College is crazy expensive—and it's getting more expensive all the time. Entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel are fond of saying it's not worth it. But 23-year-old Chris Wolfel, who is getting his bachelor's from Northeastern University this spring, found college to be not only a good investment, but the perfect launching pad for his entrepreneurial dreams.
For the last two years, Wolfel has been the CEO of IDEA, the only student-run venture accelerator in the country. Founded in 2009, IDEA offers workshops, meetups, coaching, mentoring, and most importantly, funding, all from alumni donors, for student startups. Wolfel and his team were able to raise $250,000 to help launch almost 300 businesses by students from every school across the university.
The eclectic group has spawned Uturn Audio, which created a retro turntable that raised over $245K on Kickstarter; Njabini, a sustainable apparel company based in Kenya; Tuatara, an e-textbook platform; Pure Pest Management, an organic pest control company now operating in six states; and Mini Pops, a snack food featured in Oprah's "Favorite Things."
"Northeastern right now is one of the biggest hotbeds of entrepreneurship I’ve seen," says Wolfel. He points to the longstanding co-op model to explain why—Northeastern's five-year bachelor's degree program includes three six-month-long full-time internships, so "people come here knowing they're going to work no matter what." For the last few years there's even been a self-co-op model for student entrepreneurs to take time off to work on their own projects.
It could be said that IDEA is challenging the very idea of university education. Is the major purpose of convening a university and charging tuition to allow students to ponder the good life or expand the boundaries of human knowledge—or to turn collegians into entrepreneurs? Maybe it can be both. From art studios to biology labs to law seminars, ideas at Northeastern are actively being converted into cash, and the university is staking a piece of its reputation on the dream of hitting it big. But what happens when the current bubble bursts?
For now, no one is asking. The student entrepreneurs are happy—they find less risk starting up while still on an academic track, and that their student status and alumni network open doors. The administration is happy, too. "Chris Wolfel is the most extraordinary student leader I have had the privilege to work with in my entire academic career," Hugh Courtney, dean of the D'Amore-McKim School of Business, said in a farewell letter. Alumni are happy to be able to support up-and-comers, and sometimes become early-stage investors.
And Wolfel, who is joining a Boston software startup called Yesware and advising other colleges that trying to start venture accelerators, is happy. "I learned as much if not more from IDEA than in my classrooms," he says. "It’s real life."
[Image: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson]