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Universities, hoping to sway millennials, are now opening innovation hubs for undergraduates

  • As colleges look to keep pace with a competitive job market being shaped by automation and globalization, many are opening entrepreneur centers designed to entice millennials.
  • STEM education is becoming more coveted by potential employers and students alike.
  • "We have students who come in and have been programming and coding for years," said Troy D'Ambrosio, executive director of the University of Utah's Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.

The Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta, Georgia.
Philip Mccollum | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta, Georgia.

A few years ago, Raghupathy Sivakumar, an engineering professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, realized he had a problem.

An undergraduate student had just won a prestigious invention competition, but the student had no idea how to advance his idea from concept to product, a major roadblock for most undergraduates.

So, in 2014, Sivakumar was tapped to start CREATE-X, an umbrella of entrepreneurial support programs catered specifically to Georgia Tech undergraduates. Part of the program's objective was to tap into a previously ignored segment of the population: The undergraduates who form the lion's share of the school's more than 26,000-strong enrollment.

Sivakumar's experience is part of a trend in which schools are crafting entrepreneurial programs with an eye toward undergrads. As colleges look to keep pace with a competitive job market being shaped by automation and globalization, many are opening entrepreneur centers designed to entice millennials.

"The reality is most of the people at a university are generally the undergraduates," said Keith McGreggor, the director of Georgia Tech's VentureLab, another entrepreneurship hub at the school.

"New ideas could really come from anywhere," he told CNBC recently. "So to ignore the largest population of people on your campus is kind of a nutty idea, but we certainly did for a long time."

"They are very interested and understand it's more likely they'll create their own job than have a job from someone else for a long period of time.  " -Christy Wyskiel, , head of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures

Science, technology, engineering and math —otherwise known as STEM education—is becoming increasingly coveted by potential employers and students alike. It's prompted academia to adjust its offerings in a way that prepares graduates for the challenges of the modern workforce.

"We have students who come in and have been programming and coding for years," said Troy D'Ambrosio, executive director of the University of Utah's Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, the school's hub for student innovation. "It's very different than even five years ago. They grew up with a smartphone in their hands."

'Tipping the scales'

The benefits work both ways. For instance, universities can use these centers as a way to reach beyond the campus walls and connect with local startup communities, said Tejus Kothari, principal at the Boston Consulting Group's education division.

A shiny, new, multi-million dollar facility dedicated to innovation can also be a selling point for recruiting students in the hotly competitive arms race among colleges for top students.

"There is a significant segment [of students] looking at what type of support will [they] have as a hypothetical entrepreneur?" Kothari told CNBC. "Will I be out there on my own? Or can I tap into the resources and infrastructure the university has. For a segment of the students, that can tip the scales one way or another."

Hinterhaus Productions | Getty Images

Meanwhile, students understand the labor market—and career progression—will look much different for them than it did for their parents. It's not uncommon for entrepreneurs to job-hop early in their careers, in a way that helps foster professional development and refine their interests.

"They are very interested and understand it's more likely they'll create their own job than have a job from someone else for a long period of time," said Christy Wyskiel, the head of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, the university's startup incubator.

Another factor is what Georgia Tech's McGreggor called the rise in resiliency, an outgrowth of the post-financial crisis recession.

"The 2008 housing collapse … really did send a big, strong signal throughout the economy to say 'things can fail,' and when things fail, people lose jobs," McGreggor said.

"When they lose jobs, they still need to keep on living. How do you safeguard against that?" he asked. "Being able to create your own job is a huge safeguard against that."

Meanwhile, the level of interest at places like the University of Utah—where the Lassonde Institute had 5,000 students last take part in some activity involving the center—suggest the numbers speak for themselves.

Since its inception a few years ago, Georgia Tech's CREATE-X has yielded 81 startups from students across its six academic divisions and 26 majors, and earning more than $2 million in follow on investments in just three years.Separately, John Hopkins had seven applications three years ago; this year it had 40.

"Demand is multiples of where it was a couple years ago," Wyskiel said.

Although the hubs themselves are relatively new, some have birthed technology with real-world impact. Sunrise Health, an artificial intelligence messaging app, was co-founded by Shrenik Jain and Ravi Shah out of JHTV. It's designed to fill the gaps left by traditional therapy for patients seeking mental health treatment. Sunrise Health has pilot programs in Denver and Alaska, with Boston and Baltimore next on its expansion list.

Another that has come to market is FIXD, which originally started as an app designed to make self-breast exams easier, but now operates as a way to help drivers understand maintenance issues with their car.

Co-founded by John Gattuso and others at CREATE-X, the app connects via Bluetooth to a car, monitors its vitals and gives the driver helpful instructions.

For Gattuso, working on a startup means getting more responsibility quickly. At big companies, he said, he was frustrated when he was told he couldn't handle something.

"If you can prove yourself, you can get any responsibility really, really quickly," he told CNBC. "It's been great with FIXD. It's like drinking from a firehose, but I'm responsible for the well-being of the company and it's fantastic."