With President Barron’s Support, Penn State Innovation Begins To Thrive
Eli Kariv was shaking after he presented to the Board of Trustees this January. He pitched the Board an unprecedented proposal: A university-wide effort to support student entrepreneurship. In the past, when Kariv or his peers sought administrative approval, they were met with a variation of the same response.
“It used to be when I presented an idea to administrators, they were like ‘That’s cool, but we’re doing other things,'” Kariv explained.
But this time, Kariv approached the Board with President Eric Barron’s backing — who, just days before, set forth a groundbreaking initiative of his own: A $30 million investment to fund “economic development and student career success” by supporting student entrepreneurs. Kariv was met with approval and encouragement from the entire Board. Immediately following the meeting, trustee Ira Lubert donated $50,000 towards Kariv’s efforts.
“I couldn’t handle it. It was amazing,” Kariv said of the experience.
The Board’s approval was a culmination of efforts led by Barron and students like Kariv to create a university-wide culture that encourages innovation, not just from a subset of labeled entrepreneurs. The benefits, Kariv says, could be huge.
“Right now, we see entrepreneurs as separate people,” he said. “That’s not how I see it. If we have innovation at our core, and every single school Penn State-wide all embrace innovation, then you see every school coming out with new ideas. Every industry could benefit from that.”
Different Times, Different Priorities
In January, Barron pledged a $30 million investment towards student entrepreneurship, research, and development. This marked the beginning of a more cognizant effort to focus on the future of Penn State and its students.
“A recent study indicates that every $1 million in R&D spending generates 36 jobs,” Barron wrote at the time. “And, not surprisingly, the lowest unemployment rates are consistently found in the areas of the highest concentration of research activity.”
Most of the money hasn’t yet reached the students, and Kariv said the investment is more in the “idea phase” for now. But according to Matt Brezina, a successful entrepreneur and Penn State alum, that’s completely fine.
“Just by starting the conversation here, President Barron is taking a massive step,” Brezina said.
Brezina graduated in 2003 with an electrical engineering degree. After dropping out of graduate school at the University of Maryland, he quickly founded several companies that amassed millions of dollars in worth. He co-started Xobni (inbox backwards), a software company that made products for Microsoft Outlook and other devices which was acquired by Yahoo in 2013. Brezina then founded Sincerely, “the world’s largest gifting network.” Sincerely was also acquired, this time by Provide Commerce, but he still continues to run the company.
But Brezina didn’t get his start in entrepreneurship from administrative support or funding at Penn State. He was forced to navigate those waters alone. Brezina secured a grant from Y Combinator, a seed accelerator that’s funded startups like reddit and Dropbox. Kariv, Brezina, and Barron’s vision is to bring something like this to Penn State.
“I don’t think entrepreneurship was very popular,” Brezina explained of the university culture in the early 2000s. “I thought the university always taught you to be a really good applicant for Accenture or Lockheed Martin. And they did. But I wasn’t very interested in working for a big company.”
Brezina didn’t get the experience to follow his ideas at Penn State. Kariv, now a senior, said that entrepreneurship wasn’t at the forefront of the university’s agenda during the first years of his Penn State experience either.
“I was close with President Erickson,” Kariv, a member of the Presidential Leadership Academy, said. “He had a lot of issues to tackle. President Erickson from day one knew he was a two-year president.”
The Summers Founders Program
Kariv served as the president of Innoblue — “the community for entrepreneurs at Penn State,” as he called it — last year, where he met Brezina. Although there were two presidents before Kariv, Innoblue was still in its initial stages and didn’t yet reap the privileges of more established on-campus programs.
“I was basically building it from the ground up,” Kariv said of his early days in charge. “I looked at other schools that were having very cool programs that were similar, and thought it would be awesome to have that for entrepreneurs here.”
Chief amongst those inspirations were the University of Michigan’s hackathon (which Kariv visited last fall), and an internship with Mozilla in San Fransisco last summer that introduced him to the west coast entrepreneurial spirit where “everyone is working on their own idea.”
Through Innoblue, Kariv struck up a close relationship with Brezina. Brezina had already moved out to the west coast by then, but was involved through its board since it was created. Kariv, who cites Brezina as his mentor, saw the success Brezina had through a $12,000 Y Combinator grant that funded his first company, and kickstarted his career. Inspired, Kariv hoped to provide that same opportunity for Penn State entrepreneurs. Fortunately, he had Brezina on his side.
“I was looking for a way to give back to the university,” Brezina explained. “I didn’t like the idea of just giving money to a university program, I wanted to give the same opportunity to someone that I was given by Y Combinator.”
With that lofty goal, Brezina and Kariv founded the Penn State Summers Founders Program two years ago. The program is a historic new initiative at Penn State that will be inaugurated on Thursday by Barron at IST Startup Week — also an Innoblue creation. Beginning this summer, the Founders Program will provide six teams of entrepreneurs, each including at least one current Penn State student, a $10,000 grant to fund their startup ventures. The specific projects won’t be released until Thursday evening, but Kariv noted that they’re all incredibly impressive, and spearheaded by talented individuals.
“Some are turning down job offers to pursue their own ideas,” Kariv said. “And each group is solving a problem that they care about. Now they get to pursue these problems for 10 weeks this summer.”
Y Combinator used to be called the Summer Founders Program, and Kariv hopes Penn State’s version will replicate the opportunities the seed accelerator provides. 60 teams and over 120 students applied for the program’s first year.
“The teams were amazing, even the ones that didn’t get accepted. I would have picked 20 of them,” Kariv said. “These kids could go on to do anything, they had offers from top consulting firms, top engineering firms. They turned them down to work on their own ideas.”
But until last semester, the program was only an idea and wasn’t a top priority for the administration, but President Barron intervened.
“I got to meet with him in November, told him the idea,” said Kariv. “He said he thought it fit in, and told me we should keep working with it. Even that, just him telling us that he supports what we’re doing, and to be able to come to administration and faculty, that’s already a huge step.”
Shortly after came Barron’s investment announcement. A few days after that, Kariv was in front of the Board of Trustees giving his pitch, which was approved unanimously.
“The Summer Founders Program is probably one of the most important things to happen for student entrepreneurship around the world, and especially at Penn State,” current Innoblue president Mitch Robinson said.
During his internship at Mozilla last summer, Kariv was in awe of the innovative and creative minds that populated San Fransisco. But he was also in some respects dismayed that so many smart, confident, and independent young students were taking jobs instead of following their own ideas. He respected the decision, but he didn’t believe it was what they truly wanted to do.
“The truth is, right as your about to graduate college, you have nothing but passion,” he explained. “You’re not jaded by the world yet.”
The Summers Founders Program will merge these two worlds, and provide students the opportunity to pursue their own passions while still young. Of course, this was no one-man task. Brezina explained that for a project like this to be possible, there were three crucial pieces: an alumni member that worked the funding and networked (Brezina), a staff member to handle the administrative issues (Sean Miller, the director of development and alumni relations at the Schreyer Honors College), and a student (Kariv). And of course, Barron’s support played a crucial role.
“President Barron’s vision is that we should definitely take advantage of that,” he said. “We know we have support from the top down.”
Right now, the program is funded for the next few years — though Kariv and Brezina hope to make this an endowed university staple.
A New Culture On Campus
One of Barron’s pledges in his initial investment letter was the creation of physical spaces throughout the state to host entrepreneurial workshops and inspire new ideas. To Kariv, a physical space, oft-overlooked by non-innovators, is one of the crucial first steps to building a creative culture on campus. He cited the New Leaf Initiative, the State College home to mission-driven entrepreneurs, as an apt example. In due time, Kariv hopes to connect New Leaf to Penn State.
“If you have a space where everyone can come together and work together, that’s where collaboration and innovation occur,” he said. “President Barron has an opportunity to set forth an entirely new culture. And I think he’s really taking advantage of that.”
After graduation, Kariv will spurn multiple job offers from industry-leading companies to create his own startup. Following a remote internship with a company that, in his words, helped teachers and administrators facilitate the learning process, the business student became fascinated with the intersection of teaching and technology. With two cofounders, he’s working to create abstractEd, a company that hopes to help middle and high schoolers learn computer science.
“I thought it’d be hard to convince my parents and friends. I thought it’d be a really tough journey to do a tough thing. It’s so ingrained in our culture to make excuses, but really I was just scared,” Kariv said of his decision. “When I wrote a blog post on Facebook saying this is what I want to do, the support was incredible. Everyone was reaching out to me, saying this is what I want to do too. If we had that as our overall community, imagine that.”
That’s what Barron is trying to create at Penn State, according to Kariv. But it’s not so easy, as Brezina explained back on the west coast. He receives calls from students from other universities including MIT asking how to change the learn-and-replicate culture that’s been ingrained in society for so many years. One of Kariv’s inspirations is Seymour Halpert, an MIT mathematician that wrote on the future vision of education.
“Education has really been the same model for the past 200 years, and we just have this lack of willingness to change the way it works,” Kariv explained. “Education is our future, and every person growing up through our K-12 system will decide our future.”
Kariv has huge goals, and thinks initiatives like the Summers Founders Program could change Penn State’s academic culture, though likely not its entire education model.
“It opens this door to conversation about how we can move forward as a university,” he said. “Man, for a university president to do that, I think it’s so cool. I’m almost sad to leave Penn State. I’m excited to be a part of this community.”
Kariv and his company won’t see any of the $30 million investment, and it’s still unclear how Barron plans to spread those funds. Still, it’s a massive step towards an innovative Penn State, something Kariv said could bring even greater rewards.
“He created the space and the community to allow people like me to explore what I want to explore. Students have ideas and they want to run with them. If you allow them to do it, they’re going to run fast as hell.”
Photo: Penn State News