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Move over Silicon Valley. The new startup nexus is…northern Vermont?

December 17, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Middlebury College, a liberal arts school in northern Vermont with just 2,500 students, has become an unlikely hothouse for cultivating entrepreneurs. Does using college to start a business help support the larger liberal arts mission? Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Traditionally, liberal arts colleges are not necessarily the place you’d look to as an incubator for start-up ventures. But there’s change in the air, and some schools are ready to move into new territory.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, looks at why. It’s part of our weekly segment Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: What if all you need to do to grow the perfect garden is to lay down a mat of vegetable seeds, add water, and wait?

CAM MACKUGLER, Founder and CEO, Seedsheet: So you have an optimally designed, prefabricated garden that is embedded in a sheet. The idea was, how can I simplify the process of gardening so that anybody can have a garden without any work?

PAUL SOLMAN: So, this is gardening for the vegetably-challenged?

CAM MACKUGLER: Or, herbally, fruitally, flowerly-challenged.

PAUL SOLMAN: Cam MacKugler is a new-grown entrepreneur, nurtured in an unlikely hothouse: Middlebury College, with just 2,500 students, known for over 200 years as a safe haven for the liberal arts. Now it’s spawning companies like Seedsheet and Iris Virtual Reality.

LIZ ROBINSON: You wear goggles and you’re able to look through the goggles and actually see the architectural rendering of, maybe your new house or a new building that you’ve asked the architects to build.

PAUL SOLMAN: Administrator Liz Robinson says these projects are just two of many now being cultivated in northern Vermont, a lot of them in the campus’s incubator space, the old stone mill.

MAN: Middlebury helped a lot because JoyRyde was just an idea. And they helped to make it into a tangible product.

PAUL SOLMAN: JoyRyde, an app that incentivizes safe driving, won a business challenge competition at Middlebury, basically their version of the show “Shark Tank.”

MAN: It sets a limit to your interactions with your phone. After three strikes, the app knows that you had three strikes and it will shut down your ride.

PAUL SOLMAN: There’s also a fresh food delivery service; a skateboard company, and dozens more.

At Middlebury, even musicians are now entrepreneurs.

MAN: We approach this very seriously, like you would a startup. We applied to Middlebury’s mid-challenge grant, and that gave us the money we need to make an album.

PAUL SOLMAN: All beneficiaries of the school’s programs on innovation that provide mentors, money and space like the old stone mill — no strings attached; no royalties to the school.

We came because we’d heard about Middlebury and wondered: are the liberal arts undergoing an economic transformation?

LAURIE PATTON, President, Middlebury College: I think that the next stage for everyone around entrepreneurship and higher education is to integrate it better and differently into the traditional curriculum.

PAUL SOLMAN: New Middlebury president Laurie Patton, freshly hired from Duke, which has a major center for entrepreneurship.

But for Patton, a professor of ancient Hinduism, the entrepreneur-academic connection didn’t click until she met a young scholar trying to show the relevance of Indian culture with Sanskrit greeting cards.

LAURIE PATTON: What she started was a greeting card company. And she is really thriving in this business because Sanskrit is perfect as a language of greeting.

PAUL SOLMAN: Entrepreneurship might even be a way of saving a Sanskrit department somewhere, as universities yield to economic pressure and sound the knell for liberal arts departments that don’t attract enough students.

But to Brandeis University English professor Billy Flesch, though the economic pressures are a problem, entrepreneurship ought not be the answer.

BILLY FLESCH, English Professor, Brandeis University: I understand that universities probably have to become more entrepreneurial. But I think that if what universities are selling is a better life of the mind, that’s great. If what universities are selling is the idea that you’ll become a better salesman or woman, that’s not so great. I think that risks corrupting everything that we do.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you see the emphasis on entrepreneurship encroaching on liberal arts schools like Middlebury or Brandeis?


PAUL SOLMAN: A liberal liberal arts school, Middlebury’s emphasis is on social entrepreneurship, businesses which hope to do well by doing good.

EMILY NUNEZ CAVNESS, Co-Founder & CEO, Sword & Plough: It’s a Sword and Plough day pack and it’s made out of repurposed Coast Guard uniform material.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, this is — this is like a backpack?


PAUL SOLMAN: And that can convert even those who come for its famed focus on languages.

EMILY NUNEZ CAVNESS: That’s why I originally wanted to go to Middlebury, to study foreign languages. And I never would have imagined that I would have thought of an idea to launch a social enterprise before I graduated.

PAUL SOLMAN: Emily Nunez Cavness started Sword & Plough as a senior. She was a French major from a military family. In ROTC at Middlebury, she served in the Army in Afghanistan and other undisclosed locations as a Green Beret.

EMILY NUNEZ CAVNESS: The idea behind Sword & Plough is to work with veterans to repurpose military surplus material that would otherwise be thrown away and turn it into really beautiful and functional bags. And, also to donate 10 percent of profits back to veteran support organizations.

PAUL SOLMAN: A recycling enthusiast, Cavness is also an enthusiast of entrepreneurship in the college environment.

EMILY NUNEZ CAVNESS: It’s really the perfect incubator to launch a business. You’re in the setting where you’re supposed to encourage to learn and think and dream as much as you can. And then there is also all of these amazing resources, especially at Middlebury College that help you, take that idea and turn it into a successful startup.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is the new emphasis on entrepreneurship in higher education a function of the lack of good jobs out there for graduates?

LAURIE PATTON: I think that the market right now, makes students more anxious than it did 25 years ago, for sure. I think there is something else happening, though students are not seeing themselves as in one job forever. I had one recent grad hand me her card with a name and a number on it and she said, “I could tell you what company I am working at, but I am not going to because we don’t do careers now, we do projects.”

PAUL SOLMAN: But the obvious objection is, this is dumbing down, playing to the lowest common denominator.

LAURIE PATTON: Yes, I think that that is true of a bad entrepreneurial curriculum. But a good one, that really focuses on the rationale for an innovation, that truly focuses on creativity, that forces students to think through, exactly what their plan is for their new idea. I would say, it’s the opposite of dumbing down.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Professor Flesch worries about practical coaching over intellectual debate.

BILLY FLESCH: Teaching and learning come out of conflict and opposition and trying to convince the other person that their idea is wrong in some way or other. More and more, there’s a sense that what we’re supposed to be doing is empowering students rather than teaching, letting them take the ideas that they already have and sell them, whereas I actually think teaching is selling new ideas to students.

PAUL SOLMAN: OK, so that. And so, these, the little seeds are here.

Back at Middlebury, Cam MacKugler, selling his new idea, to us.

CAM MACKUGLER: So then, the customer unfolds this and places it on top of their soil.

PAUL SOLMAN: I think I’m seedpod challenged.

CAM MACKUGLER: Once watered, these pods dissolve and the plants that are embedded within them will sprout and come up through the openings in the weed barrier fabric. And you have the perfectly-arranged garden that you’ve planted in 30 seconds.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so, in the yellow wood where Robert Frost taught for four decades, students are starting down the road more taken these days: using college to start a business.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from the yellow woods and Green Mountains of northern New England.