Startup Capital: Wendy Plant

This week’s Startup Capital interview features Wendy Plant, Director of the Center for Student Engagement at FSU’s Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship.

Wendy Plant is an integral part of the Jim Moran School’s efforts towards supporting student innovation and entrepreneurship. Scheduled to begin offering college courses in 2017, the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship will be the nation’s largest interdisciplinary, degree-granting school of entrepreneurship. A $100 million gift from Jan Moran and The Jim Moran Foundation established the new school to honor the late Jim Moran. The Center for Student Engagement supports initiatives like the InNOLEvation Challenge as well as the InNOLEvation Center student incubator, entrepreneurial speakers and seminars. The Jim Moran School is also a sponsor of on-campus events like HackFSU and Digitech.

In the coming years, the Jim Moran School and the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship will be building a center downtown to provide a centralized location for student entrepreneurship and also resources for small and medium size ventures all over Tallahassee. Learn more about Wendy Plant and her efforts to support tech and startups by reading our interview below.

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What are your thoughts on Tallahassee becoming a “tech hub?”
More students are interested in learning about and creating new technology, and that is why initiatives like HackFSU and Digitech are growing every year. I also see students getting connected with the community, which is important for keeping them here. I think that’s a big boost to technology in the area. Instead of students graduating and leaving to start jobs elsewhere or start companies elsewhere, they’re seeing more opportunities to stay here to work or to start companies. I think that’s going to be a real benefit to Tallahassee in growing its tech community.

Why do you think it’s such a challenge to keep students here?
I think it’s because some students never really get beyond the campus or their dorms and apartments. They haven’t been exposed to what Tallahassee is or what opportunities are here. So the more places that draw students into town like Domi Station and the upcoming Jim Moran Entrepreneurship building downtown, and the more networking and connection events we have in conjunction with these facilities, the more we can get students plugged in to people, businesses and organizations in the community.

Whether it’s a Chamber event or some other program outside the boundaries of campus, it builds awareness among students that there is more to Tallahassee. I’ve seen it myself. I just moved here a year and a half ago, but my daughter started at FSU in 2001, and back then it was just a sleepy little town. I’ve seen a huge change since then that makes Tallahassee a much more desirable place to live. My daughter and her husband both moved away after graduating, but then they decided that this would be a great place to come back to raise a family. They lived in several larger cities, but when they wanted to settle down, they saw Tallahassee as a really good option.

What are some of the goals that you and the Jim Moran school have with the new center that’s opening downtown?
Bridging students to the community is one of my primary goals. I focus on student engagement for the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship, but the Jim Moran Institute will continue to run outreach programs for the community. They educate and train small and medium sized companies and bring people in for small business executive programs, non-profit leadership programs, peer to peer groups and programs like that. By having a dedicated building with physical closeness to campus, those people will be able to spend more time networking, mentoring and getting to know our students.

Right now it’s very hard to convince mentors to come to campus because of the parking and other logistical issues. So having a facility downtown will make it a lot easier to make those connections and build interaction. We’ve been talking with Domi to move 1 Million Cups and other events like that to the new Jim Moran building, and that will create a more unified community. Being downtown grows the chances for positive interaction between students and the city.

“Building these synergistic relationships and making these connections will benefit everyone.”

We will also have a very nice new student incubator in the building. We’ll incorporate the latest technology and provide a beautiful space for student entrepreneurs to work individually or in teams to validate and grow their ideas. Our goal is to create a welcoming and professional location for students from engineering, arts, business, science or any discipline to come together to creatively solve problems.

Why do you think it’s important to build that network?
It’s eye opening for students to see the opportunities that exist in Tallahassee, but it’s also eye opening for the community to see the quality of talent that’s here, that maybe FSU is the place to go to hire people, or to invest in student startups. I think a lot of people in the community take for granted that FSU is here, and they go to the football games and all that, but they don’t really meet and have face-to-face interaction with students or see firsthand what they’re doing. Talking to students and finding out what they’re working on brings a whole new perspective, and it’s really very impressive what these students are doing. Building these synergistic relationships and making these connections will benefit everyone.

Do you think that we’re focusing more on people in Tallahassee as far as innovation or do you think that there’s a push to bring people in?
Well FSU is a big draw for students all over the state and the country, so we bring people in that way. That part happens naturally. We bring in talented faculty and researchers from all around the country as well. The university is definitely a magnet for innovation.

But speaking about someone who wants to start a business or open a new branch of their business, what would you say to them to convince them to come here as opposed to somewhere like Austin or Atlanta?

We are developing the investor community. Matt Johnson and the Florida Angel Nexus have organized a network of investors, so there are people here with money that are willing and open to talk to new businesses and help with funding. The practical side of bringing new business here is that the real estate is relatively inexpensive compared to other places. We’ve got great amenities like good weather and a high quality of living — that kind of ‘boring’ stuff is very important to everyday life.

It would be nice if we had a better airport in town. That will help the area a lot if they’re able to solve the transportation issue. That’s the biggest downside to Tallahassee right now, it’s hard to bring people here and it’s hard to fly out of here. An investor typically wants to be able to connect with in whom they’ve invested. Few of them are so passive to be able to say “here’s my investment, enjoy.” They want to be able to meet with their companies or fly them out to meet with them. So if you get an investor that’s already here, that’s great, but if you want to bring people in from somewhere else, you’re going to have to figure out how to get them here. That’s a logistical issue that needs to be solved.

What’s exciting to you about Tallahassee right now?

I’m excited about the opportunity to be part of the first dedicated entrepreneurship school in the country within a large public university. There are a few private universities that have one, but there are no big public universities that have moved entrepreneurship to the level that FSU has. Getting the kind of financial support from donors like Jan Moran and the Jim Moran Foundation that have the necessary resources and also believe in the program is very exciting. There are other generous donors such as Brian and Kathryn Ballard who saw the opportunities at FSU and believed in them enough to donate the building downtown.

There’s been a lot of recognition about what we’re doing that makes it really cool and bigger than what’s happening anywhere else in the country. Putting the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship right on the main street in Tallahassee shows a tremendous commitment from both the university and the community, and I’m very excited to be a part of it.

What are some of the ways that FSU is trying to support innovation and entrepreneurship?
They’ve put money and resources behind hiring entrepreneurs-in-residence all across the campus. We have them in film and music and in practically every department. Dr. Susan S. Fiorito is the founding director of the new Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship, and she is leading FSU’s entrepreneurs-in-residence and faculty in creating a truly interdisciplinary curriculum to train tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and develop an entrepreneurial mindset in our students.

We’re fortunate to have a business law clinic so student entrepreneurs can get legal help for free. That’s a huge resource.

President Thrasher and Provost McRorie have brought in consultants and strategic planners to look at the big picture and make the entrepreneurial university a reality. There are several different groups purposefully and intentionally implementing innovation and entrepreneurship in a lot of areas across campus. One of these is Ken Baldauf, Director of the Program in Interdisciplinary Computing (PIC) who was profiled in your recent article. He is leading efforts in design thinking and innovation. FSU also has a huge social entrepreneurship initiative.

Additionally, there’s a proposal in the works to start a living-learning-community around entrepreneurship for freshmen, so you can get young students excited about the idea of coming up with a business idea and then implementing it. We have one of the biggest hackathons at any university, and it’s run entirely by students. You can find innovation and entrepreneurship incorporated everywhere across campus.

What are some things the university could be doing better from your perspective?

It’s hard to be entrepreneurial, make quick decisions and make things happen when you’re in a big bureaucratic public university. That’s just reality, and most of the bureaucracy is there to make sure that mistakes don’t get made or things don’t happen too fast that shouldn’t happen; so there are a lot of protections in place to protect the brand and protect the integrity of the university. And those need to be there, but sometimes you also need to be able to get things done or be more nimble and make a decision quickly. Things can take longer than they would if it was a smaller organization. It is what it is, a huge top-tier research university, so you have to take the good with the bad.

One thing I keep hearing is that there’s a disconnect between a lot of research going on at FSU and people who are looking for commercially viable innovation. Is there a way to fix that or do you think that public research should remain in files?
No, I don’t think research should remain in patents on the shelves at all, I think it needs to get out to the people for whom the researchers are trying to solve problems. I know that FSU has expanded the office of commercialization.

“There’s probably more utilization than gets publicized. Some of it is quiet.”

The office of commercialization is growing so that it licenses more of the patented research or builds the intellectual property into viable companies. Efforts are underway and more money is being put into that. I know that they have made a lot of changes and are growing the office to get more licensing managers who will get faculty research into the market.

That’s something they’re doing, and the national research foundations that are funding the research want to see results. They want to see return on investment. When they fund research, they’re interested in seeing it go out into the world.

Is there a lot of innovation “sitting on the shelf” currently? Do you see an “underutilization” of university sanctioned technology?
There’s probably more utilization than gets publicized. Some of it is quiet. The university does support commercializing research so that it can get to the point where you can use it. Everything needs to be tested and proven, and that takes a lot of money. Beyond the grants, FSU has gap funding that allows researchers to continue testing before a product is ready.

When you go to the gap funding presentations, you see a lot of people doing really cool stuff that is actually being licensed. There are faculty members who are starting companies, and they are either running them themselves or bringing in outside CEOs, so some of it is happening. It’s just that people don’t really know that it’s happening, so it’s more of a PR problem at this point.

I’m sure it could always be better, but I do know that there are people working to make it better. They know that they want more.

There’s the recent Cade Museum prize, which was set up by family of the inventor of Gatorade (which actually came from FSU originally)! The winner this year was a company called KinderMed that came from FSU technology. The product saves newborn babies by preventing preterm labor. There are things that are happening and getting out there, but I just don’t think the average person knows too much about it.

It’s not as barren as it might seem.

What advice would you give to a student or anyone who wants start a company?
Talk to people. It’s overused advice, but we’re big on using the business model canvas and customer validation here. Talk to people, ask them if they would use it, what they think would be good, would they pay for it. Don’t just talk to your friends and family, but also do some research about what’s already out there. Because a lot of times students come in here with ideas and they haven’t done any research about who’s already doing it. Just because it’s being done doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but you need to know so that you can make yours better, faster, cheaper etc.

“It’s rare that a student is good at everything. Don’t live in isolation.”

I think sometimes getting out of your room, out in front of people can be difficult for some student entrepreneurs. If you’re of the mind to enjoy coding or developing, or if you’re a really technically minded person, sometimes you don’t want to get out and talk to people. Sometimes these types of personalities aren’t always comfortable starting these conversations.

That’s why teams are so important. Next year in the InNOLEvation Challenge, I don’t want to see any one or two person teams. I’d like to see more three or four person teams including people with different skillsets to make a sustainable business. Build a team, don’t try to do it yourself. It’s rare that a student is good at everything. Don’t live in isolation.

As Tallahassee continues to grow and mold itself into a hotspot for tech and entrepreneurs, the Jim Moran School and Institute will no doubt play a key role in making sure that business owners and future business owners have the resources they need to survive and thrive. By creating a network of entrepreneurial minded students and connecting them with mentors, investors and technical talent, Wendy and the Jim Moran School are creating a chance to solve some of our biggest challenges.

Check back in two weeks time to learn more about tech and startups in Tallahassee by reading the next Startup Capital interview.

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