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Ask a local in a college town what the ivory tower has done for their economy lately, and they might point to some hip bars, a thriving pizza joint and a sweat shirt shop. But a growing number of colleges are working with their cities to foster a local entrepreneurial spirit that will develop the economy and encourage business-savvy students to stick around. From community mentoring to innovative technology transfer departments to good old-fashioned inspiration, here are 10 examples of how institutions of higher ed are collaborating with their communities to spread the small-business bug.
University of Wisconsin-Madison and Madison, Wis.
City population: 231,916
UW-Madison student population: 42,030
University employees: 18,401
Metro area small businesses: 11,876
Nearest major airport: Milwaukee's Mitchell International (85 miles)
At many universities, entrepreneurial programs are confined to one slice of campus. At UW-Madison, the entrepreneurial spirit is widely distributed. "We combine classroom learning with a hands-on applied component," says Dan Olszewski, director of UW's Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship. MBA students work with local companies, local business leaders speak on campus, and entrepreneur boot camps are frequent. But UW has fostered entrepreneurship primarily through its world-class University Research Park. Founded 25 years ago, the 255-acre plot houses 4,000 well-educated, high-wage employees at more than 150 companies that started as campus spinoffs. The park is such a success that in August, the university signed a lease for Research Park II, a 270-acre development on the outskirts of town. "We understand the importance of entrepreneurship in helping us to continue to grow as a country and region," Olszewski says.
Madison has done a bang-up job of attracting biotech companies to its research park, but a few years ago the university realized it needed to encourage business development from its computer science program and a growing crop of student entrepreneurs in need of space outside their dorm rooms. So the University Research Park bought the abandoned Gisholt Machine Co. in a funky neighborhood in downtown Madison and rehabbed it into a 6,000-square-foot, 10-suite Metro Innovation Center. It installed a broadband pipe and a kiosk with direct access to the UW library, and planted a server farm in the basement. So far, two local internet firms and two student businesses have moved in. Once occupancy reaches 80 percent, the university will create studios on the second floor for artists and other creatives. "Internet companies can go almost anywhere," says Mark Bugher, director of the UW Research Park. "We want companies that will employ our computer science graduates and benefit the community."
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.