The Big Idea: Teamwork drives new entrepreneurship program
Hearing the term “entrepreneur,” your mind probably pulls up a picture of someone like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, or Henry Ford.
A visionary individual can certainly set the tone, but lone wolves don’t survive very long in the modern world. The successful ones tend to travel in packs.
This feature story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of The Carthaginian magazine.
It makes sense, then, for Carthage’s freshly reimagined entrepreneurship program to emphasize teamwork.
“That’s the way most innovation clusters work,” notes Kevin Crosby, the new Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies. “You bring people from diverse backgrounds together.”
Last fall, Prof. Crosby invited teams of two or more faculty colleagues to apply for exclusive grant funding. Introducing those Faculty Innovation Grants was the first step in his plan to spread entrepreneurial spirit to every academic corner at the College.
He made the criteria purposely broad: Pick a problem in the community and lay out an innovative plan to solve it. The ideas could be money-making ventures or not — the real gold here is a solution that makes a dent.
Recipients were notified in January, kicking off six months of planning and prototyping. Students can be included in teams at this stage, but they’ll be more heavily involved in projects that make the second cut next fall.
Rooted in science
Influenced by lessons from his own well-rounded career, the late Donald D. Hedberg ’50 provided the vision for entrepreneurial studies at Carthage and backed it with a $1.25 million gift. Besides the professorship, the endowment will fund the grants and future student programming.
The first Hedberg appointee, Professor Douglas Arion, created the groundbreaking ScienceWorks program in 1994. For more than two decades, he taught students in the natural sciences how to monetize their best ideas.
Prof. Arion retired in 2020, and his successor intends to build on that blueprint.
Global tech entrepreneur Matija Maretic ’99, one of the program’s notable alumni, still raves about ScienceWorks. Calling it more useful than any class, he essentially replicated the two-year sequence at his own company.
Going through the program in the late 1990s, the self-proclaimed “science geek” got a much-needed crash course in soft skills, public speaking, and professional etiquette. Although Prof. Arion dismissed a lot of his business proposals as impractical, Mr. Maretic appreciated the blunt assessment.
“He’d say ‘That’s a great idea, Matija, but you’re never going to make money with it,’” the alumnus vividly recalls. “You don’t need someone to keep telling you you’re doing a good job.”
Still, one particular team project tested the headstrong student’s patience.
“Doug matched me with the last guy I wanted to work with,” Mr. Maretic says. “I was furious.”
Storming into the professor’s office later, he complained…to no avail. Fully aware of the students’ rift, Prof. Arion explained that employees in the real world rarely get to hand-pick their favorite collaborators.
After completing a year of compulsory military service in his native Croatia and cutting his teeth in the banking industry, Mr. Maretic used those entrepreneurial instincts to split off on his own. In 2004, he founded Marvelsoft, which earned its stripes by developing advanced trading tools.
Still CEO of the privately held company, he has seen annual revenue grow 20 to 25 percent in the past five years. He’s based in Hong Kong, where the alumnus will soon be granted permanent residency.
Almost 25 years after devising his final ScienceWorks project, an upscale “campsite” on the Croatian side of the Gulf of Venice, Mr. Maretic is ready to follow through on it. With the land and permits in hand, he and his brother are designing a luxury resort with 20 to 30 villas.
No silos in space
Likewise, the new Hedberg professor owes a debt to ScienceWorks. Not long after Prof. Crosby joined the Carthage faculty in 1998, Prof. Arion let him teach a course on commercial technology.
Rather than purely academic exercises, students collaborated with “real world” clients.
“That’s where I saw the impact of having students connect to external stakeholders,” says Prof. Crosby. “That experience has shaped my entire career.”
Partnering with NASA and commercial aerospace firms, he’s built a nationally recognized space sciences program at Carthage that gives students unmatched research opportunities. Over the past nine years, Prof. Crosby has been awarded almost $15 million in grants and contracts.
He continues to direct that program alongside his new role. In fact, it’ll serve as the template for entrepreneurial studies College-wide.
Atmospheric puns aside, the leap from space to the earthbound majors isn’t as big as you’d think. The research is “fundamentally interdisciplinary,” according to the professor, in that we’ll need much more than technical expertise to prepare for sustained life away from Earth.
Knowing that stressful situations and loneliness inevitably await, there are sociological and psychological components to consider. And, since space travel ain’t cheap, someone has to keep an eye on the financial constraints.
“We tend to think about majors and disciplines, but in the real world nobody cares what your major is,” Prof. Crosby says. “Those silos disappear almost instantly when you leave campus.”
Besides, you don’t have to pilot the lunar lander to enjoy the fruits of all that research. He can recite a long list of everyday staples born from space experiments: phone cameras, enriched baby formula, water filtration systems, and so on.
Could a certain Kenosha institution add to that list?
Carthage became the first Wisconsin school to take part in NASA’s T2U initiative, which makes more than 1,200 of the agency’s patents available to young innovators. Focusing on the technologies most ripe for commercialization, T2U spawns some successful startups.
Diving in first, an enterprising group zeroed in on NASA’s patented fiber optic sensing system. Since last summer, they’ve been scrutinizing it for any insights that might advance the College’s ongoing microgravity research.
Sure, faculty can impart practical lessons like how to write a business plan, but Prof. Crosby recognizes the true innovation takes place organically.
“We can’t teach them how to be creative,” he says. “That emerges from being in a sort of crucible of curious people.”