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Project Seeks to Spawn High-Tech Startups Through Colleges

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There's a wealth of research showing the link between strong education systems and economic growth. Now, a foundation and a community college are attempting to take concrete steps to use the power of education institutions to spark economic activity in local communities—specifically, to spawn entrepreneurs and technology-based startups.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, have formed a partnership called Innovation Fund America, which is making awards to community colleges through a program that is meant to invest in, and inspire, entrepreneurship.

The effort is modeled on a program created at the Ohio college that offers new and emerging firms access to funding to prove their concepts and get them off the ground. Since it was created in 2007, Lorain County Community College's innovation fund has poured $6.4 million into 94 companies that it says have created more than 300 jobs, provided 150 paid internships, produced $17 million in revenue, and raised $71 million in follow-on funding, the college and the foundation say.

With those results in mind, last year, Kauffman put $1 million toward creating the Innovation Fund America, with the goal of replicating the Ohio college's model and mentoring and supporting "high-growth start-ups."

The two organizations recently selected three new higher education institutions to pilot the entrepreneurship model: Long Beach Community College, in California; Johnson County Community College, in Overland Park, Kansas; and Catawba Valley Community College, in Hickory, N.C. Those colleges were selected after an extensive set of interviews, site visits, and evaluations of the needs of enterpreneurs in each community.

The program "will provide a replicable baseline methodology that can advance the movement already underway to position community colleges as front doors to high-growth entrepreneurship in under-resourced communities," Thom Ruhe, the Kauffman Foundation's vice-president of entrepreneurship, said in a statement.

Community colleges have long been regarded as playing potentially important roles in helping K-12 graduates and adults acquire the skills that local employers demand. I'll put this question out to readers: Does the Innovation Fund America offer a model for K-12 systems to become more involved in cultivating entrepreneurship among younger students, particularly those in high school? Or are the entrepreneurial skills that secondary students could offer so unpolished that it wouldn't make the investment worth it? It could be that the value in a program targeted toward K-12 would, by necessity, be educational, not economic.

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