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Great ideas 101

Dorm for entrepreneurs spinning out start-ups

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- College campuses have long had freshman dorms, jock dorms, girls' dorms, guys' dorms, party dorms. But a brick building at the southern edge of the University of Maryland's sprawling flagship campus has an unusual designation: It's a dorm for entrepreneurs. Dorm rooms, of course, have served as business incubators before: Dell Inc., Yahoo, and Google were all hatched in college dormitories. But these legendary student start-ups grew without the support of the host university. Maryland's program, like a few others, takes the entrepreneurial focus of its students more seriously, with dorms specifically designed to foster the formation of companies.

Inside the home of the Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities program, undergraduates dream big dreams -- and then they make them reality, in the form of companies.

Elsewhere on campus, the Hinman students study subjects like engineering, computer science, business. But the work the 89 students do in the Hinman dorm bridges the gap between academia and industry.

"It seems that most educational institutions like to focus on cramming knowledge down your throat," said Ish Dugal, 20, a junior majoring in finance and general business who is also president of a revenue-generating company that makes commercials for international radio programs. "But here, people in the program appreciate creativity and innovation and look for more than basic knowledge." Students gather in what looks like a Fortune 500 boardroom with plush leather chairs and a cherry-wood conference table. They're always connected, through wireless Internet service and videoconferencing technology, in a dorm complete with offices, conference rooms, and a state-of-the-art computer lab. They learn from industry insiders at weekly seminars about the ins and outs of starting and running a business -- marketing, intellectual property law, business plans, how to raise capital -- and tap into the expertise of UM faculty.

Hinman students, often working in teams, have created all sorts of companies. One developed a wireless emergency-alert system to display messages on strategically placed screens on college or corporate campuses. Another start-up is working on a global-positioning system that precisely measures athletic performance in sports such as rowing, skiing, and cross-country running.

Other Hinman students' companies have created an online broadcast network featuring youth and high school sports; produced digital commercials broadcast in various languages on local cable stations; and set up a service that enables people to manage fantasy football leagues online.

The entrepreneurial spirit pervades the program; 16 start-ups based in the dorm this year are already generating revenue.

"It's completely infectious; I've learned something from every person," says Kamana Sharma, a 20-year-old junior who hopes to start a company selling products from India in the United States.

"People would like to do this in their 40s; we're starting it when we're 20," says Sharma, a finance and international business major. "Just to see someone who's my age, who's my peer saying, `I'm starting my own business, and if you want you can join me,' I said, `Wow.' You see someone around you doing something and doing so well, and you think, `I can do that too.' "

Eric Jones, a 20-year-old junior whose company, Cyprus Precision, has been working on the global-positioning system for athletes, says Hinman taught him much about business hurdles and how to overcome them. Research revealed a Colorado inventor held a patent on a similar product, but Jones hopes to reach a licensing agreement with the inventor.

"Just living with other people with the same mindset made it easier to develop my own ideas," Jones said. "When people don't really understand how you think and where you're coming from, it makes you feel kind of isolated."

Hinman, now in its fourth year, is a joint venture of UM's engineering and business schools. Upperclassmen with at least a 3.0 grade-point average can apply.

"One of the exciting things about the program is watching these students -- who come from all academic disciplines and majors as different as engineering and architecture -- come together and live together and build companies together," says Karen Thornton, the program's director. Hinman serves as a complement to, not a substitute for, the traditional academic program, Thornton says, and blends in lessons in ethics.

Students' proximity to other budding entrepreneurs also fosters team-building and brainstorming, Thornton adds.

"The synergy comes not only from resources we give them, but what they give each other," she says. "If they have an idea, all they have to do is knock on a roommate's door or walk down the hall, and they have a like-minded person who understands the excitement of the moment."

Brian Hinman, a 1982 graduate of Maryland's engineering school, contributed $1.7 million to get the program started, and another $800,000 since. Hinman received a master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founded several successful companies, including Polycom Inc., a major teleconferencing equipment firm in Pleasanton, Calif. Elsewhere, schools including Babson, Iowa State, and Clarkson University have started similar "living-learning" entrepreneur programs with separate housing for the students. Other universities are considering adding such programs.

Hinman says he wished Maryland had such an entrepreneurial program when he attended school there. "The ultimate success of the program can be measured in the job creation that will result from the students graduating and starting new and prospering companies," he says.

Terrence Hines, a 2003 graduate who created Invision Sports Network, which shows footage from prep sports games on the Internet, got his start in the business with a company he founded as a Hinman student. The first company developed websites with short video clips and statistics for athletes who wanted to showcase their abilities.

Hines says the Hinman program taught him invaluable lessons that spared him a lot of trial-and-error. From writing a business plan to raising venture capital, "We had actual seasoned entrepreneurs come in to talk to us about a lot of these issues, so instead of fumbling around, we were able to get advice from people who had actually done it and knew how to do it."

For Blake Robertson, a senior computer engineering major, the Hinman program helped dispel some myths. Robertson, who began his career as a child inventor when he and a friend built a self-service lemonade stand, works closely with other Hinman companies, including AlertUs Technologies, developer of a wireless early warning system.

Before joining Hinman, Robertson says, "I used to sort of feel like business people were unnecessary. That sort of view is inbred in engineers. It's just a common view. But here, it's been a story of the business student meeting the motivated engineering student."

And with that, a realization: "Engineers can't get anywhere without businesses."

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