The past few years have seen the Warrington College of Business’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation Center grow dramatically in terms of its programs, outreach activities, and impact — both at UF and beyond the campus.
This weekend provides an opportunity to celebrate that growth on a global stage. Warrington and the Center will welcome more than 300 entrepreneurship center directors and scholars as they host the 19th Annual Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers (GCEC) Conference on Friday and Saturday.
“The opportunity to bring in 300 individuals from all over the world, to highlight what we do as a program, to show our facilities, that’s a huge deal,” said Jamie Kraft, the Center’s Director. “I think if every school had the resources and manpower to host this conference, they would. It’s a massive undertaking, but it provides tremendous visibility, especially when you feel like you have a program that is doing great things across the academic outreach and extracurricular space.”
The Center has experienced rapid growth over the past three years. It has implemented community outreach programs like the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, a free program that provides qualified veterans practical training on how to build and maintain ventures; and the Gator100, which celebrates the 100 fastest-growing, Gator-owned or Gator-led businesses. It has increased student engagement opportunities such as relaunching a university-wide business plan competition with $40,000 in venture funding, and making annual visits to Haiti and South Africa to assist disenfranchised entrepreneurs with their struggling businesses. Also, the Center recently established a student incubator—Gator Hatchery—that offers students workspace, mentors and other resources to help their ventures succeed.
“The outreach efforts have grown dramatically,” Kraft said. “That’s probably the biggest space we’ve grown in—certainly more than we were doing a few years ago.”
The Center’s growth has coincided with a burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem at UF and in Gainesville. UF’s Office of Technology Licensing has launched 175 biomedical and technology startups generating more than $1 billion in private investment since 2001. The inception of Innovation Square, a 40-acre research and innovation community that features Innovation Hub, Innovation Academy and Infinity Hall, has provided students and entrepreneurs both educational and professional working space to develop their ventures. And private co-working spaces and accelerators are being established in and around Gainesville offering even more support and collaboration for entrepreneurs. This innovative environment can serve as a model for conference participants to replicate at their home universities.
“I think, once they get here, they’re going to see the full landscape and how all the pieces fit together,” Kraft said. “Our hope is they go back realizing the University of Florida is a campus and community committed to entrepreneurship education.”
Hosting a significant event like GCEC is part of that commitment. Historically, GCEC has chosen schools with elite entrepreneurship programs to host the annual conference. Of the last 12 GCEC conferences held in the U.S., nine have been held at universities that appear in The Princeton Review/Entrepreneur Magazine Top 50 Schools for Entrepreneurship Programs for 2015.
“There’s an expectation that the school hosting the conference is doing tremendous things in entrepreneurship,” Kraft said. “You go in knowing these are good programs, and this is a way to announce to the world to look a little more deeply at our campus and what we’re doing. I think it really does put us on the map and gives us a sense of arrival.”
Although the Center serves more than 2,000 annually, Kraft said there is still room to grow. He said one of the Center’s priorities in the coming years is to impact as many UF students as possible.
“For us, it’s about going deeper into the university population, and identifying and helping student entrepreneurs,” Kraft said. “Now is an opportunity to take the programs we have and run more students through them, and make them more aware of our resources and get them to take advantage of and engage in our activities.”