Announcing the New Venture Founders Program

Author: Dustin Mix

I’m really excited to introduce the Venture Founders Program, a brand new partnership between the University of Notre Dame's ESTEEM Program and enFocus of South Bend.

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Stemming from the extensive experience with young, aspiring entrepreneurs of the Program partners, the Program is built on the belief that talented people will start impactful ventures in South Bend if:

  • they believe they can be entrepreneurs before they have an idea;
  • they understand great ventures are built around solving problems for people;
  • they have early access to tools and support to recognize an opportunity within a problem landscape, create a solution, and build a viable and impactful venture.

The program has accepted six current ESTEEM graduate students who are aspiring to be entrepreneurs and might be passionate about a particular problem set, but have yet to become passionate about a specific idea. Through workshops, toolsets, mentoring, and resources the program will take these six students through a process that has already begun with problem exploration in South Bend during the summer of 2016 -- and hopefully result in early-stage ventures ready to launch in the spring of 2017.

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I am heading up the program, with the help of another outstanding individual, Maria Gibbs, a current civil engineering PhD student at Notre Dame. We will spend the next few months helping the students dig into and becoming an expert in some of the most pressing problems in South Bend (and beyond). They will then take that knowledge and use the tools we provide to create innovative solutions, and build them into viable ventures. We will surround them with tools, mentorship, and a steering committee, giving them access to the kind of support that the entrepreneurial ecosystem has shown increases the chances of success, with one caveat. Instead of waiting for their “A-HA!” moments to arrive to start giving this support, we will start from the very beginning, right from problem definition. We think that through the combination of recruiting the right people and surrounding them with the right problems and resources, we have a shot at producing some truly special ventures.

In fact, we’ve already gotten started. July 13, 2016 marked the first ever Founders Lab, one of the key aspects of the program. Written on the white board were eleven problem areas identified by South Bend community leaders: vacant lots, loss of low-skill jobs, cost of daycare, data visualization, transportation, technology adherence and training, chronic health problems, process improvement, schools & pre-K, and hardware for the digital divide.

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Fast-forward three weeks later, and we sat in the same conference room and watched them deliver their first problem pitches. Our pre-idea founders had transformed the words on the whiteboard into six distinct problem statements, identifying metrics, stakeholders, and systemic barriers to change. A few of them connected problem areas to topics they were already passionate about and the rest dove into something completely new. At this point, they have varying degrees of focus, but we think all are ripe with entrepreneurial opportunities. Here is where their problem definitions stand:

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  • Skills Gap – “Our next generation of workers fails to meet the industry’s demand for talented labor and the workers lack the skills to lead productive and prosperous lives.”
  • Chronic Health – “Barriers to chronic health treatment.”
  • Augmented Workforce – “How might we best leverage the qualities that make humans uniquely qualified for certain tasks given that increased automation is replacing low-skill jobs?”
  • Digital Divide – “Bridging the gap between limited internet access and digital literacy.”
  • Antibiotic Resistance – “Over prescription and misuse of antibiotics is driving an alarming increase in antibiotic resistance in the US, which is not being matched by R&D of new antibiotics.”
  • Private Vacant Lots – “South Bend has an excess of private vacant lots, as well as a continuing influx.”

The next few months is going to be an exciting time as we watch these problem areas transform into ideas, and eventually ventures. We are excited that this new partnership has found yet another way to engage young, aspiring entrepreneurs in the opportunity to build something that creates real impact in the community and the world. We will be sure to keep you updated and welcome any questions, comments, and feedback as we embark on yet another exciting endeavor here at the ESTEEM Program!

By: Dustin Mix, ND BSCE ’10, ND MSCE ’13, ND ESTEEM ’13, and Senior Professional for the ESTEEM Graduate Program