UD’s Horn Program finds multiple avenues to guide aspiring entrepreneurs
Over the past seven years, the University of Delaware’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship has seen good early results in its effort to serve as a springboard for promising start-up ventures.
Contributor Larry Nagengast recently spent some looking at the program, how it works and where it’s heading.
It’s only seven years since the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship launched itself at the University of Delaware, but in that short time it has helped jump start dozens of promising entrepreneurial ventures.
“They’re changing the business landscape,” says Mac Nagaswami, one of the first UD students to participate in Horn and cofounder of Carvertise, the car-wrapping advertising business that has grown from a few modest Delaware accounts into an operation with a national footprint.
“The pace of technological advancement continues to accelerate. The world is moving rapidly. We’re trying to position the university to optimize the importance of entrepreneurship education,” says Dan Freeman, Horn’s director and an associate professor of business administration.
Started as the Venture Development Center, an undergraduate program in entrepreneurial studies, Horn got its early boost – and its name – from a $3 million grant from UD alumnus and serial entrepreneur Charlie Horn. Since then it has broadened itself – in very entrepreneurial ways – to reach undergraduate and graduate students in each of the university’s seven colleges, to make an entrepreneurial curriculum available to high school students not only in Delaware but also around the world, and to sponsor two lucrative competitions, one for UD students, staff and alumni and another that brings high school students from Europe, Asia, Africa – and Delaware – to Newark for a long weekend each April.
“Horn has really long tentacles,” Nagaswami says. “It’s impacting a ton of people.”
In the beginning, Horn’s staff consisted of Freeman, who was permitted to cut his teaching load from four classes to three to get the program started, and a part-time graduate assistant. It has since grown to include 10 fulltime professional staff members, four fulltime faculty members and what Freeman describes as “a small army of part-time and adjunct professors.”
About 200 UD students are now enrolled in Horn’s internship and certificate programs and about 1,500 students overall participate in one or more Horn-sponsored activities.
Nagaswami remembers the program’s early days, when Freeman told him, in essence, “we’ll give you space, ramp up your resources, connect you with outside business leaders and give you support.”
Having conceived Carvertise while stuck in traffic imagining the potential of transforming idling vehicles into mobile billboards, Nagaswami bought Freeman’s pitch and promptly signed on. “I took my business out of my dorm room,” he says. “Horn got built up around us,” he says, referring to himself and cofounder Greg Star.
Then and now, Horn’s messaging and methodology have remained consistent, and a big part of growing influence.
“The first thing that pops out is networking,” Nagaswami says.
It starts student to student. “You’re around fellow entrepreneurial students who think big and dream big. Being around that ecosystem helps you build confidence.”
Then there are the outside business leaders. “It’s an opportunity to peek from academia into the real world,” Nagaswami says. After meeting out-of-the-box creative thinkers, “I said to myself, ‘oh my God, this is what business is like.’”
And the faculty itself is another asset, he says. “They kept asking: What is your business model? What are your assumptions? You need to test it out. It’s important to have people who are able to poke holes in your business model.”
Carvertise is hardly the only business to get its start through Horn. Freeman rattles off several other names. Among them: FYB, a brand of handmade jewelry created by Alyssa Kuchta, a UD psychology major; D150 Fueling, which provides overnight refills of diesel fuel for commercial trucking fleets; and TheraV, a company created by UD biomedical engineering graduate Amira Idris to manufacture a wearable vibrating device that minimizes phantom pain experienced by amputees.
It’s too soon to tell how well these businesses will grow – whether they’ll succeed or fail in the long run, and where they’ll establish a permanent footprint.
That’s a big concern for Jon Brilliant, a Delaware-based serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist who was an early backer of Horn. In Delaware, “we often launch great ideas and lose them to other states,” he says. “We still don’t have a second Carvertise, or a third Carvertise.”
Looking at other parts of the country, Brilliant sees parallels that suggest that Horn is ideally positioned to become an innovation hub for the state, and perhaps more of the mid-Atlantic region.
“Start-ups will typically surround a university,” he says, pointing to Stanford in Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, as well as the Boston metropolitan area with Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many other universities, and the Austin, Texas, area with the University of Texas.
On a college campus, he explains, “you can be a lot freer” to take risks and to explore new ideas. “College is the greatest time of your life to experiment,” he says. And, he adds, speaking broadly of Delaware’s business environment, “we don’t have a lot of risk-taking here.”
At Horn, where he has taught classes, mentored students and judged entrepreneurial contributions, Brilliant sees indications that the partnerships and collaborations Freeman and his team have developed outside the university have the potential to “break down the silos” within Delaware’s business sector that he feels have sometimes slowed the growth of an innovation economy in the state. As examples, he points to the hours of time offered by several accounting and law firms as part of the prize pool in Horn’s Hen Hatch competition for UD students, staff and alumni.
One potentially big step Delaware businesses could take to support entrepreneurs from Horn and elsewhere in the state, he says, is to “put out a big sign that says ‘we want to be a customer.’”
Finding Delaware customers was the way Carvertise got its start. First came Kenny ShopRite Supermarkets and United Way of Delaware, then the Delaware Tourism office and a couple other state agencies. It has grown to handling ad campaigns in Philadelphia, Chicago and on the West Coast, for such prominent brands as Crayola, NASCAR, Sprint, Lyft and Amazon.
While Brilliant sees a need for more Delaware businesses to take risks supporting in-state entrepreneurial ventures, Nagaswami says it was Horn that made his company’s success possible. “It’s like this,” he says. “If there was an alternate universe, without Horn, would Carvertise be in this position today? Probably not.”
Horn hasn’t created a secret sauce to benefit its enthusiasts, but it has concocted a spicy programming menu with a high nutritional value for budding entrepreneurs from adolescence through those already in the workforce.
At its core is a three-course entrepreneurial sequence, an enrichment program called Delaware Innovation Fellows and a series of certificate offerings designed for UD undergraduates.
The entrepreneurial sequence, taught by Vince DiFelice, starts with an introduction to what an entrepreneur would encounter in starting a new business. “A little less than half the class is lectures,” DiFelice says. “It’s mostly working on a business concept.” As students move through the semester, they spend about half of the class period explaining what they’ve done in the past week to advance their business model. For the rest of each session, DiFelice offers insights on what their next steps should be.
In subsequent classes, students try to bring their businesses to life – marketing, networking and making contacts with experts off campus. Some students take the class for one semester, others for two. “Those who take it for two semesters are usually those who are already gaining traction in the market,” DiFelice says.
DiFelice wants his students to have a clear understanding of what it means to be an entrepreneur. “You just don’t get a permit and open a company,” he says. “You’re identifying a problem and searching for a solution.”
As an example, he points to a student trying to build a business grounded in the growing interest in green roofs. The student, he says, “wants to develop a solution for irrigating plants that are growing on roofs and walls.”
Delaware Innovation Fellows is a four-year enrichment program whose first cohort is now finishing its third year. More than 120 students, with 50 different majors, are now enrolled, says Rachel Strauss, Horn’s program coordinator. “We’re providing students who haven’t engaged in entrepreneurship with the opportunity to develop an entrepreneurial mindset,” Strauss says. Students take classes worth nine or 10 credits over four years, visit innovative companies and create a capstone project as they explore their personal passions.
The certificate programs, also requiring nine or 10 credits, tap into interests associated with undergraduate students’ majors. Liberal arts students can earn a certificate in design and creative making; for engineering majors, it’s technology innovation and entrepreneurship; for the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, it’s eco-entrepreneurship.
For graduate students, Horn collaborates with the Lerner School of Business and Economics to offer the classes required for an M.B.A. minor in entrepreneurial studies.
Just as significant as its on-campus offerings, and perhaps holding greater potential, are Horn’s ventures into secondary education, primarily at the high school level.
A half-dozen years ago, “entrepreneurship was not even in the language” of educators in the elementary and secondary school universe, Strauss says.
“When Horn was being developed in 2012, Dan Freeman and Charlie Horn envisioned the education part having to start with younger students,” says Julie Frieswyk, Horn’s manager of youth programs.
“A lot of kids will end up being entrepreneurs, although perhaps not until they’re 40,” she says. “But they still need an entrepreneurial skillset to start out and succeed in the work force.”
The Diamond Challenge, the entrepreneurial competition for high school students, came first. From that, Horn has developed a broader curriculum that high school teachers can access online and integrate into their classes. Self-motivated students can also access it on their own for use as a resource as they develop their Diamond Challenge entries.
Using that curriculum as a base, schools are beginning to offer their own entrepreneurship classes. Among them, Frieswyk says, William Penn High School, Ursuline Academy and the Newark and MOT charter schools.
The Dual School, the experimental project-based learning program based at 1313 Innovation in Wilmington’s Hercules Plaza, has several connections with Horn. Zach Jones, the Dual School’s director, studied at Horn. Wilmington real estate developer and school reform advocate Paul McConnell is a Horn donor and Dual School’s primary funder. And both Frieswyk and Strauss often participate in Dual School activities.
In addition, the state Department of Education is in the process of rolling out a new three-year marketing curriculum for schools to use starting in the fall of 2020. Horn had representation on the team that is developing the curriculum, which will have a strong entrepreneurial component, says Lisa Wilson, a career and technical education associate in the department.
Through its curriculum, its competitions and its collaborations, Horn it helping to “fill the top of the funnel” of innovative ideas, Brilliant says. “Some will succeed, and some will fail, but it’s important that we get all the ideas out in the open.”