Miami schools aren’t the startup engines they could be. They’re trying to change that.

In some cities, the colleges and universities lead the drive toward entrepreneurship. In Miami, they’ve lagged behind. As a result, they have not contributed to the city’s entrepreneurial growth as much as they could.

“If the local universities want to get serious about really serving entrepreneurs, they need to think much bigger than what they’re currently doing; they need to bring in top people to run these programs. It’s not about putting them in a space and having them talk to each other. It’s about giving them world-class advice and support,” said Susan Amat, who founded an incubator at the University of Miami before leaving to start Venture Hive, a tech accelerator.

“They need to begin getting the curriculum to create the right kind of (entrepreneurial) environment,” said Manny Medina, head of the Technology Foundation of the Americas and the man behind Miami’s largest tech conference.

The three major schools — University of Miami, Florida International University and Miami Dade College — have recognized they need to do more and are investing in new entrepreneurship programs aimed at spawning businesses and encouraging startup-minded graduates to stay in the area.

Here’s a look at what the schools are doing:

University of Miami

Norma Sue Kenyon is trying to change the culture of an institution. The vice provost for innovation at the University of Miami wants the school to produce more companies, more patents and more revenue.

UM has a medical school, a marine sciences school, centers for computer science and genomics, and a national reputation in the life sciences, but it has been largely unable to commercialize all that faculty research (see accompanying chart).edu-chart-full

Kenyon, a veteran faculty member who took the innovation post in 2012, said the culture at UM hasn’t emphasized commercialization and tech transfer. “Like any institution that has a lot of research funding, there’s always very entrepreneurial people that are pushing the envelope. But as a general culture, no. It hasn’t been a big issue.”

To run the Tech Transfer office, she hired James O’Connell away from the University of Michigan, a school with a stronger record of commercializing its research. O’Connell said he wants to engage faculty and researchers earlier in the process, even before it’s determined if an idea or finding is commercially viable. He also wants to make the process easier for everyone involved.

“We’ve had to hit the reset button on the office here and really rethink how we engage faculty to make it easier, less painful,” he said.

As proof, he cites a dramatic upswing in the past two years in startup activity, including increases in the numbers of companies started, patents issued and licenses and options executed.

The LaunchPad offers another path for UM entrepreneurship — one designed for students. It’s not an incubator or accelerator, but a career center where students and alumni can get help with startup ideas and learn more about entrepreneurship as a career.

Director William Silverman said approximately 400 new ideas a year are run through LaunchPad. The center’s staff, as well as volunteers from a range of disciplines, work with the would-be entrepreneurs, even if they only stop in once a year to bounce around ideas.

“As long as it’s legal, we’ll work on it,” he said.

Susana Alvarez-Diaz, director of entrepreneurship programs at the university, is herself a working entrepreneur, head of ADG Omnimedia, a marketing and PR firm. Alvarez-Diaz, who has an MBA, but not a Ph.D., said her hiring points to the university’s emphasis on real-world experience and pushing students to start businesses.

“The University of Miami has embraced that 100 percent. They get it. Why do I tell you that they get it? I’m sitting here in this position,” she said.

Entrepreneurship education at the school has an international flavor, she said, attracting Latin American and Chinese students who are set to inherit the family businesses.

That can involve family counseling as well as education, she said.

“They really have those conversations,” she said. “Students say, ‘I’m a 21-year-old. How do I speak to my 50-year-old dad and tell him this isn’t what we need to be doing. We need to take it in another direction’.”

Florida International University

The opening of a Small Business Development Center at Florida International University this year makes more resources available to established and aspiring entrepreneurs in Miami.

Regional Director Jacqueline Sousa said the center will help established businesses push past the “3-3-3 barrier” of three employees, three years in business and $300,000 in annual revenues.

Because Miami is a global trading hub, the center also will concentrate on entrepreneurs looking to do business internationally.

The center is a partner to FIU’s Eugenio Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center, which holds workshops and seminars for business owners and entrepreneurs, and is a partner with eMerge Americas, Miami’s largest annual tech conference.

The Pino Center (which was launched in 2003 with the help of a grant from the Kauffman Foundation) tries to work with larger businesses that want to partner with emerging companies in South Florida and Latin America, said Acting Director Karyne Bury.

FIU graduates the third-highest number of computer science majors in the country, students the school hope will launch or work for startups.

Miami Dade College

Miami leaders boast that South Florida has more college students per capita than any other region of the country. Miami Dade College is a big reason why. With 170,000 students spread over seven campuses and two centers, it is the largest college in the country, offering both associate and baccalaureate degrees.

While it offers more than 300 programs of study, entrepreneurship is only now being emphasized. The school is making a major push with the creation this fall of the Idea Center@MDC, an entrepreneurship hub in the business school run by local entrepreneur Leandro Finol. Earlier this year, MDC became the Miami host of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, a program that offers capital, education and other services to small business owners.

Wifredo Fernandez, who will run CREATE, the student-only incubator in the new Idea Center, said the investment in entrepreneurship at MDC is a reflection of Miami’s growing entrepreneurial activity.

“(Administrators) have seen what’s happening in the city these past few years. It just makes sense to equip students with the skills that will translate well in this community,” he said.

MDC’s student body is primarily Hispanic and working class, traditionally the driving force of small-scale entrepreneurship in Miami. Fernandez said he expects the new programs to produce everything from tech startups and lifestyle businesses to international companies. The Idea Center could help scale the many businesses already run by students, he added.

High School Entrepreneurship

Not all the entrepreneurial training in Miami happens at universities. Tech accelerator/incubator Venture Hive this fall is partnering with Miami-Dade public schools on a tech entrepreneurship magnet program that lets students partner with top tech startups.

“We’re going to teach tech entrepreneurship to 11th and 12th graders in a way that even college students aren’t being exposed to anywhere in the U.S.,” said Amat.

University of Miami
Enrollment: 17,000
Offers major and minor in entrepreneurship. 106 students pursuing a major.

Florida International University
Enrollment: 50,000. 70 undergrads in entrepreneurship programs.
Offers minor and certificate in entrepreneurship.

Miami Dade College 
Enrollment: 170,000
Offers certificate in entrepreneurship. Recently opened new entrepreneurship center and incubator.


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