University of North Dakota Center for Innovation

25 years of innovation, entrepreneurship and investment

In the formative years of the Center for Innovation, UND was blessed to have strong support from the university President Tom Clifford. Clifford was enthusiastic about the project and showed continued support even after his retirement in 1992. At the time, the idea to have an entrepreneur outreach center was foreign to most college campuses but Clifford believed it was important and allowed Bruce Gjovig to lead the project. As a knowledgeable businessman, Clifford served as an advisor to Gjovig who was eager to see the center a success.

The idea to start the Center for Innovation was sparked by the success of UND alumni entrepreneurs. These outstanding leaders were innovators and business builders who were strongly committed to the university and their respective communities. Gjovig saw a need to provide a starting point for young people who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs. He wanted to intentionally provide a place for young people to become innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders. Gjovig believed he could depend on successful entrepreneurs to support future entrepreneurs.

In 1984, President Clifford provided the first $20,000 to launch the center and challenged Gjovig to raise funds from UND alumni and rally local entrepreneurs to operate the Center. In the first year, 15 entrepreneurs stepped up to the plate including Walt Swingen of Grand Forks, N.D. who wrote the first check.

Today nearly USD 30 million has been invested in the Center’s two tech incubators, endowments, program infrastructure, and entrepreneur outreach program. The investment that entrepreneurs have made in the center is what has made the center a success. Donors and supporters have created a vibrant community providing all the tools to help future generations launch and grow new ventures.

Center for Innovation Foundation

When the center first opened it was not being funded by the university so it was strongly advised by Dr. Dwight Baumann, a highly respected business professor who taught entrepreneurship classes at MIT in the 1950s and went on to launch an entrepreneur program at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1970s, that UND utilize a 501(c)3 foundation to attract funding and entrepreneur leaders who would serve as catalysts for change and protect the funding from bureaucracy. President Clifford agreed, and the foundation was formed and has since been instrumental in attracting great entrepreneur talent as trustees as well as benefactors to help build the center and the academic entrepreauner program. The success of the 25-year-old center is closely tied to the success of the foundation.

Faculty and campus support

When Dennis Elbert, a marketing professor and strong student advocate, was named Dean of the College of Business and Public Administration in 1997, the center found a good home in the College of Business.

Unlike most colleges with entrepreneurship programs, the center was formed before the academic major. It took many years but in time leadership became more receptive and the academic entrepreneur department was formed in 1999. In just five short years, UND was ranked in the top 1 percent of entrepreneur programs nationally by Princeton Review. With support from Dean Elbert, business faculty and other faculty members across campus, the program has continued to thrive, even on a shoestring budget. In 2008, UND announced their new branding statement: “Creative – Innovative – Entrepreneurial – Spirited.” No finer compliment could be paid to the Center.

Public policy leaders

Gjovig also worked outside the university in his pursuit to create a favorable climate for entrepreneur success. Since the Center’s beginning in 1984, Gjovig advocated tax, regulatory, legal and other reforms and programs. For the most part, U.S. senators, congressmen, governors, state legislators and administrators responded favorably. In particular, Gjovig teamed up with Sen. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, Sen. Tony Grindberg of Fargo and Governor John Hoeven to work on public policy that helped advance North Dakota as an entrepreneur-friendly state.

Staff and students lead the way

Working on a limited budget while still providing the best resources and opportunities has been challenging. Rather than strictly hiring only those with the most experience or credentials, UND has also sought out strong student talent. The students are bright and work hard, considering it a chance to prove themselves. Students helped build the center and in turn the center gives them an extraordinary experience. It’s a win-win situation.

The Center serves as the entrepreneur lab for the academic program and its success wouldn’t be possible without dedicated faculty. Professors Craig Silvernagel and Jeff Stamp have dedicated their professional lives to UND students and excellence in the classroom. They provide academic rigor and an excellent education.

Recession creates opportunity

The Center for Innovation was launched shortly after the national recession of the 1980s but the country’s financial state didn’t stop successful entrepreneurs from continuing to create, innovate and invest in the future. In every market, there is opportunity. A passion for innovation and entrepreneurship can’t be turned off by the economic climate, only stretched to meet new challenges and create new solutions. The University of North Dakota Center for Innovation looks forward to another innovative 25 years, with ups and downs, but mostly lots of learning.

To learn more about UND’s Center for Innovation visit: www.innovators.net.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on August 21, 2009. For more information about the Weekly, please email us at subscribe@norway.com.

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