The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

A Venture Story

A new center raises UMass Amherst's entrepreneurial capacity
  • UMass Professor James Theroux and Students in the Classroom.

The Center for Entrepreneurship recently helped coordinate a new General Education course for undergraduates called 'New Venture Creation.' Directed at sophomores, it's intended to get students 'thinking in an entrepreneurial way' early in their academic careers.

When it comes to helping entrepreneurs, James Theroux, director of UMass Amherst’s newly formed Center for Entrepreneurship (C4E), is all business. He’s building a network of successful business mentors, many of whom are alumni, and developing resources to help student entrepreneurs achieve ambitious goals.

Sponsored by the Isenberg School of Management, C4E was founded as a meeting place, a common ground where entrepreneurs of all levels can gather to both give and receive guidance. VentureCoach, one of the center’s foundational programs, allows anyone in the UMass community (students, alumni, faculty and staff) to request one-on-one advice from a mentor in their field. For entrepreneurs farther along, the Mentors and Ventures Program (MVP) connects UMass startups with a network of mentors at monthly roundtable meetings. The gatherings take place in Boston, where many alumni work and live. By expanding eastward, MVP helps rising entrepreneurs “tap the rich entrepreneurial ecosystem” in the greater Boston area as well as those in their own backyard. Theroux says networking is a crucial part of the program.

“That’s the kind of thing we look for in MVP. Even if someone at MVP is not a specialist in what the entrepreneur is working on, they probably know someone who is,” Theroux says.

Hundreds of emerging entrepreneurs, current students, and alumni regularly attend MVP meetings to get the feedback they need to expand their businesses. David Kozhuk’08 (finance) uses MVP to continuously clarify his business plan and practice his pitch. As founder of uConnect, a burgeoning business devoted to helping universities develop engaging web-based career resources for students, Kozhuk says the program continues to be an important tool as he moves forward with his company. Adam O’Neill ’10 (environmental economics and entrepreneurship) consults MVP mentors regarding Broga, a company that trains yoga teachers and provides instructional material to help create a yoga experience appealing to the average male. As the company’s co-founder and CEO, O’Neill continues to use MVP to make all of the right connections. “My network has expanded rapidly, and it’s pretty important to know the right people. MVP really opened up a lot of doors,” O’Neill says.

Through VentureCoach, UMass polymer scientist Gregory Tew is utilizing C4E expertise as he brings to market his breakthrough method for permeating the T-cell membrane. Tew and his colleagues developed a protein transduction domain (PTD), a synthetic macromolecule that mimics natural ones and is capable of slipping through the previously impermeable T-cell’s membrane to deliver therapeutics. Because this “master key,” as Tew refers to it, holds obvious value, Theroux and the C4E team are helping Tew develop a business model that will bring the invention to immunologists who can put it to good use.

On the center’s website, interested students can find everything they need to start thinking like entrepreneurs—mentors, courses, and contacts. As the center continues to gather an entrepreneurial network and catalyze new course development, Theroux is determined to keep the website a valuable, up-to-date resource for UMass entrepreneurs.

C4E recently helped to coordinate a new General Education course for undergraduates called “New Venture Creation.” Targeted to sophomores, it’s intended to get students “thinking in an entrepreneurial way” early in their academic careers. Theroux, who teaches the class, centers it on developing a logical business idea, doing the relevant market research, and making the pitch. Students present their ideas several times throughout the semester and are graded on progress.

Theroux also works closely with the organizers of the UMass Innovation Challenge, a competition that has awarded over half a million dollars to students and alumni with competing business plans. Theroux helps the contestants get the most out of the experience by working with them as they improve their final pitches. Prizewinners are then shuttled to Boston for an MVP meeting during which they are given advice from successful alumni.

With over forty years in the field, Theroux has picked up some tricks along the way. He got his big-business start by raising $20 million in venture capital to form a cable television company that utilized then-cutting-edge wireless technology and flourished before Theroux sold it in 1991. Since then, Theroux has worked both as a professor and an investor to pass along his business skills. Adept at recognizing the underlying premises behind a business idea, he uses syllogisms to help emerging entrepreneurs refine their plans. In order for entrepreneurs to be successful, Theroux explains, they must be able to relay the simple logic behind their ideas in a way the average person can understand.

“It gives me a reason for being. That’s what our center can do: help people tell their stories,” Theroux says.

Theroux says C4E serves to solidify a vast network of alumni and friends eager to give back to the UMass community. Local entrepreneur Donald Todrin ’69, president of Second Wind Consultants in nearby Northampton, is one such ally. Todrin is active at the center both as an MVP mentor and as a guest lecturer in entrepreneurial courses. He brings real-life business grit to the center—a quality he hopes has a positive impact.

“My experience has actually given me some wisdom. I believe that at my age part of my role is to share that wisdom with younger entrepreneurs and business owners. I hope that the lessons I learned from what I call ‘hand-to-hand small-business combat’ will result in me preparing them to master these challenges so they can rise above them. My goal is to help them succeed,” Todrin says.

Amanda Drane '12