raised more than $4 million in investments or grants, created 83 new jobs, launched 23 products, and generated more than $500,000 in sales. Thirty-one of the 55 founders who started companies were Notre Dame students.
Swisher says the newly energized commercialization operation at Notre Dame is the brainchild of Bryan Ritchie, associate provost and vice president for innovation. Ritchie was recruited last year from the University of Utah, which Swisher says is the top commercialization university in the United States. (Swisher also worked for Ritchie at the University of Utah.)
“Notre Dame said, ‘We want a piece of this,’” he says. “The university opened the process to students, who led 17 of the 27 startups. These are really smart kids, a real source of innovation and inspiration to us. We had over 150 ideas for businesses submitted by students last year.”
Swisher says up to 80 percent of business ideas will be rejected by the university’s “benevolent executioners” working to vet and de-risk them. “We employ an army of interns who make calls to get actionable feedback on whether to move forward,” he says. “Either way, students and faculty benefit from the process.”
Swisher says the IDEA Center’s goal for the 2018-19 fiscal year is to create 30 new startups. That would help to fulfill the center’s mission of building a regional startup ecosystem that encompasses the South Bend and Elkhart areas and attracts more investment capital to local entrepreneurs, stimulating the economy as a whole. In addition, Notre Dame plans to eventually open the IDEA Center process to alumni as well as members of the community with no ties to the university.
“I think it’s just the beginning of things,” Swisher adds. “The number of startups we launch will probably level off, so we need to ensure we hang onto them as long as we can. They’ll operate independently, but Notre Dame has a director of startups whose whole job is to make sure companies are getting their needs met.”