Boise State's Venture College provides a new outlet for entrepreneurs

broberts@idahostatesman.comFebruary 9, 2014 

  • WHO RUNS THE COLLEGE

    The college has three directors:

    • Kevin Learned, who co-founded a successful computer-based accounting-system company 30 years ago and is the former president of the College of Idaho. Today he is an angel investor for startups.

    • Ed Zimmer, former CEO of the ECCO Group in Boise, which makes emergency lighting.

    • Mary Andrews, Boise State's director of university and industry ventures.

  • BILL ROBERTS

    Bill has worked for the Idaho Statesman for 27 years. He covers public schools and higher education.

Nic Baughman, a Boise State University student, was riding on the shuttle bus that traverses the campus when he noticed a couple of other passengers talking. Each wore a cap bearing different New York Yankees emblems on the front. As they admired each other's logos, they took off their hats and swapped them.

An idea flashed in Baughman's brain. Why swap hats? Why not swap logos?

That was three years ago. Since then, Baughman, now 24 and working on a master's degree in chemistry and biology at Boise State, has tinkered at his kitchen table trying to perfect a hat with removable logos.

"It lets you just keep your normal hat," Baughman said.

If he sees someone coming toward him wearing a hat, he says, "Hey, how's it going. Can I talk to you about your hat?" He talks about his concept.

"People are interested in the idea," he said. "The hook is planted."

Baughman found a new outlet for his business idea when Boise State launched its Venture College last fall.

Venture College is aimed at creating startups. It's a home for students who can't get a nifty idea out of their heads but who have limited entrepreneurial skills to bring it to reality.

Boise State has committed more than $500,000 over two years to start the college. The money - from grants, not taxpayers - includes a $30,000 fund to help launch promising ventures.

Business leaders on Venture College's advisory board say it is like a new business: still coming of age but showing promise.

"(It's a) good education exposure for young people who have entrepreneurial tendencies," said Bill Drake, a board member and former chairman of Drake Cooper, a Boise advertising and marketing company. "It puts them in direct contact with seasoned business executives who have been around the block a time or two."

Boise State committed the money to add economic value to the community by helping give birth to businesses that aren't yet developed enough even to need a business incubator.

The 14 students in the first class spend time learning how to start a business and how to research the need for their products. If their ideas spurt to life, they compete for a chunk of the $30,000 to make it work, said Kevin Learned, one of three directors at the college, which is based in a street-level office at the corner of Front Street and Capitol Boulevard in Boise.

The college is open to all BSU students, but admission is competitive. For last fall's first semester, Venture College accepted 14 of 22 students who applied. Last month, the school accepted nine more from a field of 14.

The program goes for one school year. It offers no education credits toward graduation and attendance is free.

"When they apply they have to explain what their business idea is," Learned said. "We don't judge based on the business ideas. We judge on their interest and commitment to pursuing the idea."

The ideas usually evolve before students are through, Learned said.

Baughman was about to graduate from Boise State when he learned about the college. He wanted in, but Learned said he had to be a student to qualify. So Baughman decided to pursue his master's, Learned said.

"Now that's a level of commitment we were looking for," Learned said.

Baughman's idea hasn't changed much since he started the school. Kayla Griffin, however, is another story.

Griffin, 23, wanted to start an insectarium - a kind of aquarium for insects where people could come and see them. The college required her to size up potential customer interest first.

"I did a lot of interviewing," she said. "Nobody wanted to see bugs."

"I wanted to give up," she said. But she was determined to start her own business. It was time to "buck up, suck it up and get to work," she said.

She came up with another idea: Do crisis public relations for small nonprofit organizations. She's getting experience at the Idaho Aquarium, where she is working on fundraising and building a cadre of volunteers.

The aquarium got a black eye when its founders, Ammon Covino and Chris Conk, pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks to Boise for display. A federal judge in Florida sentenced Covino to one year in prison and Conk to four months.

The aquarium now has a new board and a new director. Griffin said she's had positive responses to her fundraising and volunteer recruitment.

"I am learning that I am capable," she said.

The aquarium's new director, Nancy Vannorsdel, said Griffin has done a good job bringing in volunteers.

Griffin has a savvy innocence about her, Vannorsdel said: "She believes in it."

Baughman, meanwhile, is facing his own challenges.

On the plus side, the task of outfitting a hat with a metallic sheet that can hold a magnetic logo has been reduced from two days to one hour. Preparing the logo takes 20 minutes, down from four to six hours.

He's got a customer lined up. The Boise State Bookstore has agreed to buy six dozen hats for its seven locations once he receives permission to use the Boise State logo from the company that licenses it.

"I think it is a great idea," said Erica Jensen, insignia buyer for the bookstores. "I haven't seen it before."

Baughman is also thinking of pitching his product to the Boise State Blue Thunder Marching Band, where he has played tuba.

"I eat, sleep and breathe this," he said.

But getting all the permission he needs could cost about $2,000, so he hopes he can tap in to the $30,000.

Perhaps the Venture College student who is closest to launching a business is Kelli Soll, 24, who is pursuing a master's degree in public administration.

She wanted to do something to help children in developing countries. She and her business partner, Aileen Hale, came up with an idea to pair the energy of American teenagers with the need for educational assistance in Belize, where students struggle to read. At first they thought they would bring teens to the Central American country to help make English-language CDs. They later decided to engage Belize children with American teens to produce an alphabet book.

The result was the Global Service Partnerships. Soll got $2,000 from the Venture College to go to Belize and set up the program.

For $3,000 each, American teens will travel to Belize, spend a couple of days sightseeing, then go to work creating books. The first trip is planned for spring break in March. Ten students are signed up, three from Boise High School.

Global Service Partnerships is pitched toward families looking for ways to extend the help their children can provide in the world, and it's a good candidate for that college application that asks what a student has done for others, Soll said.

"She is exposing middle-class U.S. kids to what the Third World looks like," Learned said.

Venture College is a pilot project. Said Drake, the advisory board member: "If these young people can take the seed of idea and turn it into a little company, it is going to be just one more leg on the economic stool."

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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