Colleges and universities as resources for small business

Many small business owners are on the look out for high-quality, cost-effective resources. Colleges and universities are often an under appreciated source of such help. While business owners may be aware of the Small Business Development Center Network, which is a national program administered through higher education institutions, there is so much more available. Here are some ideas:

• Public university/college libraries are often great and free resources of business information. While some private institutions may also be open to you, state-funded colleges and universities are usually the most accessible. Look for a business reference librarian as well as special sources of information that may not be available over the Internet or may be very expensive to purchase independently. The expert help and savings on hard-to-find information can easily justify the cost of the trip.

• Many college students welcome the opportunity to gain experience in their chosen field. Depending on your needs, you may want a student intern from a community college or a four-year college or university who is seeking a real-world educational experience, or a student seeking part-time employment. Career offices and internship coordinators can help you get started in your search for the right student. Large companies know this is a great way to identify good full-time employees as students graduate into the workforce.

• Recent graduates may welcome the opportunity to join your business. Career offices on campus should be able to help connect you with possible employees.

• Training for current employees is available through continuing education course, executive education courses, part-time degree programs, and custom training. Specific topics vary widely. Some schools will develop specific programs for your company or industry if there is sufficient interest. These can be very helpful in adding value to your employees and addressing shortages in key areas from the shop floor to the president’s office.

• Technical assistance, specialized equipment and facilities are sometimes available to help companies that may be too small to afford expensive state-of-the-art equipment that is only needed occasionally. Because needs are so specialized, finding the college or university facility that can help you can be difficult, but the benefits in terms of cost savings and quality can make the effort worthwhile.

For example, MIT pioneered the concept of “fab labs,” where innovators can fabricate prototypes of their new products using computer-aided design and manufacturing equipment that would not otherwise be available to them. This concept has spread across the country and indeed around the world. If you have such a need, check to see if there is a fab lab at a college campus near you. Here’s a story of a fab lab on a community college campus in Ohio.

• Knowledge and technology developed in college and university laboratories as part of their research may be of interest to your company for future commercialization. Perhaps you would even like to submit a Small Business Innovation Research proposal with a faculty member to fund this as part of an entrepreneurial growth initiative. If you find such an opportunity, be aware of the institution’s mechanisms to facilitate this type of transfer, which may include options such as membership in an industry funded center, sponsoring a research project tailored to your needs, or licensing intellectual property.

Next week, I’ll discuss how to prepare yourself to take advantages of these resources.

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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