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Students and Startups Make the Perfect Pair

This article was originally featured in the Winter/Spring 2016 issue of Community College Entrepreneurship, a publication of NACCE.

Students and startups make the perfect pairBarry Tabor is studying electrical engineering at Lorain County Community College and hopes to continue his education at one of the college’s four-year partnership institutions when he graduates. But Barry’s involvement in a work-experience program at Lorain County Community College sets him apart from your typical student. While pursuing his studies, he is working shoulder to shoulder with the founder of Lygent, a medical device startup company.

Lygent is developing an ophthalmic screening and diagnostic tool that will give pediatricians a quick, automated assessment of eye misalignment. Company founder Nick Vandillen is getting his prototype ready for subject testing and Barry is one of his go-to design engineers for this process.

“Being a small company, each member has a large impact on our work and success—including Barry,” said Vandillen. “Barry has provided knowledge and insight to our design process while growing his own skills as an engineer through hands-on, impactful work.”

Barry’s involvement with Lygent began with the internship program sponsored by the Innovation Fund, a non-profit seed fund founded by the Lorain County Community College Foundation. The fund awards technology-based startups up to $100,000 so they can validate their technologies and business concepts. And as the entrepreneurs learn from the Innovation Fund’s business mentors, local college students learn from the entrepreneurs.

Every entrepreneur who receives a funding award from the Innovation Fund—more than 150 since 2007—provides at least one college student with a unique learning experience. In the past, the fund founders have visited a classroom of aspiring entrepreneurs to offer their advice as guest lecturers. They have also sponsored booths at career fairs to talk about entrepreneurship as a career path, and they brought students into their companies and made them working members of their teams. This is exactly what Nick has done for Barry. “My voice is heard,” Barry says of his contributions to the team. “Nick listens to me and takes into consideration the ideas I have for this prototype we are creating.”

Outside the Classroom

This kind of meaningful contribution is often not available in any classroom, but it is consistent across the Innovation Fund program. For example, while Barry’s work impacts Lygent’s prototype path to market entry, another student is submitting Investigational new drug applications to the FDA. Other students are contributing to grant proposals to the National Science Foundation.

The program is giving students a chance to tackle significant projects and illustrates how internships at startups, specifically Innovation Fund startups, work. The startup environment is ideal for this kind of involvement; it’s lean, quick, and every action moves toward a single goal—getting a technology to market. There are no trivial jobs, and all resources, including interns, are on a task for the success of the company.

“When the entrepreneurs we invest in engage with our campus community by encouraging and enabling these unique educational experiences, the students benefit greatly,” said Roy Church, president of Lorain County Community College. “But the magic really happens when the entrepreneurs themselves find value in the contributions these interns make toward the success of their companies. That kind of symbiotic relationship between entrepreneur and student has solidified the connection between startup growth and the community college.”

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