Princeton University Collaborating with Princeton Tech Meetup to Expand Local Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

Photo: Keller Center head Mung Chiang spoke to the Princeton Tech Meetup in May. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Keller Center head Mung Chiang spoke to the Princeton Tech Meetup in May. | Esther Surden

Princeton University is launching a campuswide effort in 2014 to promote entrepreneurship at the school.

The New Jersey Ivy League school’s agenda includes becoming better integrated with the area’s tech entrepreneurship ecosystem and collaborating with Princeton Tech Meetup.

“The news is that the [Princeton] tiger is waking up and is going to put the university on the map of entrepreneurship and … entrepreneurship on the map of the university,” Princeton Professor Mung Chiang, who heads the university’s Keller Center, told the Princeton Tech Meetup audience at its May 21, 2014, event.

Venu Moola, Princeton Tech Meetup organizer, said the group was pleased to “announce a broader partnership” with Princeton University and the Keller Center, “to help strengthen the local tech and social entrepreneur community, accelerate the interchange of entrepreneurship ideas and talents between students and business leaders and help expand entrepreneurship activities throughout the Princeton area.”

The new initiative represents a departure for the university. “Usually the words ‘Princeton University’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ don’t show up in the same sentence,” Chiang noted at the event.

“That is a pity,” he continued. “We are here to change that together with you. There is no entrepreneurial ecosystem that can thrive without an anchor university … and … no entrepreneurial university … can survive without the local tech ecosystem.”

Princeton, of course, will be “doing entrepreneurship” its own way, said Chiang. “We will define entrepreneurship not just as commercialization and startups,” he said. For Princeton, entrepreneurship is trying to “initiate a transformative change and challenge convention through risk taking, using a small amount of resources.”

Similarly, the school has its own definition of an entrepreneur. “We define an entrepreneur as not a title but a mindset,” said Chiang. Entrepreneurs exhibit a willingness to take risks, bootstrap resources, pivot and “embrace uncertainty for breakfast” to transform a business or a part of society, he said.

Princeton sees entrepreneurs as social, cultural and technical and as movers and shakers in their own companies or within nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the government or large companies.

Chiang told the group that a Princeton committee is working on how to change the 280-year-old school’s culture. The committee will be making recommendations by the end of 2014 and is now in the “listening phase.” Princeton is soliciting comments from the community at this website.

Noting that entrepreneurship already exists at the university, Chiang said he envisions more events that can be attended by both faculty and students and the larger tech and entrepreneurial community.

He is especially keen on gatherings focused on industry verticals like telecom, his field, and pharma or healthcare. Said Chiang, “We will meet regularly and frequently” and, “We will get specialists to meet with generalists.”

The Keller Center offers entrepreneurship courses, provides internship matching for students and holds conferences and workshops. This summer, seven teams will be attending the Keller Center’s eLab Summer Accelerator Program at Princeton University for the university’s students. There is an entrepreneurship club (e-club), which hosts an annual hackathon as well as the TigerLaunch competition. And the Princeton Entrepreneurs’ Network holds an annual business plan competition.

Changing topics, Chiang was frank about the differences between the New Jersey tech ecosystem and the one in California.

He said that in Silicon Valley, where he had received degrees from Stanford, the ecosystem is so strong that people know the home addresses and cellphone numbers of the VCs, lawyers and accountants who serve the startup industry. They are accustomed to driving over to their homes and knocking on their doors, he said. They can also easily find prospective chief marketing officers, CEOs and CTOs for their companies.

Said Chiang, “You can drive up to the homes … and knock at the door and say, ‘I’ve got a great idea — give me three minutes and tell me what’s wrong with it. Tell me who I should call. Tell me how I can fail fast. Give me the phone number of a potential customer that will tear apart my business plan.’ You can actually go there and knock on the door.”

After Chiang gave his remarks, the Princeton Tech Meetup audience had a lively discussion. One participant pointed out that the university has a long way to go to overcome its reputation for being “insular.”

Chiang said Princeton would be reaching out the community to get the word out. The goal, he said, is to change that perception regarding entrepreneurship. He noted, “I think as far as entrepreneurship is concerned, we all have to help each other. A rising tide will raise all boats.”

Asked whether an open ecosystem would overwhelm Princeton, Chiang said that as far as meetings go, “I don’t think there should be a gating function.” If Princeton starts an incubator or begins a VC fund, which it hasn’t yet decided to do, there would be criteria for access to them because a screening process would be needed to ensure that resources are allocated properly, he noted.

Other audience suggestions made at the meetup: facilitating Princeton student internships in the local tech community;  streamlining the transfer of technology invented at the university into the greater community.

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