Superheroes as entrepreneurs

Nick Spiller

A new school is in session in San Mateo, Calif. Draper University of Heroes is an unconventional boarding school for young entrepreneurs, and the goal is simple: Take creative innovators and turn them into superheroes. Each student accepted into the eight-week program will create a company, which they will then pitch to Silicon Valley venture capitalists.  

Draper University administers an innovative, educational curriculum meant to bring out the “superpowers” inside each student. The future superheroes are ushered through an intense experience of surprises and entrepreneurial activities. They speak publicly nearly every day and benefit from world-class mentors and coaches. UT’s very own Professor of Innovation, Bob Metcalfe, visited Draper University to speak and work with students in mid-October. 

But not everybody is convinced the startup university will produce the super heroes it claims it will. Cal Newport, author of “How to Win at College” and other student-advice books, said in a blog post on his website that Draper is focusing too much on soft skills like networking and idea generation and too little on the technical mastery required for innovation. Students targeted for Draper have big dreams, but they haven’t yet achieved the level of familiarity with their product that a Ph.D. or graduate student developing that product would have. 

As a global research university, UT has one of the most robust arrays of program options for potential entrepreneurs. But we need to more consciously connect these academic programs to commercialization and entrepreneurial education initiatives, and for that, we could take a lesson from Draper University’s playbook. The key is creating an innovative ecosystem where engineers, creative and business-minded students alike can collaborate to bring ideas to life.

Considering the scope of an institution like UT, we have all the ingredients to build such an environment. UT’s academic programs have experienced 25 percent growth in top-five programs in eight years, according to U.S. News & World Report. The McCombs School of Business has a top-10 graduate entrepreneurship program, according to the rankings of both Forbes and the Princeton Review. UT marketing material won’t let us forget that the University has already produced many heroic figures, such as Michael Dell and Red McCombs. The goal is to shift gears and accelerate this phenomenon by connecting our doctorate, masters students, faculty and staff with our biggest dreamers and achievers. 

As I described in a previous Daily Texan column, UT remains unranked by the Princeton Review for undergraduate entrepreneurship programs. Let’s rectify that by building the UT School of Undergraduate Entrepreneurship, which could strive to harbor the same heroic spirit and out-of-the-box curriculum of Draper University. The school would attract our most innovative undergraduate entrepreneurs and accept them as they enter their junior and senior years. The University should incorporate projects from our world-class research enterprises and existing startup programs, such as Texas Venture Labs and the Longhorn Startup Program. Opening a specialized entrance track for incoming students who intend to apply to the entrepreneurship school would increase demand and quality of students.

The marriage of the disciplined mastery of our researchers and the ambition and energy of our budding undergraduate entrepreneurs will force a shift in the gears of innovation at UT, and that’s a good thing. A few more figures like Michael Dell and Bill Gates coming from the 40 Acres could be pretty useful.

Spiller is a rhetoric and writing senior from Grand Blanc, Mich.