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Starting with an Advantage

Universities are often imagined to be self-contained institutions isolated from the concerns and interests of the world — “ivory towers” — where students go to learn and study with remote scholars. But as Honors College (HC) undergraduates and graduate students working with Oregon State University’s Advantage Accelerator program are learning firsthand, universities are deeply connected with their communities, developing partnerships that combine strengths to benefit everyone involved.

The Advantage Accelerator is an OSU program that provides support to start-up companies by taking new ideas from the initial research stage to the consumer market. When the program began last June, co-director John Turner sought out well-qualified graduate students to intern for the program. Following conversations with HC Dean Toni Doolen, he decided to open the internship program to Honors College undergraduate students as well.

Three HC interns — Sean Brown, a senior in mechanical engineering; Tyler Colesar, a senior in bioengineering; and Nicholas Pihl, a senior in biochemistry and biophysics — ultimately joined six graduate students, including recent HC alumna Lauren West, at the program’s inception in 2013.

“Taking ideas from the lab out to market is a process,” Turner says. The interns help with every step of that process, from a pre-screening that determines whether or not a company will benefit from the Accelerator, to market analysis that assesses the commercial viability of innovations, to connecting new companies with possible investors.

West, now an MBA student at OSU, highlighted the importance of the interns’ market research at a recent UHC informational event about the program. “We think we’ve got this thing that’s cool and hip but we have to find ways to make money on it,” she says, referring to a mobile social networking start-up that she has worked with closely and that benefited from student research.

And because of the access the interns have to these developing companies, they learn about business quickly.

“Coming here,” Pihl says, “I had zero business experience or knowledge, but they have been good about filling us in.” Brown adds, “I didn’t know what I was going to learn, but what I have learned still makes me want to start my own company.”

“There’s a lot behind the scenes,” says Colesar. “You see professors doing cool things, but there’s this whole side of faculty and grad students researching and developing that you don’t always see as a student…It’s cool to see knowledge gained at the university with an end goal of making jobs.” Since June, Advantage Accelerator has helped create 12 jobs with the various start-ups the program has helped establish.

Ideas for new companies are welcomed from students and faculty as well as from outside the university. Five new companies – three based on OSU research and two from outside the university – recently joined the new cycle, and this year’s interns, again including HC undergraduates and graduate students, began working in March.

Activities and responsibilities vary for the interns. Colesar, for example, showed interest in intellectual property, so he worked closely with the Office of Commercialization and Corporate Development, the division of the program that deals with intellectual property protection and licensing. So far, Pihl has worked with several companies in product development and research. Some interns work with particular companies through each step of the process.

For Brown, one of the highlights of the experience was helping a company, Onboard Dynamics, in its initial stages of development. “Onboard Dynamics,” a company focused on natural gas engine solutions, “didn’t start as a company,” he says. “It was me and two other professionals making it into a functioning company, and it’s neat to see that happening.” Brown’s first big task was to validate the technologies being used to see if they would work in the marketplace. “There were all kinds of patents I had to look through to see if [the technologies] existed before. I had to plan for the company and help set it up.”

“Every business or project is a new thing to figure out as you go,” Pihl says. “It lets you be creative.”

And along with the possibility to learn about business, the program also gives students the opportunity to learn about the university. “[Oregon State] is not just a place to learn,” says Colesar. “It’s trying to help Oregon, too.”

By Jessica Kibler

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