On a recent evening, the DEN Innovation Center is full of people: students, faculty, alumni and community members, many with new ideas and high hopes. Jeff Crowe ’78 gives a high-octane presentation, ticking off the traits of a successful product pioneer.
Trait No. 1: optimism.
“You have to be wired for ‘yes,’ ” Crowe tells the audience of about 100. That can-do spirit, plus hard work, innovative thinking, and skillful networking formed the rungs of his own career ladder. Crowe led the marketing for what was, in the early 1980s, a revolutionary technology—voicemail messaging. He is now a managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners, a venture capital firm with a large, diverse international portfolio.
Crowe’s appearance is one of many events organized by DEN, the entrepreneurship component of Dartmouth’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer. Eighteen months after opening its doors, the DEN Innovation Center, with its decor of reclaimed hardwood, colorful furniture, glass conference rooms, and candy bins, has become a popular hub of creativity and experiential learning, where novice entrepreneurs from the College and surrounding communities can nurture their plans in both formal seminars and informal brain-storming.
“We celebrate serendipity,” says Director of Entrepreneurship Jamie Coughlin. “We created this space to be the playing field of entrepreneurship filled with a stream of activity and programs, and you never know who you might meet here. It could be a world-class faculty member, an uber successful entrepreneur, or a new student with a revolutionary idea. We located it here at 4 Currier Place, in Dartmouth’s arts and innovation district, to echo the diversity of ideas that are welcomed and encouraged to be created here.”
Entrepreneurship has a long history at the College. In 2001, the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network was created to put together alumni affinity groups focused on entrepreneurship. In 2013, President Phil Hanlon ’77 and the Office of the Provost broadened the DEN vision and brand, bringing in staff, resources, and programs to support entrepreneurship.
One student who loves spending time at the DEN Innovation Center is Aidan Folbe ’19. With his business partner from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Folbe has developed a mobile device application called FoodShare. It allows users to visit restaurants, photograph appealing dishes, and send the images, with recommendations, to friends. There’s an altruistic side to the FoodShare dining experience: Each restaurant pays a fee to be listed by the app, and a portion of those fees is used to transport edibles from food banks to local food pantries, which dispense food to people who need it. “A lot of food banks have enough donations,” Folbe says. “What they lack is the money to get that food to a local nonprofit supplier. We are learning whether the chance to be charitable motivates people to recommend their favorite restaurants.”
In February, FoodShare won top honors from a panel of judges at Dartmouth’s The Pitch competition, where contestants make two-minute pitches for products that need investment and further development. Winners get up to $3,000 from the DEN and design support from the event’s co-sponsor, DALI, Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation Lab. Folbe hopes to get help from DALI in redesigning the FoodShare website, and says the DEN has already been a great resource for FoodShare. “I have met upperclassmen here and they ask me how my businesses is going, and how they can help,” he says.
Advice about product development also comes from DEN’s weekly startup boot camp series, in which Coughlin shares his experience as an entrepreneur and incubator professional. Before coming to Dartmouth, he was CEO and entrepreneur-in-residence of New Hampshire’s oldest and most active business incubator, the abi Innovation Hub.
Coughlin preaches the doctrine of what is referred to as the “minimum viable product,” or MVP. It’s a strategy for avoiding the development of products that customers don’t want. The idea is to rapidly build a minimum set of features that are enough to deploy the product and test key assumptions, he tells students.
“Don’t wait until you have invested a lot of time and money in what you see as the final iteration, and then bring it to the marketplace,” he advises. “Test it out early, test it out often, based directly on customer needs and feedback.”
Today, the DEN is far-reaching and includes activities and programs on campus, as well as forums across the country. Since its launch, Coughlin says, the center has created 15 co-curricular educational and funding programs, organized 135 events, worked with more than 3,000 participants, funded 60-plus venture ideas, funded 15 startup internships, provided 320 hours of one-on-one mentorship, and is now reaching a monthly audience of more than 46,000 on email and social media.
“The vision for entrepreneurship at Dartmouth is being realized through DEN. And it is more than a physical space, it’s a global network of programs and people that serve as the driving force of entrepreneurship, creativity, and experiential learning across many disciplines,” says Coughlin. “The world is asking us all to be more creative, more innovative, and we are answering that call.”
The DEN’s annual signature event, Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum, a daylong conference and startup competition, will take place from 8: 30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 1, in Hanover. Please RSVP.