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Rich Semenik Business dean Rich Semenik
(photo Erin Raley)

Center pairs bootstrapping companies with MSU students

by Carol Schmidt

Ben Ganser had traveled and learned to fly when, in his mid-20s, he decided to return to college in his native Bozeman and complete his business degree at Montana State University with an eye at one-day joining his family business.

Four years later, Ganser is the corporate financial officer of his family's firm, Corbond, Corp. of Bozeman, a manufacturer of high-performance building insulation material. He recalls that one of the most valuable lessons he learned during his years at university was how to write a business plan, taught in his entrepreneurship studies course at MSU.

Ganser, one of the first students to go through MSU College of Business' Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West, said he believes that the entrepreneurship program is an asset to both MSU as well as the state.

"If you are a young company in a heavy bootstrapping mode, getting pro-bono research is a big deal."

"(The Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West) is a great idea for Montana," Ganser says "It's sad to keep training good students (at MSU) who then leave the state to work for top companies throughout the country. What we haven't done enough of is to train people to build those kind of companies here and build our economy."

That was the sentiment of a group of MSU officials, including Rich Semenik, dean of the MSU College of Business, when they formulated the idea for the center. Funded in 2001 by a $116,000 National Science Foundation grant, the program was built on the premise that cutting-edge commerce could be developed if some of the fine technological minds were provided structure and support, as well as the experience of entrepreneurs who had come before.

Launched by the College of Business Strategic Plan proposed in January 2001, the center provides internships for students seeking actual experience with entrepreneurial companies. Students are assigned to businesses that are a part of TechRanch, a Bozeman organization that works to "hatch," or develop, start-up ventures. Students provide an important source of free research power for the start-up businesses in exchange for a firsthand look at the development of a technology- based company.

"If you are a young company in a heavy bootstrapping mode, getting pro-bono research is a big deal," said John O'Donnell, executive director of TechRanch. "The student interns get credit and realworld experience. Our clients get free research. It is a good match."

Ben Ganser Graduate Ben Ganser joined Corbond, his family's business, and put to use what he learned in MSU entrepreneurship courses. (photo Erin Raley)

The match has benefited students and start-up businesses, but it has also benefited the center itself. Entrepreneur Magazine recently recognized the MSU Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West as one of its top 10 Entrepreneur Emphasis Programs in the country. Semenik is confident that it is the high-tech emphasis of the program that has set MSU's program apart.

"It's very, very unusual for students in entrepreneurship programs to work with scientists," Semenik said. "And here, that's what they do every day. They work on ideas or products that come from scientists or engineers.

"Business students know process, but the product itself has to come from someone else, such as an engineer or a scientist. As a result, our students work on some very exciting and complicated projects."

"If you are in an early stage of your company and are going to hire somebody, what better person to hire than a kid just out of college who has already been working on your project?"

In all, 32 MSU students have graduated with a minor, or certificates, in entrepreneurship since the program began. Another 30 students are currently enrolled in the program. In addition to interning at least eight hours a week for one semester at TechRanch's offices in the MSU Advanced Tech Park, students must also complete an entrepreneurship class, Management 463. Students do not need to be a business major to minor in entrepreneurship, but there is competition for the student slots. Semenik would like to enlarge the program and is seeking a private $5 million to fund the center in perpetuity.

Fish Tech Center (photo Stephen Hunts)

Two years ago Rob Phillips, pictured here with John O'Donnell of TechRanch (left) and Rick Barrows of the Fish Technology Center (right) added to his mechanical engineering emphasis a minor in entrepreneurship. He and another student worked with the start-up company EnviroZyme.

O'Donnell said sometimes the internship works into a job for the students.

"So, if you are in an early stage of your company and are going to hire somebody, what better person to hire than a kid just out of college who has already been working on your project?" asks O'Donnell.

O'Donnell said that in addition to the start-up businesses and the students, the Bozeman business community is also enriched by the existence of the Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West at MSU, calling the concept "valuable work, not voodoo economics."

"What this state and our community, in particular, needs are people with really good business skills relative to people with really good technical skills," said O'Donnell, echoing Ganser. "MSU is spitting out a lot of really great engineers and scientists, but that's only one part of the equation. You have to have good business people. You have to have the good business people as well if you hope to see your economy grow."

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