New UConn Co-Op Program Aims to Breed Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

Hartford Business Journal 05.03.2021


New UConn Co-Op Program Aims to Breed Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

By Sean Teehan

A pilot co-op program at UConn’s Stamford campus this fall will train students interested in entrepreneurship how to develop new products, while hopefully creating intellectual property like prototypes and patents. Students working for the program will take one or two semesters off from academic work to live on UConn’s Stamford campus, where they will be paid as full-time employees by the university’s Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

If it’s successful, there are plans to bring the program, dubbed the Stamford Startup Studio, to UConn’s Hartford campus next, officials said. The overall goal is to provide students with real-world experience in developing a product as a startup company, and it dovetails with the state’s efforts to build more vibrant startup communities in its major cities, including Stamford, Hartford and New Haven. The Werth Institute — which was established in 2017 with a $22.5 million donation from Woodbridge businessman Peter J. Werth — is running the program, which is backed in part by a $2 million state grant.

“Throughout the experience, they’ll be building competencies in design, engineering, product management, and the entrepreneurial mindset,” said Tara Watrous, head of entrepreneurial transformation at Werth, who is leading the pilot program.

The model differs slightly from traditional co-ops in which students work for an outside company, because Stamford Startup Studio pupils are essentially employees of the Werth Institute, said David Noble, the institute’s director. Werth will pay their salaries and students get free housing on the UConn Stamford campus. Students in the program will be tasked with finding innovations in the construction and real estate industries, Watrous said, but future incarnations could focus on other sectors. She and Noble said they’re finalizing partnerships with major national construction and real estate firms that will provide industry problems for students to solve, and guidance on whether the ideas are appealing.

“It’s not going to be small, localized contractors,” Noble said. “It’s going to be the much bigger companies; multibillion-dollar companies.”

Early in the semester students will attend and participate in workshops, job shadows and one-on-one sessions with industry consultants to build a foundational knowledge of the real estate and construction industries, Watrous said. Later, corporate partners will co-create business case problems that students will work on in two-week sprints to develop early-stage prototypes. They will also work with experts like venture capitalists on product pitches, and possibly try to sell their ideas to prospective investors. As a hypothetical example, a real estate company partner might say there is a common issue with an aspect of the escrow process, and students would try to figure out a way to use technology (maybe by developing a mobile pay system) to solve it. Eight pupils, whose majors range from business and engineering to human development and family studies, out of 17 applicants have been chosen for the pilot, Watrous said. Throughout the co-op, startup entrepreneurs from UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) will mentor students.

Solange Wright, a senior digital media and applied communications major, will be participating in the program this fall. She said her ideal career would be in web design or development, and she thinks the co-op will help her develop new tech skills, and prepare her to pitch ideas.

“I’m excited to work there and start pitching ideas to people,” Wright said. “I think the experience is going to be invaluable in that sense.”

Innovation Ecosystem

In a best-case scenario, the program could also grow to be an important cog in Connecticut’s efforts to create robust innovation economies in Stamford and Hartford, Noble and Watrous said. Major higher-education institutes typically anchor geographical areas known for startups, such as Stanford University in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, or MIT in Cambridge, Mass. That aspect of the program gels with efforts in Hartford to draw entrepreneurs to the city through things like startup incubators and accelerator programs.

“From a city perspective it’s a really great way to create an innovative ecosystem that serves more than just the students,” Watrous said.

The program also makes sense for UConn because students and parents are increasingly demanding work-based learning that connects pupils with employers, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“If [a college or university] wants to survive and prosper in higher education and remain competitive, they’ve got to pursue something like this,” Carnevale said. “Foundation money [for such programs] can be the best route.”

Metrics to judge the pilot program aren’t completely clear, but Watrous said it will depend in part on what students are able to do after it ends.

“Success looks like placing students in very competitive [jobs], roles they wouldn’t be able to obtain if they had not gone through this experience,” Watrous said. “Can we sell the IP? Can we launch startup teams? Can we send startup teams to the [TIP] accelerator?”