While Stanford’s gain from Google is unusual, technology-transfer agreements have long been the primary means by which universities support and profit from startups. However, as Facebook illustrates, more student-founded companies are bootstrapping without university technology, leaving schools without any profit — though that may be changing.
“The university has always been a supplier of both technology and talent,” says Frank Rimalovski Managing Director of the NYU Innovation Venture Fund “and its our job to foster and support that.” Rimalovski’s fund, which was created by the university in 2010, makes seed and series A investments in startups with ties to NYU. To date the $20 Million fund has made three investments two of which — Fondu and numberFire — were started by current students with no ties to university technology. “There’s definitely been a groundswell of entrepreneurial interest from students,” says Rimalovski “and if there’s another Zuckerberg walking around our hallways, we want to be as supportive as we would of a faculty member working on a new cancer therapy.”
“Young people have always wanted to change the world,” says Hugo Van Vuuren, a founding partner at the Experiment Fund (xFund), a new seed-stage investor housed at Harvard’s Graduate School of Engineering. What’s new, says Van Vuuren, is that their turning to startups as vehicles to do so. Van Vuuren’s fund, which was announced in January, has already made a number of small investments in high-profile startups like RockHealth, led by Hall Tecco (MBA 11′) and Omada, co-founded by Sean Duffy, currently on leave from Harvard’s MD/ MBA program.
“The culture on campus is definitely changing,” says David J. Miller, a researcher at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy who studies student entrepreneurship, “universities are under tremendous budgetary pressure in terms of outside funding and also from students paying tuition.” Rimalovski agrees saying “to be a real player as a university today, you have to engage students and faculty who are increasingly interested in starting companies.”
While university investment in startups outside of technology-transfer is fairly new, college campuses have long been a breeding ground for new businesses. Years before Brin and Page, Michael Dell was selling PC kits out of his dorm at University of Texas-Austin and Bill Gates was writing computer applications in his Harvard dorm. “The emphasis on tech-transfer is definitely misguided,” says Miller “when you look at the most successful entrepreneurs, technology is rarely a decisive factor — Bill Gates was definitely not the best coder around.”