An underutilized, but valuable resource, every startup should investigate is a formal or informal connection to your alma mater, including any local university. These resources are definitely not limited to students, since every university seeks out and needs the real world exposure and experience of entrepreneurs who already are active in the real world marketplace.
Here is a short list of the areas where you should be able to find help, whether you are a student or an independent entrepreneur:
- Exploring hot ideas. Universities are a rich source of new ideas from their students, their professors, and their own research, and they value entrepreneurs from the real world to decide which ones are viable in the marketplace. Start by contacting the university outreach liaison, or a professor in your area of interest or expertise.
- Product research and prototype development. Take advantage of the tech classes, labs, equipment, and graduate students looking for real world problems to research. The professors know how to get grants to fund development for you in strategic focus areas, like biotech, that would otherwise cost you many thousands of dollars.
- Business plan assistance. Every university has entrepreneurial courses or evening classes that can provide assistance on creating your initial plan. Look for special programs for entrepreneurs, like the Arizona State University Furnace Technology Transfer Accelerator program that I am familiar with, available to non-students.
- Early-stage funding. Don’t look for formal venture capital levels of funding, but certainly early-stage Kaufmann grants, incubators, and entrepreneurship incentives are available from endowments and state funds. Collaborative efforts with local companies, like Siemens Venture Capital, are available for certain technology and focus areas.
- Legal guidance. Most universities have friendly law professors, or an entrepreneurship legal clinic, to address concerns like protection of intellectual property and privacy. These might even be available online, and may be staffed by outside lawyers working on a ‘pro bono’ basis with the school. Start by contacting the law school organization.
- Building a team. If you need part-time resources to build a prototype, you can always find hungry but high-caliber graduate and PhD students with the latest theory ready to work. If you need experienced partners and vendors, the best professors and entrepreneurship staff will have the contacts you need in the local business community.
- Connections to a mentor. Similar to finding experienced team members, you can use university contacts who do mentoring in the real world. Most schools also nurture relationships with local and former executives whom they use for guest lectures to MBA courses, judge student business plans, and assign as mentors for university spinoffs.
For example, I live near the Phoenix, Arizona area, home of Arizona State University. They have several "outreach" programs to help startups, including their Venture Catalyst program for business plan development, mentorship, interim management, connections, and development roadmap. They also provide incubator services and space for early startups.
The Thunderbird School of Global Management, also in Phoenix, has a top-ranked International MBA and entrepreneur curriculum, a startup incubator program, and hosts a group of Angel investors to assist qualifying startups.
I do volunteer work at both of these schools, and I’m not even an alumnus from either one. Believe me, the payback for me has been large from both of them, and I’m betting that you can get the same from a university near you.