Incubators make things grow and develop quickly by providing a protected and nurturing environment. In hospitals, incubators keep babies warm. On farms, incubators help eggs hatch. At The University of Iowa, there’s an incubator that helps turn ambitious students into successful entrepreneurs.
This unique incubator, the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL), opened in May 2004 as a program of the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). Housed in a renovated fraternity house on Clinton Street, the 10,000-square-foot BELL provides secure office space, computers and office equipment, meeting rooms, mentoring, and other programs to students who are interested in planning and launching their own businesses. The building also houses space for networking events, lectures, and other programs that are open to the entire UI community.
“Having the space helps students get rid of barriers to starting businesses,” says Lynn Jahn, JPEC assistant director, who, along with JPEC director David Hensley, mentors the student teams who are awarded space in the new facility. Jahn and Hensley not only counsel students one-on-one but also connect the students with successful entrepreneurs, potential investors, and other people and resources that enhance students’ potential for success.
Students in any major are eligible to apply to participate in the laboratory, though one member of each student team must be enrolled in an entrepreneurship class. Iowa’s Tippie College of Business is known for its entrepreneurship program—The Princeton Review and Forbes.com have ranked Iowa among the top 25 entrepreneurial universities. Students enrolled in the entrepreneurship certificate program (or those who just take a few courses) have ample opportunities to learn about the pluses and minuses of starting a new business venture.
“People are wanting to have more control over their lives,” Jahn says, explaining the growing interest in entrepreneurship at Iowa. “It’s about encouraging exploration—finding that thing that you love and finding out if you can make a go of it as a business. But we also have to educate them about the flip side of being an entrepreneur, about the risks. We try to get students focused on thinking bigger than just creating jobs for themselves—we want them to think about creating equity and creating jobs for others.”
One team of students currently using the laboratory to launch their business venture intend to not only create equity and jobs, but to improve health care.
The Ergo Ingenieur group, comprised of undergraduate students Joel Anderson, Brad Bartels, Justin Glasgow, Samuel Hartman, Samantha Lane, and Jonathan Thompson, is one of several BELL teams from the College of Engineering.
The venture began as a project in a biomechanical design class, during which this group of biomedical engineering majors discovered that the slit lamp used by optometrists and ophthalmologists—the contraption patients rest their chin on while the doctor uses various lights and instruments to examine the eyes—isn’t ergonomically friendly. The model currently used in hospitals and clinics all over the country can’t be adjusted according to the doctor or patient’s physical stature, potentially compromising safety or comfort of care. Encouraged by engineering professors and UI Hospitals and Clinics physicians who saw their initial plans and thought there was a market for their new product, the team sought out the BELL resources.
“Being engineers, none of us knew much about business,” Glasgow says. Professors advised the students to protect their intellectual property and seek a patent, and the team’s meetings with Jahn have helped them learn how to go about that process, as well as how to write a business plan and set goals. Jahn and the JPEC team also can help BELL students find investors to get projects off the ground.
“Capital is our limiting resource,” Glasgow says. “As we secure funds, we can make progress.”
For Glasgow and Thompson, pursuing a business venture that could have a real impact on human health is a natural extension of their life-long ambitions to be physicians.
“It could really help patients and doctors by preventing injury,” Glasgow says.
Other student groups using the BELL facility have ranged from real estate development ventures to a company that makes videos of international motocross races. Students’ imaginations and passions are the only limits on what else could hatch in the BELL incubator.
For more information about the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory and other entrepreneurship programs offered through JPEC, visit www.iowajpec.org or call (319) 335-1022.
by Anne Remington