The Spirit of Entrepreneurship at WPI
Paul Kassebaum, left, and Zeb Tracy have started an entrepreneurship club, which launches at WPI this fall / photo by Richard Howard
When graduate student Paul Kassebaum and Zeb Tracy ’07 joined forces in early 2007 to form a new entrepreneurship club at WPI, they did what any good entrepreneurs would do: they thought big and moved fast.
The students formed a vision of a national nonprofit organization, called Genius!, with chapters in universities and colleges across the
country. They envisioned a club that would function not only for meetings, networking, and hobnobbing with successful alumni, but also as incubators of innovation, from which new companies could spring like so many streams feeding a river of economic activity.
Kassebaum and Tracy lost no time writing the Genius! business plan and executive summary. In the meantime, they recruited 60 WPI colleagues as members, and won the support of accomplished advisors and student entrepreneurs at other institutions of higher learning.
Genius!, which launches this fall at WPI, holds as its central tenet that innovation soars when people feel safe discussing their ideas
in diverse, talented groups.
“The core of our idea is to build a network that fosters innovation by opening up a safe place for dialogue,” says Kassebaum, a doctoral student in sustainable energy. “A lot of innovative students don’t understand intellectual property [IP] law. Either they think it’s scary, so they don’t talk to anyone about their ideas, or they don’t act on their ideas. Others think they don’t have to worry about IP issues at all, so they unwittingly give their IP rights away.”
To get started, “we’re exploring nondisclosure agreements to create an initial shield for inventors,” says Tracy, who studied mechanical engineering.
Teamwork among diverse students also forms a pillar of the Genius! approach. “Individuals acting alone can’t see all the angles or issues,” Tracy says.
Adds Kassebaum, “Genius! will value differences among team members that foster varying viewpoints, whether the difference is cultural, cognitive, skill set, age, or experience level.”
At WPI, Genius! members will appeal to the university’s alumni and area businesses to invest in the local club’s entrepreneurs. Other Genius! chapters will operate similarly. Donors can earmark funds for specific chapters, or open their capital to the national Genius! pool, which would be managed by the umbrella nonprofit. The national organization would oversee fund distribution via an angel investor–style decision making process.
“The biggest value proposition to potential donors is that they can keep their finger on the pulse of new technological trends coming
out of multiple universities,” Tracy says.
“We also want to ensure that WPI’s amazing resources made available through the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and its Venture Forum are fully used by students,” says Kassebaum.
Genius! is attracting positive feedback. For example, the Worcester-based Boynton Angels (see story on page 31), faculty at the College of the Holy Cross, and students who lead the entrepreneurship club at Clark University have all expressed interest in helping to grow the Genius! organization.
“I believe entrepreneurial talent is the key factor that will sustain America’s economic vibrancy,” says David Chu, director of entrepreneurial studies and associate professor of accounting at Holy Cross. Chu supports collaboration on Genius! between Holy Cross and WPI.
“We are excited about Genius! and look forward to crossconsortium collaboration,” says Zachary Zielezinski, co-founder and board member of Initial Advantage, Clark’s student entrepreneurship club.
As they prepare to hold the first official Genius! meetings, Kassebaum and Tracy hope to attract WPI alumni to mentor active club members.
“Genius! represents phenomenal networking and business creation opportunities,” says Tracy. “I see the club as a venue for fertilizing the business landscape for exciting future endeavors.”