Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and early investor in Facebook, has recently argued that there is a bubble in higher education. He argues that higher education is overpriced and that students are not getting the value for their investment. In a radical move, he has sponsored a Thiel Fellowship to provide grants of up to $100,000 for 20 students under 20 years of age to drop out of college and pursue their entrepreneurial goals. His inaugural class was culled from over 400 applicants from around the globe. With an Ivy League education costing more than $200,000, you can understand how there is a potential perception of a bubble. However, I tend to agree with Bill Aulet, director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, who has argued publicly against Thiel’s idea. Aulet makes a convincing argument that while “he applauds the call to action and spirit of experimentation,” he believes that there is still significant value in having an education. I agree that for the entrepreneurially minded student, there are significant benefits of a college education for intellectual, experiential, social and even financial capital development.
I share this debate as context for the exciting things going on at the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer (OETT) at Mississippi State University under the leadership of Gerald Nelson. The OETT was formed in May 2011 as a result of the merger of the MSU Entrepreneurship Center and the Office of Technology Commercialization. The OETT offers students entrepreneurial education, hands on experiences and networking opportunities. They are incubating tomorrow’s innovators. I recently visited the campus and spoke with Nelson about the exciting progress the OETT is making. The inspiring vision of the program is to promote student-led entrepreneurship, create an atmosphere of entrepreneurship education and research and to provide strategic business relationships with the corporate community.
Nelson has an undergraduate and MBA degree from MSU, and he also has plenty of “real world” experience growing companies. He started his career with Rockwell International where worked in management with manufacturing facilities in Illinois and Michigan. He moved back to Mississippi where he ran a plant for Gulf & Western in Ackerman and later also a plant in West Memphis, Ark. These experiences led to an opportunity for him to work for Viasystems Group Inc. in St. Louis where he was part of an executive management team that started four companies, which were rapidly grown and taken public. In fact, he shared that one company went from startup to $1.2 billion in revenue in 18 months through mergers and organic growth. In 2000, he returned to his home state to work with Deka Medical until it was sold in 2002. At that time, MSU asked Nelson to serve as director of the Hatcher Entrepreneurship Program. The role extended over time to leadership over the Thad Cochran Endowment for Entrepreneurship and the MSU Entrepreneurship Center leading to his current role as Director of OETT today.
Nelson’s passion for entrepreneurship comes through as he is proud of the multi-disciplinary team effort that is now producing high-quality companies led by students, faculty, and alumni. As noted in the OETT’s annual report, the entrepreneurial programs are not an afterthought, but instead are “at the forefront of the university’s efforts in the areas of education, research, and service.” I observed that there is a serious commitment to entrepreneurship and that the OETT realizes that you can significantly improve the potential success of a company by providing quality mentors, practical educational opportunities and leveraging relationships to open the doors to financial investment. Nelson shared that he believes that two critical factors for the success of an entrepreneur are “having a passion for what you are doing and having a deep understanding of your market.” OETT’s commitment to excellence is demonstrated in part by the fact that Bill Aulet who I referenced above is a consultant for the OETT. MIT students and alumni launch about 900 new companies each year, so they are obviously doing something right.
I am encouraged by the companies I have watch developed out of this program over the last few years and the vision and leadership of Nelson and his team. As Mississippians, we should be proud of these type positive advances at MSU and our similar public and private universities. Based on my own research, I believe we will continue to see more and more students become interested in the entrepreneurial path. With programs like the OETT at Mississippi State University, students are given a great opportunity to enhance their education and chances for future success while also exploring entrepreneurial opportunities — that is a good deal!