What does a community need to foster the type of entrepreneurial environment that will bring jobs and wealth into the region?
That’s what a new study will explore, and UW-Madison will be part of it.
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is kicking off a series of research projects, called “Uncommon Methods and Metrics,” aimed at measuring paths to success and creating a data-driven, nationwide model for entrepreneurship.
The Kansas City, Missouri, foundation is providing a total of $2.9 million in grants, and $425,000 of that is going to Jon Eckhardt, executive director of UW’s Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship.
“It’s quite an honor,” Eckhardt said. “I’m very excited about getting to work with other folks in the program.”
Eckhardt is one of 14 researchers around the U.S. who are part of the three-year project, and he is the only one looking at the way universities play a role in entrepreneurship.
He said he thinks he was chosen — from more than 110 applicants — because of a project he began in 2015 to count the number of entrepreneurs on campus.
Of the nearly 39,000 students enrolled on campus at the time, 8,000 responded.
“What we found were some pretty surprising numbers,” Eckhardt said. “We found 155 students who said they were founders of startups, throughout the campus. That’s a very high number, not anything that people expected to see.”
In addition to the 155 who said they had started companies, 242 more said they were in the process of forming a company. That totals 397, about five percent of those who replied, which is “roughly on track” with the overall population, Eckhardt said.
“We started to use that information to improve our programs and to recruit students into different courses they were not aware of ... to help them with their companies,” he said.
Eckhardt said some of the students’ startups had employees; one even had a branch in India.
About half of those with startups were in STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) fields, but about half were not.
“I think that’s a surprise to people who think entrepreneurship is dominant in the technology field,” said Eckhardt, who is also a UW associate professor of management and human resources and is a co-founder of the gener8tor business accelerator, based in Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
The next step will be to add staff to speed research and find out what is prompting people to become entrepreneurs — if there are certain classes or experiences that make it more likely for a student to start a company or if the students have certain attributes — and the grant money will help with that.
“It’s really going to take us to the next level,” Eckhardt said.
Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, said he is glad to see the Madison area included in the project. He said the research should be very beneficial.
“We are fortunate to have a lot of momentum right now, but the path forward needs to involve continued assessment and focus on areas of improvement throughout our ecosystem to ensure we are providing the right intentional support for great ideas to become successful enterprises,” Brandon said.
The Kauffman Foundation also said it is redesigning its annual Kauffman Index, an assessment of which communities and which states are doing the best job of growing startups.
Wisconsin traditionally fares poorly on the index. For the past two years, Wisconsin has ranked 23rd among the 25 largest states, while the Milwaukee area was No. 33 of the 40 largest metropolitan areas.
Scott Resnick, entrepreneur in residence at the StartingBlock entrepreneurial hub slated to open in Madison later this year, applauded Eckhardt’s selection for a Kauffman grant.
“Jon is an articulate and knowledgeable researcher. I am thrilled to hear about his involvement to better measure entrepreneurship,” Resnick said. “I also applaud Kauffman for recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the current assessment, and am looking forward to their new future results.”
The Kauffman Foundation’s program officer in charge of the project, Evan Absher, said Eckhardt’s proposal was chosen based on its potential to find out what type of university interventions, if any, can be useful in supporting entrepreneurs.
Absher said the research is expected to be a key element along with the private, nonpartisan foundation’s Zero Barriers movement, “which seeks to eliminate barriers to entrepreneurship, grow the economy and improve people’s lives.”
UW-Madison has a variety of programs, including a major in entrepreneurship for business students; undergraduate certificate in entrepreneurship for non-business students; the Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp; and the Entrepreneurship Residence Learning Community.
Entrepreneurship classes drew more than 3,500 students between 2015 and 2017, and graduate students who participated in the Weinert Applied Ventures in Entrepreneurship class from 2012 through 2017 have raised more than $12 million in private investment for their companies.