By Stephanie Costolo        Photos by Dr. Tom Porter with Photos at Your Place. Additional photos courtesy of  USF Staff

My sister Kayla grows things. She has dozens of plants, fruits, vegetables and flowers that grow in pots inside her house or outside in her garden. She often talks about how nice it is to have fresh produce right in her back yard, how convenient and how cost effective it is to be able to pluck a ripe vegetable from her garden, and her sense of pride from getting nutritional benefits out of something ‘home-grown’. The thing is, as someone who has no familiarity with gardening, if I got a hold of her backyard I would probably accidentally run everything over with a lawnmower. I wouldn’t be able to distinguish weed from seedling, trash from treasure. I would quite literally walk right past what was growing in the yard on my way to the store to spend money on much of the same items.

Oftentimes we miss opportunities that are right ‘in our backyard’ simply because we don’t know to look for them, nor do we have the awareness to recognize the specific opportunities. How many figurative gardens have I walked through on my way to the store because I didn’t recognize their worth? Countless, I’m sure.

I’ve become aware of a treasure right in your backyard, and I feel it’s my duty to bring it to your attention, especially if you’re a business owner in the local area. A little backstory: I’m a student at USF in the Entrepreneurship in Applied Technologies Masters Degree Program, completing this coming December. As I sit in classes and participate in projects, I can’t help but feel like I’m being let in on this big secret. I can’t help but to think about how valuable this information and these resources would be to the business community here in Tampa Bay. The students in this program are getting top-notch education on entrepreneurship and business ownership from the inside-out; strategic market assessment, new product development, venture capital and private equity, mergers and acquisitions, business planning, exit strategies, and creativity and design are just some of the topics covered. Even veteran business owners and serial entrepreneurs would learn a great deal.

This program offers value not only to the students, but also to the community as a whole, so I decided to chat with the program director, Dr. Michael Fountain. We discussed the program growth and national rankings, the benefits to the Tampa Bay community as a whole, and the benefits to local business owners.

Dr. Fountain is the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at USF, “he also serves as the faculty Director for the USF Student Innovation Incubator. He holds senior faculty appointments in the Muma Colleges of Business, Medicine and Engineering. He also serves as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Tampa Bay Research and Innovation Center at the USF Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.” Additionally, “In his career prior to coming to USF, Dr. Fountain founded or co-founded eleven new ventures, three of which became publicly traded companies. During his corporate career he has served in a variety of leadership roles including Chief Scientific Officer, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board. Dr. Fountain was a pioneer in the field of development and application of the use of phospholipids in micro- and nano-particle technologies for drug encapsulation. He has successfully patented and commercialized numerous innovative medical and diagnostic products for the domestic and international marketplace, including sustained release anti-cancer drugs, genetically engineered diagnostic products for autoimmune diseases, microencapsulated dermatologic products and advanced subunit vaccine products for prevention of human and animal infectious disease. His research efforts have yielded over 70 peer-reviewed publications, 23 issued US patents, over 70 international patents. His patented technology platforms are currently utilized in over 180 products worldwide.” (www.usf.edu)

To say he’s qualified for the job of guiding hundreds of students each semester toward entrepreneurial success would be a gross understatement.

The morning of the interview, my colleague and I drove the ten or so miles from Wesley Chapel to the Tampa USF campus and headed directly to the MUMA College of Business. Up three flights of stairs, down one long hallway and into the Entrepreneurship, we found our meeting destination. Dr. Fountain politely ushered us into his private office and, with his slight southern accent, he clasped hands on the table and asked, “what can I do for you?” He is precise and to the point, exactly as you would expect from such an accomplished individual. It took only one question to begin to recognize how proud Dr. Fountain is of the program and how it has evolved over the years.

RM (Resident Magazine): In what year did the entrepreneurship program begin?

MF (Dr. Michael Fountain): We actually started the program in 2002. There have been entrepreneurship courses offered here for many, many years (before that). We taught entrepreneurship courses for MBA students but in 1997, the landscape changed. In 1997 we found that our best and brightest were leaving and going other places for jobs, and those who were starting businesses were finding that it was much easier to get funding elsewhere. It was a bit of a concern, from my standpoint, because I had been a business owner and serial entrepreneur in my own right. I knew that there were a lot of connections that could be made in Tampa Bay. At that time the president (of USF) and I sat down along with three of the Deans, and we did some brainstorming about how can we help our students to become more efficient, better business men and women, and to have their careers here rather than leaving Tampa and going elsewhere?

The vision was created and it was called The Center for Entrepreneurship and the Global Management of Technology. We thought that was way too long and we shortened it down to the Center for Entrepreneurship. Then we had to decide how to execute this mission. We took three years, and over that three year period, We benchmarked the best programs in the country. The vision here was if we really want to have high impact, we needed to move out of the College of Business…we need to involve them but it needed to involve other colleges as well.  So right off the bat, we had all of USF Health; nursing, medicine, and public health. We also had engineering and business. Great entrepreneurs come from everywhere, so we needed a program that could embrace all that.

As a former CEO, (I thought) what are the things that I had to deal with? I dealt with business operations, my investor base, managing cash flow, product design development, manufacturing, quality control… all of those things are engineering. And on the legal side, legal structures, intellectual property and financing. So what we did was build a program around that. It ended up being cross-listed and fully interdisciplinary from the beginning. People learn from engagement, and the best engagement model for education is experiential and clinical training; systems based learning. Our courses are always taught that way.

RM: How is the program growing and evolving?

MF:  We are expanding our footprint internationally dramatically. There’s an international program called Hermes that started in the EU with nineteen of the top business colleges and universities, who have an emphasis or focus in entrepreneurship and innovation, and who also have either a strong engineering, medical, or science program. It has expanded now to Asia, so there are three additional full members; two in Australia and one in China. In the US, there is one affiliate at Texas A&M. We were extended an invitation this year to become a full member… the only one in the US. This program does provide opportunities for the students at all the other Hermes universities to spend one year at their host institution, and spend their second year here. That will bring in top graduate students in entrepreneurship from around the world and allow them to not only to get their degree from their host institution, but by coming here, they’ll receive a second degree from USF and become USF alums.

We have so many family-owned businesses and small businesses here in Tampa and they can’t find people to take them over or acquire them. (The owners) wonder ‘who do I get to run this? How do I get liquidity out of this? I don’t want to see it fail. How do I sell it? I don’t want to just close down.’ If you look at individuals who are my age or maybe even a little younger than I am, all of us are going to be transitioning from what we’re doing over the next 15 to 20 years. And if you look at the total amount of assets on those businesses in the US, it’s over ten trillion dollars. That’s a lot of money, and many of those end up not having successful transitions.  They end up being sold by brokers, failing or getting transferred to children and related individuals who don’t want the businesses.

In response to that, the other program that we’re going to begin working on is an initiative that I think will be interesting to a lot of people.  There’s been a very good program that was started in Houston, which connected students with the business community and with business owners who were looking to transition. So what they did in Houston was, they put in place a program that connected those business owners with the University of Houston. This program will identify the students who are a good fit (to transition into businesses which owners wish to exit) and take one to two years to transition the students, working twenty hours a week in the business. At the end of that, financiers will be providing the financial resources for the student to acquire the business. I strongly feel that every individual that starts a business should at least have one or two exit strategies in mind from the very beginning, or at least know what their options are and who to go to. This will be a very popular program.

RM: What sets USF apart from other universities?

MF: We have resources that many of the other schools don’t have simply because of the urban location. We have the CEO Council, Tampa Bay Technology Forum, networks of incubators here throughout the region that we partner with, and we have a very strong mentoring program, which is critical. With the students in the (Student Innovation) incubator, if they have a vision or an idea that they need to work on, we’ll do our best to find a mentor. Since we have such a large alumni group, a lot of our graduates out of this program mentor students both formally and informally. It’s the ecosystem that we’ve built.

RM: Let’s talk rankings.

MF: Out of our group of graduates, somewhere between sixty and seventy percent have started one or more verifiable businesses. That’s enormous. That’s the top ranking in the country that we are aware of.  We are ranked by Princeton Review and by Entrepreneur magazine every year as a top twenty-five graduate program for the last nine consecutive years. We are the only program that’s ever been ranked in the state of Florida, and one of only three in the Southeast. The other two in the Southeast are Chapel Hill University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. We are currently number eleven among peers with Stanford, Harvard and all the other top schools. And if you look at real peers, the public universities, we are in the top five in the country.

It’s interesting that we’ve gone from 15 to 20% International students to around 60% International students. From China to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Africa, South America and Europe, these students are coming here because they can get a great education, and, I will say this, USF is a very cost-effective way for them. For them to go to some of the other top 10 schools they would pay in the order of 5 to 10 times more. So they get a quality education they get an international Network and they get away and a set of skills they can use anywhere, and they are starting businesses all over the world.

RM: In what year did the Student Innovation Incubator (SII) begin?

MF: This is officially our third year. (It began in) 2012-2013. It’s an opportunity for (the student companies) to have a physical location. We partner with the SBDC and the CEO Council to do round tables and luncheons for the students, and they also participate in all the USF Training Connect and knowledge programs. We also offer CEO mentors.

To add to Dr. Fountain’s information on the program: SII (Student Innovation Incubator) helps turn students’ business ideas into reality. Student ventures with scalable, commercial potential are given access to high-tech, collaborative office space, paired with industry mentors, subject matter experts, and community corporate partners to develop scalable business plans, and market-testable products and services. (http://www.research.usf.edu/rf/sii/).

RM: Do you have to be in the master’s degree program in order to take courses, or can a business owner, for example, who hears about an interesting course, come and take it?

MF: They do not have to be in the master’s program here and can go through the registration process at USF to take courses.

Note: USF has a strong partnership with the Small Business Development Center who embraces many of the same business concepts. Individuals can take specialty and/or certification courses focused on a variety of business topics. Please see http://sbdctampabay.com for more information. 

RM: What types of jobs can graduates get with a degree in Entrepreneurship in Applied Technologies if they choose not to start their own business?

MF: A lot of our students work with fast-growing businesses because they want to have a great business mentor who has done it before. Our students can have a tremendous impact in large organizations by using their entrepreneurial skills because they’re going to see opportunities and ways to deploy them that others aren’t. They could be involved in business development, technology acquisition, new product design and development or new process design and development and international business. Students that come out of the program are frequently hired by private equity firms, middle-market financiers, or venture capitalist firms, because what do our students learn how to do? They learn how to examine and evaluate opportunities, how to read business plans quickly, and how to understand the financing strategy. They can go into these firms especially if they have a technical background, and become an analyst immediately, and be on the fast track to become partner. So there are a lot of different pathways; it’s not just about becoming an entrepreneur. I would love to hire these graduates. We have very little problem with placement, let’s put it that way. There’s a waiting list for virtually any graduate that we have coming out of this program.

RM: What are tangible benefits to local business owners by being in proximity to this program and the students?

MF: In a lot of our classes, we take on community-based projects, whether it’s writing business plans, strategy, working on financing options, marketing plans, etc… We do internships and practicums, so if a company needs a student to work with them, these are available, both compensated and non-compensated, depending on the needs. Something else that we can do for companies is get them in touch with consultants; our graduates have very well-rounded skill sets and consulting for businesses is a great way for them to segue. (For information on strategic business consultants contact Justin at Phone: 863.221.5554 

Email: JHeacock27@gmail.com). 

RM: Tell us a little about your history.

MF: As an undergraduate, I never had any business courses. I went on as a Founder with a biotech company up in Princeton, and I had a mentor who took me under his wing. He was the chairman of the board for our company and he mentored me and worked with me, and encouraged me to go back and get my MBA. That was one of the best things in the world because he changed my whole career from being a scientist-innovator to being a business leader and entrepreneur. After I harvested the first company, I spent time in Silicon Valley with Cooper Ventures. I worked with a portfolio company that we took public there, and then I moved back to the East Coast with a medical device company that we basically grew from acquisition, took public and then sold. I’ve been in and out of a number of ventures and each time it’s been on the shoulders of others who have helped me. I realized that without having great mentors as a student or in business, I could not have done any of that. You can have the best skills in the world but having the guidance of someone who’s already been through it is priceless, so that you don’t make the fatal mistakes… Because you’re going to make mistakes.

RM: What is your favorite aspect of working in the program?

MF: It’s with the students. That’s what gets me up every morning, is being able to come in, work with great students, and help them to attain their goals, like I had folks that helped me achieve my goals. Being able to make a positive impact in individuals’ lives, to me, is the most important thing.

RM: What are you most proud of with the program and your involvement with it?

MF: It’s been to enable students to start, grow and harvest their businesses. That’s really important. If you think about what entrepreneurs do, what separates them, it’s someone who sees an opportunity where other people don’t. (He or she) develops the capacity with others to execute on that, to build value for the end user, and create value for those who work with him or her, leaving a legacy and giving back of time, talent and resources. Our alumni of this program do that. We have an alumni organization here that is second to none. They provide scholarships to current students; mentor them and provide internships. That, to me, is what we are all about. I can’t create an entrepreneur. I can certainly teach them the skills that they need, and I can provide them with the contacts and the resources in order to help execute their vision, (and then) it’s up to them. It’s a decision he or she has to make. As we reflect on what we’re doing in the business community here, we are creating businesses and creating jobs, and it’s a way for our students to fulfill their dreams while also having a huge impact in this community. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind and probably something that I’m most proud of.

Whether you’re young or old, a high school student or retired military officer, head of a company or just starting your career, you stand to gain something by the fact that this program exists so close to home. I’ll leave it to you to decide if, how and when you take advantage of the benefits offered to Tampa Bay by both the program and the students who come through it. All I ask is that you now recognize the garden growing right here in your backyard.

“As a rule, he or she who has the most information will have the greatest success in life.” -Benjamin Disraeli