In the Lions’ DEN

Will the next Facebook come from DEN?

Will the next big thing come from DEN?

While the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN) Innovation Center and New Venture Incubator opened its doors just this past fall, it has grown exponentially since its launch, bringing over twenty speakers to campus, hosting innovate entrepreneurial programs, and funding select, promising startups through grants. Located behind the Hop, the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN), however, is more than just a dispenser of grants. “The DEN is, at a high level, brain and vision,” says Director of Entrepreneurship Jamie Coughlin. “It is Dartmouth entrepreneurship.”

Soon after taking office, President Hanlon established a new office, the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer (OETT), to promote entrepreneurship on campus at the institutional level and help students take their ideas and bring them to life. His decision to create this office is one manifestation of Moving Dartmouth Forward’s (MDF) campaign to increase experiential learning, reinforcing  principles learned in the classroom by applying them in new environments. The focus of the OETT is to foster student’s entrepreneurial ventures, turning information taught in classes into skills and businesses that solve real world problems.  It was this office that planned, fundraised, and oversaw the construction of the DEN Innovation Center, which launched just two terms ago. Coughlin and Trip Davis ’90, OETT Executive director, set out to raise 2.5 million dollars about 2 years ago with which to build the Innovation center and fund its initial operations. They ended up with over 4.5 million from alumni with both entrepreneurial and professional backgrounds, a testament to general support of the underlying idea that entrepreneurship is especially important in the modern world.

The physical plant, located at 4 Currier Place, Hanover, New Hampshire, is open to anyone with an idea or aspiration who is willing to make the short walk, and it is like no other place on campus. “[The DEN Innovation Center] is a way to physically begin to define the world of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is a creative, innovative, outside-the-box world, and it is hard to convey this without a dedicated place for it,” says Coughlin. After passing through the LED-Lit entryway, it is a totally different world. Like most startup incubators, the DEN Innovation center aims to provide all the essentials and many amenities to its entrepreneurs, free of charge, allowing them to focus on their ventures without having to worry about the basics.

There is plenty of food and drink: a fully stocked beverage fridge with just about every drink anyone might desire, a Keurig, an espresso machine, a plethora of snacks like Cheezits, Doritos, Kit Kats, and even freeze-dried ice cream, small meals like ramen and Easy Mac. (The complimentary snacks and beverages are especially welcome here at Dartmouth where Dartmouth Dining Services charges double, sometimes even triple, the retail value for most every item.) There are also eight big-screen TVs, a Playstation 4, a Jukebox, comfortable couches, and, among other things, a remote control helicopter. It is also almost entirely student run, with student DEN associates answers calls and organizing much of the programming. It suffices to say, it is a pretty cool place to hang out. The DEN, however, extends far beyond the scope of one building.

In 2001, a group of Dartmouth alumnae founded the DEN to better connect Dartmouth entrepreneurs with one another after they graduate and foster more entrepreneurial activities through mutually beneficial collaboration. Over the years, DEN chapters were established in eleven major cities around the country, spanning coast to coast, and they continue to emerge regularly. “These DEN city chapters are really key to our effort,” says Coughlin. It is in part through this national network of DEN city chapters that aspiring entrepreneurs can connect with experienced alumnae for help with their venture. James Furnary ’16 is currently working on a venture with Boloco founder John Pepper, creating an app that allows low-wage employees, likely without LinkedIn profiles, to rate each other on their performance, the goal being to have the rating be a good metric of ability and carry weight when searching for a job. Coughlin emphasizes, however, that “While most people see entrepreneurship as for-profit, oftentimes technology-based, which we definitely want to steward, we also want to create more visions of what entrepreneurship is. The definition of entrepreneurship that we’re trying to build here at Dartmouth is very inclusive, industry-agnostic, and broad.” To that effect, the DEN supports all types of entrepreneurship.

Social entrepreneurship, a type of entrepreneurship that emphasized solving societal problems over making monetary gains, is very prevalent here in Hanover. Just this year, the Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering Club developed a product called SafaPani, a low-cost water filter for rural villages that reduces arsenic levels in drinking water. They then pitched their work at The Pitch 14F, a startup competition co-hosted with the Neukom Digital Arts, Leadership, and Innovation (DALI) Lab (as discussed in a recent issue of the Dartmouth Review), and took first place, receiving the necessary funding to produce their product from the DEN. Additionally, Marina Plesons ’15 and Amanda Zieselman ’15 won the 15W Pitch competition with their startup, PeDDTB, which is a low-cost, specialized device that administers the correct dosage of medication in children with tuberculosis. Motivated by a genuine desire to stop preventable deaths in low-income areas, they went above and beyond the scope of the Pitch competition to the Rwandan government and obtained approval to conduct a clinical trial there, where they will solve a societal problem.

Coughlin also emphasized that regardless of eventual goals, “entrepreneurial thinking is the skillset of the twenty-first century, and everyone that comes through this institution can benefit from it. DEN is in service and support of our students.” Unlike many incubators, the DEN Innovation center is less focused on having its members start a company out of their dorm room than giving them the tools to build something for the next century. Consequently, the DEN is one of the most inclusive spaces on campus, open to students of all ages and places in their studies, faculty, staff, alumnae, and all the members of the Upper Valley community. Last term, there were approximately 750 unique participants in DEN programming, of which the numbers of undergraduate students, graduate students, and community members (including faculty and staff) are fairly equal. That number is expected to grow, too, as awareness of this new initiative increases with time. “It takes a village to build a venture, to take an idea and bring it to existence… We are not the venture capitalist that says no to 99% of the people they see, we say ‘come on in’ to 100% of the people we see,” says Coughlin, further emphasizing that the diverse backgrounds, unique perspectives, interesting experiences, and varied interests that each person brings to the DEN will be critical to its continued success.

“At the early stage, it’s all about education and orientation. So we have great programs, workshops, and speaker series to provide just that,” says Coughlin. Every term the DEN runs a six-week startup boot camp, called six-to-start, in which prominent entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and private equity executives speak to the different stages of starting a company. From idea generation to market validation to development to marketing to funding, the DEN Innovation Center provides all the information necessary to start a company, and one-on-one mentorship for the hiccups along the way. It also facilitates networking through programs like “Fireside Chats,” which bring together community members from all across the area to discuss their ventures. “As the idea, and the person, mature, however, they sometimes require different resources, like funding, for example, so we’ve created a full spectrum suite of funding opportunities from competitions like The Pitch, to a collaboration between the College, Thayer, and Tuck called Founder Grants,” elaborates Coughlin. Every term, teams can apply for one of between five and ten Founder Grants, each worth five thousand dollars. All of this money is given to the company without the expectation that it be paid back, and without the entrepreneurs’ needing to sell equity in their company to the college or a venture capitalist.

Dartmouth Ventures 2015, the College’s premier, day-long entrepreneurship conference and start-up competition took place on Friday, April 10 at the Hanover Inn, bringing hundreds of nationally recognized entrepreneurial leaders to campus to discuss pertinent entrepreneurial topics, like those taught through other DEN programming, from their own, personal perspectives. The start up competition is incredibly rigorous, with a grand prize of $25,000 in the form of a grant, and over $70,000 in total prize money awarded. “It really is the pinnacle of Dartmouth Entrepreneurship,” said Furnary, a semi-finalist in this year’s competition.

While relatively new, the DEN has quickly gained serious traction on campus, as more and more people realize the applications of entrepreneurial thinking across all fields. Its doors are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday for anyone who is interested in learning about entrepreneurship, or starting a venture of their own: no prior experience necessary. As one DEN associate said, “It is truly a unique a place on campus. I’ll be the first to admit that I first came for the free food, but I keep coming back for the experience. There is no place as committed to helping me make my dreams my own reality.”