Our team here at VentureLab is constantly working to improve and learn from the relationships we have with our partners at universities and entrepreneurship development groups in Georgia. Recently, members of our team participated in a tour hosted by the Georgia University Entrepreneurship Initiative (GUEI) partner campuses, and we had the pleasure of sitting down with Sara Martin Henderson, our Program Director and Regional Lead Instructor, to t
alk about her experience and what she learned from the tour.
James de Klerk: So, Sara tell us, what is the GUEI and what do they do?
Sara Martin Henderson: The Georgia University Entrepreneurship Initiative is a group of Georgia-based university leaders driving entrepreneurship and innovation through a variety of engagement opportunities for their students and community partners. Members of this group share best practices and strategies for developing programs that support ventures in the state. It offers a networking platform for us through VentureLab to engage with similarly positioned leaders and to hear about what everyone is doing to support and grow entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviors in their communities. Generally, GUEI hosts two big events per year for this group to network and share best practices. However, since COVID, these have been virtual and this bus tour was the first return to an in-person networking opportunity.
JdK: That sounds amazing, so what locations were on the tour?
SMH: We visited four sites on the tour and first up was the Curiosity Lab. Curiosity Lab is a technology incubator in Peachtree Corners, and they are working on a host of different startup offerings. For example, they have recently initiated a project testing different capabilities of 5G in partnership with T-Mobile. They have also built out infrastructure to allow startups testing autonomous driving capabilities the opportunity to engage in real world testing on live roadways. In addition, they offer other resources to their teams as well including physical space and prototyping support.
Curiosity Lab, Credit: VentureLab
It was great to see from the VentureLab perspective because along with the teams we engage at Georgia Tech, we also engage with community-based teams that are not affiliated with the university, and sometimes our university teams are very close to graduation, so they quickly become unaffiliated with any university and are seeking other spaces where they can continue their journey.
Jdk: After Curiosity lab what was the next stop?
SMH: We then went up to UGA in Athens, and that was a very exciting tour for me for a couple different reasons. We engage with the folks up at UGA quite frequently. We are the NSF I-Corps Node in the South and UGA has an I-Corps Site program at their campus. As a result, we have spent a good bit of time engaging with the members of that team, either teaching them through our Instructor Academy program or in the past we’ve held a Regional Summit for any members of the I-Corps South network including UGA. I’ve also recently taught and coached in one of their bootcamp programs for Women in STEM following the success of our Female Founders Program last fall. So, it was really exciting to go up there and see in person everything that they were doing.
At UGA we got to see a couple of their facilities up there. The first was called Studio 225 and the second was The Hub in their somewhat newly formed Innovation District.
JdK: What stood out about those locations?
SMH: Studio 225 is geared more towards undergraduate student entrepreneurs and is funded by a corporate partner, the Suntrust Foundation. That was a really cool place to see as UGA is more geared towards undergrads than Georgia Tech is. They have an entrepreneurship minor that is cross discipline and the studio offers them space to work with their student groups. In addition, they also have rooms that ventures can own for office use as well as some prototyping capacity.
Studio 225, Credit: UGA
The Hub is the other space that UGA maintains for their graduate level or faculty level entrepreneurs, and that’s where the I-Corps team sits. The Hub is a part of their Innovation District on campus and that area also houses their tech transfer office and a few other entrepreneurship support groups.
JdK: What was the big takeaway from this stop for you?
SMH: I think there are a lot of best practices that we can take away from what they’re doing. They are kind of on the same path that we are on now with the appointment of our first Vice President of Commercialization at Georgia Tech as part of our intentional push to restructure and reorganize our commercialization support groups on campus. They’ve been going through a similar centralization of these activities over the past five years and it’s really interesting to see what approaches they’ve been taking and how they’ve progressed during that time. For example, they put a lot of emphasis on fundraising, and a lot of intention around reaching out to their alumni network and corporate sponsors to help fund and reinvigorate their entrepreneurship activity on campus.
It was also really interesting to see how they incorporated metrics and how they track their entrepreneurship teams. I think we could learn a lot from how they are tracking team progress and engagement and incorporate some of that thinking with our own metrics tracking here at Georgia Tech.
Jdk: Where did you head to after UGA?
SMH: We went to Georgia Gwinnett College. GGC is a much smaller school and they are still in the early phases of making their entrepreneurship support programs felt on campus. Something they’ve done to move things forward given their smaller size is to partner with Gwinnett County, and they’ve created the Gwinnett County Entrepreneurship Center. We got to tour that center which is due to open in January. It was nice to see the strategic approach that a smaller school was taking. I think there is so much that we maybe take for granted here at Georgia Tech. We have a lot to wrap our arms around when it comes to what we have available for our students, so it was nice to see how they were approaching this effort to make sure their entrepreneurs were supported.
JdK: That’s interesting. It sounds like there is a lot to learn from how they make the most of their resources. So that makes three stops, what was the last?
SMH: The final stop on the tour was The Hatchery at Emory. From what I heard there they are also on this journey that UGA is on and that we are on, to try and make it as clear as possible to our “customers”, faculty and student entrepreneurs, where to go for the support that they need. So, Emory has started down this path and they are making great progress with this physical space they have, The Hatchery, but they did get a little sidetracked because unfortunately they opened about a couple weeks before COVID. It’s a wonderful space, though. There is a lot of opportunity for folks on Emory’s campus to engage there and find physical rooms for work, materials and tools for prototyping, and other resources for learning about the lean startup methodology, design thinking and customer centric based innovation philosophy. The folks that run the Hatchery do all sorts of education and accelerator programs, similar to what we put on at VentureLab. So, with that in mind it was really great to see that space and how they are making their support more centralized.
The Hatchery at Emory, Credit: Emory University
JdK: It’s great to hear how all of these programs are supporting entrepreneurship in Georgia. One thing I’m curious about is what might VentureLab provide back to these groups?
SMH: In our working relationship with UGA, we offer training through our I-Corps connection and support their instructors and there is a lot of opportunity to continue that relationship. With Emory, there is a very good partnership already with Georgia Tech but there is an opportunity for us here at VentureLab to more intentionally engage with the folks there. I think in the past, because they don’t have an I-Corps element, the way to engage is a little less obvious but because we were able to go on this tour, we’ve built our network there a bit more. I think there's an opportunity for us to do some cross event programming as well as coaching and instruction. They just recently held a disaster hackathon in coordination with Georgia Tech so I know they’re engaged with Georgia Tech entrepreneurship and innovation and through that existing engagement I’m sure there’s opportunity for VentureLab to become more active.
JdK: The last question I have for you is what was the most impactful highlight of this tour for you?
SMH: From a strategic perspective I really appreciated how UGA decided to move all of their support groups into the same footprint. Not everybody is in the same building, but they have a district for these facilities. There’s a lot of that which already exists at Georgia Tech with Tech Square but I’m really looking forward to understanding more about how our restructuring and reorganization should look like thinking about where people physically sit on campus. Obviously, I think there are pros and cons to it. One pro might be how you are in close contact with the people you work with from a support perspective but maybe a con is that you aren’t embedded with faculty and students on campus. It is definitely an interesting approach and one that I think we need to assess here at Tech as we map out our new commercialization strategy.
The other thing I took away was UGA’s strategic approach to funding. The financing they’ve been able to bring in to do all of these great and wonderful things and how they very intentionally have people dedicated to that. I think that’s something we can consider doing here as well to grow our programming and support.