The PhilaU Entrepreneurs: Fostering a Startup Culture on Campus

Rodeobird rider Jason Marks catches some waves on a custom surfboard made by PhilaU alumni Colin Hansel and Morgan Gaumann. Photo credit: Fred Williams.

Philadelphia University’s deep-rooted culture of innovation and focus on transdisciplinary collaboration helps foster student entrepreneurship that can lead to startups and new business ventures after graduation—or even before.

Through industry-sponsored projects, students develop real-world solutions for top firms that have the potential to become real products on the market. The University’s talented faculty, including many pioneers in their respective fields, are available to guide students on the path to building their own startups. Senior capstone projects encourage students to creatively explore their passions and can lead to a new product line or company.

The Blackstone LaunchPad at PhilaU provides entrepreneurial resources to students, alumni and faculty.

The Blackstone LaunchPad at PhilaU provides entrepreneurial resources to students, alumni and faculty.

In addition, the newer resources of PhilaU’s Blackstone LaunchPad and Entrepreneurship Center help channel student can-do and creativity into viable products and businesses through coaching, mentoring, legal and financial resources and other assistance.

All of this adds up to an academic environment in which entrepreneurship thrives. Sustainable design graduate Morgan Berman turned her master’s thesis into MilkCrate: a mobile app to help people find sustainable businesses. Industrial design graduates Colin Hansel and Morgan Gaumann turned a love of surfing and design into Rodeobird: a firm that makes unique surfboards designed for East Coast waves. Business students Jonny Nguyen and Christopher Dang plan to turn family recipes for pho Vietnamese noodle soup into a food business aimed at young professionals on the go.

“The nuclear core of entrepreneurship is innovation, which can be a new product or service or a better, faster or cheaper way to deliver a current offering,” said Philadelphia University President Stephen Spinelli Jr., who knows a thing or two about the subject: he was a co-founder of Jiffy Lube before embarking on an academic career in the field of entrepreneurship. “Philadelphia University has a long history of being innovative, and the unique curriculum we implemented eight years ago, coupled with our Nexus Learning approach of transdisciplinary collaboration, further supports our culture of opportunity-finding and creative solution-making.”

Business students Jonny Nguyen (right) and Christopher Dang (left) win PhilaU's Blackstone LaunchPad-sponsored business model competition.

Business students Jonny Nguyen (right) and Christopher Dang (left) win LaunchPad business model competition.

Since its launch in February 2014, PhilaU’s Blackstone LaunchPad has worked with more than 250 students at various stages of business development, including some who have turned their plans into up-and-running businesses, said Zoe McKinley, director of PhilaU’s LaunchPad, which is funded by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to support campus startups. Read more.

Blackstone LaunchPad provides one-on-one coaching sessions, weekly talks with business, legal and financial experts, funds to attend entrepreneurship events and business model pitch competitions. Nguyen, the aspiring fast-pho restaurateur, said, “The LaunchPad has added much value to my education here because whatever I learn about what it really takes to run a business translates back to the classroom.”

At PhilaU, entrepreneurial aspirations are fueled across all disciplines. Starting this fall, a new academic minor in entrepreneurship is open to undergraduates in non-business programs. Students from all majors, as well as alumni and faculty members, are welcome at the Entrepreneurship Center and LaunchPad.

“Our student entrepreneurs have a unique set of skills and experience based on design thinking,” McKinley said. “Their design sensibility gives them a heightened awareness of consumer insights, and I think that’s unique to our approach to education. They develop the types of businesses that have a real impact on the world.”


Sustainable design graduate Silvio Tinello’s product line, Buna, is made of recycled rubber.

Silvio Tinello, who co-founded a firm offering sustainable outdoor furniture and products in his native Argentina, received a prestigious international Fulbright scholarship to study sustainable design at PhilaU. While working on his master’s degree, he also wanted to further develop his business and move into the U.S. market. In addition to coaching from PhilaU’s LaunchPad, he received funding to participate in several events, including this spring’s MIT Waste Allliance innovation forum, where he won first place for his Buna line of products made from recycled rubber.

Tinello, who graduated in May and is working at community biolab Genspace in Brooklyn this summer while continuing to develop his thesis project, said he came to PhilaU to “learn from the best” in sustainable design, but at the same time “received a lot of advice relating to business development and startups.”

Faculty members who work with entrepreneurial-minded students see an uptick in interest and opportunity. Industrial design program director Tod Corlett said while these programs traditionally have been a breeding ground for product-based businesses, “the Blackstone LaunchPad has been a game-changer for us, because it allows designers to get the management, legal, entrepreneurial and finance expertise they need.”

Celebration of Innovation guests explore a student team’s design for a motion-analysis shirt to help health professionals monitor their patients’ progress.

Students designed a motion-analysis shirt to help health professionals monitor patient progress for a Verizon Communications wearable technology challenge.

And Mark Sunderland, textile engineer and academic operations director for Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, said a recent industry engagement project with Verizon Communications to ideate wearable technology created an innovation hub where students researched, experimented, solved problems and discovered new opportunities. “For many students, this was a big step on their entrepreneurial journey,” he said. Read about PhilaU’s collaboration with Verizon Communications.

At the same time, many student entrepreneurs find their way to the president’s office, where PhilaU’s entrepreneur-in-chief hears them out, offers insights and asks critical questions.

“When you are trained to explore opportunities and create business models to deliver value, then seeking new ventures becomes a natural step,” Spinelli said of PhilaU’s students. “This inclination often leads students to my office for advice. I always start with questions about the opportunity. Since we implemented the new curriculum students have been very sharp about articulating market demand and the competitive advantage their venture will have in fulfilling that demand.”

Watch this space for a series of profiles, called The PhilaU Entrepreneurs, on student and alumni business ventures, starting June 22 with a story on alumni Colin Hansel and Morgan Gaumann and their innovative surfboard company Rodeobird.

Check out other student and alumni features:
Morgan Gaumann and Colin Hansel Create Unique Surfboards
Matt Cook Brings Form and Function to Urban Backpacks
Morgan Berman Designs My MilkCrate App for Sustainable Living
Jonny Nguyen and Christopher Dang Plan to Serve On-The-Go Pho
Galen Kane Designs a Better Water-Filtering Bottle

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