GradFUTURES at the Graduate School at Princeton University has developed a robust suite of professional development programs that connect current graduate students to professionals in a variety of industries and in many different roles, with the goal of enabling them to explore potential career options. One way they do this is through interdisciplinary learning cohorts designed to bring together students, alums, faculty, and industry partners to explore diverse professional pathways and focus on current societal, industry, and/or global trends. The Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital (VC), and Startups Learning Cohort serves as a“crash course” for Princeton graduate students who want to learn about the startup world. Graduate students participate in interdisciplinary discussions during each session, complete pre-reading and reflection activities, and then develop a capstone presentation.
Venture Capitalists Jim Cohen’ 86 and Mark Poag’ 93 have been leading the Entrepreneurship, VC, and Startups Learning Cohort for the last 5 years. According to Eva Kubu — Associate Dean and Director of GradFUTURES — Jim and Mark, as Princeton alums and partners of Fitz Gate Ventures, have greatly contributed to the growth in graduate students’ understanding of the startup world over the years. They were awarded the Clio Hall Award in 2022 from the Princeton Graduate School for their efforts.
On Princeton’s campus, where a growing number of startups are emerging from scholarly research and the founders of these young enterprises are often graduate students, the Entrepreneurship, VC, and Startups Learning Cohort serves as a condensed way for them to begin to understand the entrepreneurship realm. The cohort’s purpose is to help graduate students explore this as one of the many paths within and beyond academia– and build the skills and knowledge they will need to move forward.
In discussing his experience leading the program over the past five years, Mark emphasized how “knowledgeable” the graduate students are “in their field of study,” but he acknowledged that “most know very little about startups.” He added, “It’s been fun to open their eyes to the possibility of starting a company based on their research or joining an existing startup as an alternative career option to academia.”
For the first time this year, the program included lectures by Christina Pellicane, Assistant Director of Innovation and Lead Instructor at the NSF Northeast I-Corps Hub at Princeton. Over the summer, Christina coordinated with Jim and Mark to redesign the cohort with a goal of exposing students to the entrepreneurial way of thinking and to the information they must understand to explore a career in this space.
Over the 8 week program a series of interactive lectures are presented that serve to answer simple questions such as what it means to be an entrepreneur, what entrepreneurship is, how to de-risk a business model, and what venture capitalists look for in an investment. There is also a session that introduces the cohort to other campus resources such as Princeton Innovation, the Keller Center, and the Office of Tech Licensing. Other goals include teaching students how to network towards team formation and different inclusive innovation practices. Ultimately, the cohort culminates in a final group project where the students illustrate what they’ve learned and how they can apply it in the real world. The program is a way to explore the route to entrepreneurial success via educational and professional opportunities.
“Jim and Mark bring incredible experience in early stage, network-driven venture capital and have deep relationships within the Princeton ecosystem,” Eva emphasized, “by coupling that with Christina’s years of expertise in entrepreneurship education and as the lead of the NSF I-Corps program, we were able to design a dynamic curriculum.”
Christina described her role as specifically “making the cohort more accessible to graduate students who are not sure if they want to be an entrepreneur or a venture capitalist - or neither.” To do this, she synthesizes some new elements with content from the I-Corp Hubs.
Eva emphasized that this program was more than just teaching entrepreneurship. “Graduate students are innately entrepreneurs,” she explained. “The purpose of a PhD is to create something new for the world which by definition is entrepreneurship,” she added. “The GradFUTURES Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital & Startups Learning Cohort,” she stresses, “enables graduate students to explore entrepreneurship while also embracing an entrepreneurial mindset, all while being grounded by their academic experience.”
Chemistry graduate student Carli Kovel, who is in the current learning cohort, praised the program for providing her “with the tools to navigate a range of future career paths” and for letting her think through the many ways she can use her STEM background to “improve society.” The course is teaching her how to pitch an idea and how to do a general assessment of a startup’s viability. She explains, “The program has helped me understand the process of taking a new technology from the bench to market.”
Several startups who participated in the NSF Northeast I-Corps Hub program will pitch to the cohort later this month, offering the opportunity to evaluate the structure, format, and content of each startups’ pitch deck. The cohort will culminate with group capstone presentations where graduate students will synthesize their learnings and recommendations for one of the startups that pitched.
Graduate student Benito Buskh, also from the Chemistry department, shared similar sentiments to Kovel, emphasizing how the cohort has been an incredible “deep dive” into an area he previously did not know much about. “The experience bridges the gap between academia and entrepreneurship and has allowed me to meet general partners from a well established VC firm and people on the Princeton campus who can help us start a company once we have an idea,” he surmised. “I am positive that this experience will help me in the future when I start a company of my own."
If you are interested in learning more about GradFUTURES’ programming, including the Learning Cohorts, visit their website.