Dartmouth Aims to ‘Supercharge the Engines of Discovery’

The Magnuson Center and west end expansion are creating fertile ground for innovators.

The entrepreneurial spirit is thriving at Dartmouth, where opportunities abound for startups, commercialization of inventions, access to experiential learning, and the cultivation of alumni, staff, and faculty networks.

The College is dedicated to fostering a new entrepreneurial ecosystem at the College, says Associate Provost for Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer Eric Fossum, the John H. Krehbiel Sr. Professor for Emerging Technologies.

This translates into opportunities across the campus, from offering faculty and researchers the opportunity to hold and develop patents on their Dartmouth research, to providing students a chance to live and learn with other undergraduates who have ideas for startups, to connecting alumni seeking a way to put venture capital to work developing new Dartmouth ideas.

“We see all entrepreneurial thinking on campus as an important value embedded in a liberal arts education. This is not a new idea, but Dartmouth is doing it in quite an integrated fashion across campus. We are a small, nimble community, and I think it’s allowing us to do a much more comprehensive and cohesive job, compared to our peer institutions,” Fossum says.

And with the west end expansion now underway to integrate Thayer School of Engineering, the Department of Computer Science, the Dartmouth Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab, and the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship, Dartmouth will soon have a central location for its new ecosystem, says Fossum.

By bringing Magnuson together with computer science and engineering, fields of study that have produced many of the patents at the College, the west end expansion will “supercharge these engines of discovery,” he says.

An Entrepreneurial Incubator

When Sarah Hong ’21 learned about the entrepreneurship opportunities at Dartmouth, the College became her top choice.

“I applied to be part of the entrepreneurship living learning community before I came to Dartmouth, and I would say the Magnuson Center was a big factor in my decision to come to Dartmouth—the opportunities to pursue entrepreneurship here,” says Hong. “That I can live on a floor with people dedicated to that was also a big draw.”

The living learning communities offer the chance to live near and join in programming with fellow students who share an interest in areas such as foreign language learning or global culture. The students in the entrepreneurship community can participate in programming developed by Sarah Morgan, program manager for experiential learning at the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship.

Through the community programming in her living learning community, Hong became more involved with Magnuson, eventually joining the center as a student programmer, organizing workshops for fellow students and members of the community. For example, Hong recently put together an event titled “Breaking into Venture Capital: What it’s like to work as an investor and how you can get involved,” which included a presentation by Emily Snyder, Tuck ’17, an associate at Borealis Ventures, a Hanover-based venture capital firm started by Tuck School of Business graduates.

Director of the Magnuson Center Jamie Coughlin, who joined Dartmouth in 2013 to build out and lead its entrepreneurial program, says Hong’s story illustrates how the center pulls together many threads and provides a holistic approach—experiential learning, alumni experience, startup seed grants, venture capital, and creative design and building—to create an entrepreneurial space and culture where connections mix with inspiration to make things happen. The center itself facilitates these connections with its open, wired workspaces and meeting areas, and expands beyond the physical space, with a professional staff who support programming and help aspiring entrepreneurs connect with potential mentors and investors—most of whom are Dartmouth affiliated.

Annie Ren, program manager for startup support for the center, is available as a guide and adviser to faculty, staff, students, and community members who come to Magnuson with an entrepreneurial idea. Ren, who graduated from the London School of Economics and was part of the successful communal work-space startup WeWork, offers advice and helps people connect with all these resources.

“We have found that the most effective way to respond to an inbound entrepreneur with a startup idea is through a mentorship model,” says Coughlin.

“Mentorship is effective because we find our constituents come to us at different points along the startup spectrum. Maybe somebody’s had a brainstorm the night before and comes in to say, ‘I’ve got an idea, what do I do now?’ Some people will say, ‘Here’s my first version, do you guys have access to seed capital that can accelerate my development?’ Or, ‘I’m cranking, I have a product and users and I want to talk to someone in my particular industry about growing; do you have an alum that you could introduce me to?’ ”

Jamie Coughlin, director of the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship, checks in with Annie Ren, program manager at the center and Sarah Hong ’21, a student leader at Magnuson, as they discuss a public event about venture capital.
Jamie Coughlin, director of the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship, checks in with Annie Ren, program manager at the center, left, and Sarah Hong ’21, a student leader at Magnuson, as they discuss a public event about venture capital.

With strong alumni support, Magnuson has also established a West Coast branch of its entrepreneurial network, hiring Samantha Carpenter last year as its DEN West Coast program manager, based in San Francisco. Carpenter, who first got involved with Dartmouth in the West Coast Advancement office, joined the Magnuson team in 2018. She provides startup and networking advice to alumni, organizes monthly events and gatherings, and helps students connect with West Coast startup internships and career opportunities.

As an example of Magnuson’s East Coast and West Coast collaboration, Sarah Morgan coordinates with Carpenter around the center’s “West Coast Experience” trip for undergraduate and Tuck students, designed to connect them with alumni entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and to develop job leads with major enterprises such as Amazon, New Relic, and Uber, Coughlin says.

“Our story of impact is not just centered around ‘what’s your startup idea?’ It’s also just as much about how we support our students competing for that job at Amazon, which we visited, knowing that the entrepreneurial lens can be a competitive advantage. These employers want more entrepreneurially minded students and, ultimately, employees,” says Coughlin.

The Broader Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Since becoming associate provost in 2017, Fossum has overseen the project of integrating the work of the Office of Technology Transfer, which is devoted to the commercialization of discoveries and inventions developed at the College; the DALI Lab, an experiential learning center for undergraduates to take on client-based projects at the intersection of the arts and computer science; and Magnuson.

Many developers and researchers know their field but are at sea when it comes to commercializing an invention or idea, Fossum says. And the resources Dartmouth is bringing together in the west end are not targeted at any one group; they are targeted at innovators from across the community—students, faculty, staff, graduate researchers, and community members—to create an environment that allows them to learn from and inspire each other, Fossum says.

The idea is that Magnuson will help infuse Dartmouth’s top-level research and discovery work with the entrepreneurial spirit, Fossum says. Another significant step in this process was Dartmouth’s decision to give inventors more control over the patents and innovations they create.

Generally, universities file the patent claims on institutional research. But under Professor of Engineering Tillman Gerngross, Fossum’s predecessor at the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer, the College created a process that allows developers to retain patent rights to new discoveries while giving Dartmouth an equity stake in commercialization. “It encourages faculty in terms of entrepreneurial thinking about their inventions,” says Fossum. “It’s a very generous policy compared to almost any other university. We hope that helps with both attracting top talent to Dartmouth as well as retention of faculty.” (Again this year, Dartmouth is on the National Academy of Inventors’ and the Intellectual Property Owners Association’s annual list of the top 100 universities worldwide granted U.S. patents in the past year.)

As more faculty members and researchers move their work into development and commercialization through startups, Magnuson will be there to help them along the way, while creating experiential learning opportunities for students and business and investment opportunities for alumni, Fossum says.

“The social compact is that we’re going to use the results of innovation and research in the academy to benefit society. A great way to transfer technology from academia is through inventor-founded startups. Entrepreneurial energy is predicated on the idea that the people who bring that invention or discovery to society are entitled to some reward as well. One fuels the other.”

William Platt can be reached at [email protected].