Get Your Business Ready to LAUNCH

Are you ready to launch your business and take it to another level?

There is a program that can help you.

The Blackstone LaunchPad–a program aimed at creating jobs in communities hardest hit by the financial meltdown. Blackstone built the Michigan program with the hopes it would become a national model for promoting entrepreneurship through higher education.

In Michigan, there are two educational institutions involved with this program–Wayne State University and Walsh College. I recently had the opportunity to interview William (Billl) H. Volz, Wayne State’s Executive Director, LaunchPad and Carol Glynn, who joined Walsh College as Blackstone LaunchPad Director in September 2010, for their thoughts about LaunchPad, its vision and overall success.

The Blackstone LaunchPad was launched in 2008. Exactly, what is it?

Volz: Launch Pad was originally developed at the University of Miami in 2008. In partnership with the New Economy Initiative (NEI) for Southeast Michigan a program of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Automation Alley, the University of Miami, Wayne State University and Walsh College, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation committed $2 million in 2010 to create Blackstone LaunchPad on the campuses of Wayne State University and Walsh College. The Michigan program was a pilot and was built with the hopes it would become a national model for promoting entrepreneurship through higher education. Michigan program success has lead to program expansion in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Montana and California.

It’s my understanding both Wayne State University and Walsh College are working in collaboration on this. How did the two institutions become involved?

Glynn: The two colleges began working together in September of 2010 after receiving a shared grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation in partnership with the New Economy Initiative. From our openings in 2010, Walsh College and Wayne State University Blackstone LaunchPads have promoted each other’s events and students from both institutions are reciprocal attendees. Major events, such as those offered during Global Entrepreneurship Week, have also been co-sponsored by the two institutions. The pool of venture coaches, which were recruited collaboratively with Automation Alley, has been shared between Walsh and Wayne State. We have also leveraged connections with other organizations within the New Economy Initiative Grantee entrepreneurial “eco system” such as Tech Town, the Michigan Women’s Foundation and Inforum. It is clear how critical these connections are to our success.

The Detroit region is becoming a hotspot for entrepreneurship and, in particular, high tech start-ups. In fact, it’s slowly becoming the Silicon Valley of the Midwest. What role is this program having in helping to achieve this vision?

Glynn: Yes, the progress in the area of technology has been slow but we are making inroads. As you know, almost all businesses today are technology enabled in some way and we assist them with that. However, everyone thinks they have that next app that everyone will want to buy. The competition is fierce. We help our members who come to LaunchPad by vetting their idea further and stressing that they really get to know their customers and what product or service will make them stand out from the competition. As one of our Blackstone LaunchPad venture coaches in the technology arena, Glen Everitt of Compuware said, “Apps that seem to be missing are the ones that truly help businesses be more efficient using mobile devices. I don’t think the world needs another 300 twitter apps. I really think business- specific apps are where value can be found.”

What organizations are helping to fund it and why was Detroit selected to participate?

Volz Blackstone Charitable Foundation in New York City and the New Economy Initiative in Southeast Michigan have provided the lion’s share of funding the Blackstone LaunchPad at Walsh College and Wayne State. Both foundations saw the economic challenges facing Detroit and both saw entrepreneurial college students as a group who could quickly make a difference in our economic recovery.

The State of Michigan and a host of other individuals, foundations and corporations have made significant contributions to LaunchPad initiatives that they found exciting.

Since it’s being funded, is there a cost to participate?

Glynn: There are no fees for the consultations and coaching that our entrepreneurs receive. Almost all events are free. We work hard to provide our members with expert and reasonably priced startup or ongoing service providers such as legal, CPA, web developers.

Is LaunchPad geared towards someone with a business concept, start-up or looking to grow?

Glynn: Our Blackstone LaunchPads are geared to both startups and businesses that are in growth stages. It is an opportunity for our students and Walsh alumni to explore entrepreneurship on their own terms. Writing a business plan is one thing, and there are many organizations that can help with that. When starting or growing a business you truly need to have someone you trust ask the difficult questions in a safe environment. They can freely explore entrepreneurship possibilities without the fear of being graded.

As a participant in LaunchPad, what can one expect during the process, how long is it and what’s expected upon completion?

Glynn: There are no specific timelines. We jointly move at the aspiring entrepreneur’s pace. Particularly at Walsh, most of our members are parents working full time and going to school full time. They have very limited time availability. Time is a precious commodity to them. Many of them do not come back to participate in LaunchPad until they graduate, which is fine by us.

How is someone selected to participate? In other words, what’s the process?

Glynn: Blackstone LaunchPad’s free mentoring service is available to current students at both Wayne State and Walsh, as well as faculty and alumni of Walsh College. They need to submit a personal profile via the Walsh or Wayne State Blackstone LaunchPad website. Once approved, the consulting services are available.

Since its inception, has the program been deemed a success and based on what criteria?

Glynn: To date, both schools have coached more than 400 aspiring entrepreneurs. As a result we have launched or enhanced over 200 businesses to date. Again, Blackstone LaunchPad is a place they can freely explore entrepreneurship possibilities. Startups are hard work and very challenging; it takes time, effort and hard work to succeed. Inevitably, many will decide not to go the entrepreneur route, but bring their new skills to wherever they work. We consider them a success story also.

And what’s the longer-term vision for this initiative, including expansion prospects beyond Michigan?

Volz: Michigan’s business community has been very generous with their support of this initiative. More than 20 expert venture coaches from the community consisting of lawyers, accountants, bankers and serial entrepreneurs – volunteer their time and expertise to provide issue expertise and a network of valuable contacts to the colleges’ students and alumni participants. As we move forward, we are fortunate to have some core support from the New Economy Initiative. We’re also reaching out to others in the hopes that additional financial support will enable us to continue to help build and grow Michigan businesses.

Contact information:

Walsh College Blackstone LaunchPad:

Wayne State Blackstone LaunchPad: