“Not All Innovation Comes From Business School:” A New Incubator Program at Providence College for Liberal Arts Students

She said the Ryan incubator has already begun supporting innovation minors and other entrepreneurship-related activities across campus.

Kelly Ramirez, former co-founder and CEO of Social Enterprise Greenhouse, in June 2021.Matthew Healey for the Boston Globe

How does this incubator program differ from your work in the past at SEG or elsewhere?

The Ryan Incubator will be a broad-based entrepreneurship support initiative where students and graduates participate in local and global entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at creating economic and social value. The big difference, of course, will be that the incubator will be more student-centric.

Are you hoping to work with SEG?

I’m a strong believer in the ecosystem approach we’ve developed at SEG and we hope to bring some of what we learned and developed there into a campus environment. At this point, we imagine that some of the work is led by students and some is supported by students. Of course, I hope that the Ryan Incubator will work closely with SEG and many other leading business support organizations in Rhode Island.

But we have also started researching other successful entrepreneurial initiatives at universities and plan to learn from what is working elsewhere. [Ramirez also helped built a social enterprise initiative at the University of Michigan Business School]

Has PC ever had an incubator?

No formal incubator program, but students have been taking courses on entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities for some time. I have been teaching Social Entrepreneurship on PC for almost 10 years and have witnessed firsthand the growing entrepreneurship and talent on campus. And PC students are recognized for entrepreneurial initiatives. In 2021, for example, a PC team won first place in the BIG EAST Startup Challenge with its venture “UMeal”. [an annual competition where teams pitch product ideas to a panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and BIG EAST alumni].

What types of new products, services, or organizations do you hope students will introduce?

We expect a wide range of ideas from students and are open to all kinds of innovations. That being said, we already know that there are some areas where there is interest in including environmental and sustainability issues; science and health technology; social entrepreneurship and community involvement; Family business; and nonprofit entrepreneurship, particularly those that support the college’s Catholic and Dominican identities.

How is this incubator space closely related to the Ryan family who donated $2 million to this program?

Ryan studied political science and later became a successful business owner in the health technology sector [Ryan was chairman and CEO of CareCore National in South Carolina, which is a company he co-founded to provide benefit management services to health care providers.].

He was an advocate for the value of a liberal arts education and believed that his PC education – without an economics degree – gave him the essential skills and mindsets such as critical thinking, effective communication, love of learning, wide-ranging worldview and intellectual curiosity that he needed needed to be a successful entrepreneur. [Providence College’s] Business Innovation Minor and the Incubator are specifically designed to support students who are pursuing liberal arts or other non-business degrees but want to learn the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship.

How does this program help non-business students?

The Business and Innovation Minor is specifically designed for non-business students [students]. The logic is that students pursuing a business major should get a fair grasp of business fundamentals, making the minor unnecessary.

The hope is that the incubator’s programming and physical space will provide an opportunity for “collision” between business faculty and students and other non-business faculty and students interested in entrepreneurship. The Ryan Incubator can also serve as a ‘clearinghouse’ between all activities related to PC entrepreneurship.

can you give an example

Imagine a chemistry student interested in developing a test strip to detect nitrogen and phosphate in river runoff entering Narragansett Bay working with a biology student studying fertilizer-induced “dead zones” in commercially important areas shellfish habitats studied. This student can use resources in the incubator to explore opportunities to commercialize the technology, obtain a patent, conduct a market analysis, find funding, negotiate with government regulators, etc. The Ryan Incubator and its staff would facilitate the connections between the science students and faculty who have the technical expertise, and the business students and faculty on the business side, while providing the necessary connections to the community.

What is the benefit of non-business students participating in this incubator program? What skills could they take with them into non-business careers?

In my view, the most successful entrepreneurial ventures have diverse teams that bring different perspectives, strengths, and skills to the venture. Innovative ideas are often developed in response to the needs of specific industries. Our vision is for this incubator to break down traditional silos and for teams of students from different schools from caåmpus to come together, work with community leaders, alum and others to create the most innovative and effective innovations to solve complex challenges.

While successful business ventures require people with business skills, we know that not all innovation comes from a business school.

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are creating new businesses and nonprofits, conducting pioneering research, and transforming the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.

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