Story California

Empowering the Innovators

Alisia Ruble

Entrepreneurship programs at the CSU prepare the next generation of business innovators for California.

​Photo courtesy of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

​​​​​​​Each year, the CSU awards half the state’s business degrees, sending nearly 20,000 new entrepreneurs into the workforce. Support for these students goes beyond the classroom in the form of programs that connect budding business people to mentors and free resources that help transform ideas into marketable businesses.

While every one of the CSU’s 23 campuses offers a degree in business, campuses also offer entrepreneurial activities outside the classroom—workshops, mentorship, clubs and other professional development and networking opportunities—and most feature a center or program open to enterprising students from all disciplines. 

Innovation Challenges Develop Real-World Skills

Campus centers like Cal State Long Beach’s Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship host events that put students in real-world situations to find out how viable their product or business idea is, like the Sunstone Innovation Challenge. The campus-wide business plan competition was launched over a decade ago by the Colleges of Business, Engineering and the Arts. A select group of student teams spend the entire academic year working with the Beach Incubator to develop their business plans and prepare to pitch their ideas to investors.  

Josh Haber, along with his teammates Alex Urasaki and Armando Gutierrez, won first prize in this year’s Challenge for their app, PeriDeals, which connects people with local markdown deals on perishable foods and helps grocery stores minimize the cost of food waste. Watch all the presentations on Facebook Live.

When Haber, who earned a bachelor’s degree in community health education from CSULB this spring, first discovered the institute, the idea of establishing a dual solution for food insecurity and food waste was in its infancy. The institute connected Haber with teammates who complemented his area of expertise, a mentor from their network of CSU and community advisors and even a programmer who provided technical consulting on how to optimize the app.

“The workshops and speakers were very helpful, but the most valuable resource we received was the mentorship from our advisor, Mike Grimshaw, who directs the Entrepreneurial Institute at CSU Dominguez Hills,” says Haber. “He devoted a generous amount of time addressing every possible hole in our plan prior to the challenge and helped us to not only win, but to come out of the program with a solid business plan and connections in the industry.”

For their victory, Haber and his team will be awarded $15,000 in seed money and up to $35,000 in workspace, marketing, legal and accounting services that will help them grow their business. Thanks to the university, Haber and his team were introduced to corporate executives from Kroger, the second largest grocery chain in the United States, and plan to use the prize money to finish developing the app’s software.

Creating a Clear Path from Idea to Market

At San Diego State University, the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad is helping members of the campus community launch startups from an early stage idea through a four-phase process. The program has been successful in launching 27 startups and helping students raise more than $15.6 million in funds. 

“The program is divided into individual phases so that students can go at their own pace,” says ZIP Launchpad Executive Director Cathy Pucher, Ph.D. “As they move through each phase, they unlock additional resources, like free use of the rapid prototyping lab, engineering services, financial assistance and more.”

A similar tactic is being employed by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), which has several highly customized paths for entrepreneurs at all stages of their plan. Students with a fledgling idea, or even just a problem they want to find a solution for, can begin their journey in the campus Hatchery, a student incubator program. If their idea has wings, they can progress to the SLO HotHouse Accelerator, which offers an additional set of resources, and finally to the SLO HotHouse Incubator, where participants will work to put what they’ve learned in previous programs to practice. 

Campus Efforts Benefit Local Communities

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is also helping members of the Central Coast business community through the SLO HotHouse, a community space created in partnership with the City and County of San Luis Obispo. Located in downtown San Luis Obispo, the HotHouse is a place where students, employees, alumni and community members can develop or run their businesses, participate in workshops and speakers series, and network with one another.

CSULB’s Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship launched a new startup accelerator last year to support the growth of small businesses in Long Beach, many of which are started by CSULB alumni, in partnership with the city and Sunstone Management, Inc.​ CSULB economics professor Wade Martin, Ph.D., who directs the institute, says he expects the accelerator to provide a much-needed resource for the economic ecosystem the city is striving to develop. 

Programs Successfully Pivot Online Due to COVID-19

Although much has changed since pandemic-related social distancing guidelines have forced activities to pivot online, staff at the CSU’s entrepreneurial centers have quickly adapted and say that, in some cases, they’ve found a silver lining. 

“We are still able to offer the majority of our resources online, including our speaker series, when we invite prominent business people to share their expertise and network with students,” says Sierra Scolaro, who earned a degree in entrepreneurship from Cal Poly SLO in 2019 and now helps manage the CIE. “Our options have really opened up, too, because we don’t have to consider travel costs when we invite someone to speak to our participants.”

Learn about these startups from CSU students and alumni who used the resources provided by entrepreneurial programs within the university to turn their ideas into reality.​

Now a successful business owner thanks in part to Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Entrepreneurship,  Martyn ('10) returns to campus to mentor students in the Startup Incubator. 

Three San Francisco State students took home first prize in the university’s Entrepreneurship Symposium and Pitch Competition for their voice-activated mobile assistant designed to help first responders in emergency situations. 

Sameer Saran (’18) first pitched his idea for a more sustainable vision for parking at San José State’s 2018 Business Plan Competition and launched his company the next year.

Ha​ley Pavo​ne (’18), invented the world’s first convertible high-heeled shoe while she was studying business administration at Cal Poly SLO and continues to run her operation out of the SLO HotHouse.​


​​​Innovation and entrepreneurship thrive ​in the CSU

Select a location below to discover how campuses are helping bring great ideas to market:​