NKU program lauded as one of top five centers for venture creation

Growth is a process which relies on a strong supply of new ideas.

Northern Kentucky is growing, and the region has an engine poised to help continue that forward progress, according to global experts in the field of entrepreneurial education.

The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) within Northern Kentucky University’s Haile/US Bank College of Business recently was named one of the top five centers for venture creation at the annual conference of the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurial Centers.

Such designation, as you might expect, puts CIE in some rather select company. Centers that also received the designation are located at Babson College, Michigan State, Notre Dame, and the University of Stockholm.

“This award in particular was largely based on our incubator program, started back in 2012,” says Zac Strobl, who serves with Jeff Varrone as interim co-directors of CIE. “The mission is to help students go from startup to business. There’s quite a bit of international presence in the consortium, and it’s a peer-to-peer award voted on by others, so we really feel it is unique recognition.”

The incubator program, which actually incorporates the NKU name and is officially called “INKUBATOR,” has posted some impressive results in just six years. INKUBATOR is open to any current NKU student or recent grad, and offers a 12-week intensive summer program to develop the top ideas selected from a competitive pitching process. An average of six teams per year go through the program.

Teams graduating from INKUBATOR have established 23 high-growth startups which have raised $7 million in follow-on funding. Those companies have already created 64 new jobs.

The star example of what INKUBATOR can lead to is Vegy Vida, an innovative product designed to make vegetables more appealing to kids. Earlier this year, the company raised $1.8 million in financing through a global angel investment community. A product line that started off in the seven-store Remke Market chain in Greater Cincinnati is expected to reach more than 4,000 stores this year, including such name as Meijer, Albertson’s, and Fresh Thyme.

The key to Vegy Vida’s appeal was the realization that one reason kids won’t eat enough vegetables is because they have three times as many taste buds as adults, making bitterness a big hurdle. Vegy Vida developed a bitterness-blocking all-natural cucumber extract that is at the heart of five different flavored dips, making vegetable noshing a palatable choice for young appetites.

Vegy Vida was recognized last year as one of the top 40 start-ups to emerge from a university by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer.

One thing that sets INKUBATOR apart from similar program at other universities — and the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurial Centers includes more than 250 represented universities — is the interconnectivity the program has with the rest of the NKU campus. Applicants to the program have come from all six colleges that make up the university.

“What makes NKU, our college, our center and INKUBATOR special is that we offer a major and a minor in entrepreneurship, and we are a cross-campus multidisciplinary program,” says CIE interim co-director Jeff Varrone. “We have students from all across campus. We have students who come from graphic design or computer science. That mindset is behind what we do. We also have more lifestyle fields, and that really leads from a classroom perspective to a more full perspective. It becomes a different kind of experience.”

While many people automatically think of high-tech when they think of start-ups, a good example of CIE’s multidisciplinary approach can be found in the class that went through INKUBATOR this past summer.

One of the participants was 2018 NKU grad Coleman Holmes, who has the first proposal to come through the program based on fashion. Holmes found that only one percent of men know how to tie a bowtie, even though they can be quite stylish. He’s working to develop a concept that has bowties which incorporate a Velcro fastening option.

Other fields where INKUBATOR graduates are launching new ideas include web and mobile technology, social media, clean tech, agriculture, consumer packaged goods, and life sciences.

NKU’s scope of entrepreneurial education also gained a new aspect recently when it was chosen as host site for the 2019 Kentucky’s Governor’s School for Entrepreneurship. More than 60 teenagers from around the state will be in residence at the CIE for three weeks, learning the fundamentals it takes to establish a successful career as an entrepreneur.
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