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Ready to Launch

Morph your invention from a concept into a company with these programs.

If an idea for a new product is swimming around in your head but you need help bringing that invention to the surface, look to a college inventing program to learn the ins and outs of product design and development. Josh Kerson sought the help of the Lemelson Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. A student at the University of Massachusetts, he was in the University Without Walls program. This allowed him to take a design class within the Lemelson Program, which draws students mainly from Hampshire College and other allied universities in the Amherst area. The result was his invention of a hybrid electric recumbent cycle--a three-wheeled cycle where the rider is seated in a laid-back position. He founded his company, RunAbout Cycles Inc., in 2005 after producing successful prototypes within the program. "We were fortunate to have such a fantastic facility," says Kerson, 38. Now selling the cycles online and in a few specialized stores for about $4,500 each, Florence, Massachusetts-based RunAbout Cycles hopes to ramp up production to about 2,000 units in 2007.

A fabrication facility is just one of the many benefits the Lemelson Program offers, notes Colin Twitchell, founding director. "It's important for the students to understand their own process of invention," he says. "[We examine] the things they can do to enhance their technological and inventive creativity, we expose them to other successful inventors and entrepreneurs and we also strongly believe in experiential education." In fact, almost as soon as students have an idea for an invention, they're encouraged to make a mock-up of it--just to get it out of their head and into some tangible form. Courses in design and fabrication techniques as well as the overarching theme of entrepreneurship help guide students, who can join the program anytime during their college career and can stay through graduation.

Don't live in the Amherst area? Check out the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance for similar programs near you. The NCIIA is an organization formed to encourage invention, innovation and entrepreneurship in the college environment. Hampshire College is an NCIIA member school, as is the University of Maryland, which houses VentureAccelerator, a program designed to help entrepreneurial students and faculty form companies around their inventions. The program offers mentorships, networking and business planning to help launch new ventures. Says Scott Laughlin, director of VentureAccelerator, "We help faculty and students who have ideas [with commercial potential] create companies and bring them into the private sector."

The NCIIA provides workshops all across the country through its member schools, including the Invention2Venture workshops--one-day intensive events that help budding entrepreneurs learn how to get from the idea phase to business startup. The NCIIA website is also a good resource for information on various grants and competitions, especially ones for biomedical or highly technical inventions. "In our program, which focuses on stimulating and then supporting students as they explore their own capabilities as inventors and entrepreneurs, we've seen there are no limits to what individuals can achieve if they're persistent, determined and creative," says Phil Weilerstein, executive director of the NCIIA. "Often, students who had not previously thought of themselves as inventors are able to engage with ideas and successfully turn them into practical prototypes, develop a compelling business opportunity around them and get them into the marketplace."

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This article was originally published in the April 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Ready to Launch.

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