The Bottom Line: These efforts aim at fostering an idea culture

Author: Ed Semmler

Ed Semmler, South Bend Tribune

If you flick enough sparks at a pile of kindling, chances are good that something is going to ignite.

At least that's the idea behind Startup Weekend and other efforts under way at the University of Notre Dame and in the community to cultivate the development of ideas and entrepreneurship.

Organizers are hoping that about 100 entrepreneurial-minded people with development, design, marketing or business acumen turn up at Innovation Park at Notre Dame on April 13 to pitch and share ideas.

By Sunday afternoon, it is hoped that Startup teams develop at least a few ideas that can be turned into businesses. The winning team will be given a cash prize to further its work, the use of office space at Innovation Park and further access to attorneys and other professional help, says Notre Dame student Melissa Parker, who helped organize the program along with fellow student Brendan Daly.

StartUp Weekend isn't a new idea. In fact, it has been conducted hundreds of times across the globe to generate startup business ideas over the course of a weekend.

The event, which is the start of a weeklong event at Notre Dame to encourage entrepreneurship, is open to anyone in the community with an interest in discussing and working on new business ideas. Cost is $50 for students and $99 for others, but that includes the cost of meals and more.

"We want a wide mix -- students, lawyers, graphic designers, web developers, market and finance people. We want a collaboration in which people pitch ideas, form teams and develop something close to a prototype," Parker says.

Those interested in learning more about StartUp Weekend should visit Parker is excited about the possibilities that might emerge since she and others attended a StartUp Weekend in Grand Rapids in January.

But the work that Parker, Daly and about 20 other Notre Dame students are involved in as part of their master's degree program is just as exciting. The group is participating in a multi-disciplinary degree program involving the Mendoza College of Business, the College of Science and the College of Engineering that seeks to teach the skills required to take science and engineering inventions and translate them into commercial ventures.

The students are actually working with ideas that are being developed at Notre Dame. Among other things, they're learning how to protect intellectual property and then take it from the idea stage to the marketing stage, says David Murphy, associate dean for entrepreneurship for the colleges of Science and Engineering and director of the program.

As part of the master's degree program, Murphy took the students to North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, which is located between Duke University, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Established in 1959, Triangle Park is now home to 170 global companies with an estimated 38,000 full-time employees.

Parker and others were impressed on how the park has helped transform the region from what was largely based on tobacco, furniture-making, agriculture and textiles to one that is now known for scientific research and innovation.

The jobs and per capita income of the region improved.

The same could happen here. Efforts have been under way at Notre Dame and the community like never before to push innovation, technology, the development of intellectual property and ultimately jobs.

It's good for Notre Dame and it's ultimately good for the region.

The sparks of ideas that are generated at StartUp Weekend might take months or even years to fully develop, but it can happen if we remain committed to the effort.

South Bend leaders and economic development officials have shown their support by developing infrastructure -- among other things, the fiber optic Metronet network, Ignition Park and a nanotech curriculum at Ivy Tech Community College -- to further the effort.

"There are three parts to our local economic development strategy. New businesses have to locate here, existing businesses have to grow and new businesses have to start," says Jeff Rea, president and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County. "Weekends like this are an important part of our local effort to grow this region."

Notre Dame has been demonstrating its focus on entrepreneurship and the licensing of technology it is working on. "It only takes one idea to turn into something," says Murphy.

It could be thousands of jobs. It could be the hundreds that Murphy helped generate as president and CEO of Better World Books for which he still serves as a board member.

Since it was launched about nine years ago by three Notre Dame students, Better World Books has done a lot of good as a for-profit, social venture that has converted more than 80 million books into more than $11.7 million in funding for nonprofits and libraries and donated more than 6.2 million books to nonprofit literacy partners.

But it also employs more than 400 people today, with about 80 percent of those in the South Bend/Mishawaka area.

That's a spark that kindled a fire.

Ed Semmler's The Bottom Line column appears on Sundays. If you have a comment or suggestion, contact him at or at 574-235-6466.

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