Launch pad

This article originally appeared in the University of Utah Magazine.

There’s an entrepreneurial spirit baked into the DNA of many Utahns. Inventing, creating and challenging the status quo is part of who we are. So perhaps it’s no wonder that with the right support and guidance the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute has become one of the country’s top 10 entrepreneur programs since its founding in 2001.

Based in the U’s David Eccles School of Business, the institute got its start with a $30,000 gift from entrepreneur Pierre Lassonde MBA ’73, in honor of his late wife Claudette MacKay-Lassonde M.S. ’73, for a program pairing graduate students with faculty inventors, industry professionals and entrepreneurs to get their businesses off the ground.

“I always say, ‘When you don’t know what you’re doing, start small and do it short-term,’” says Lassonde. “So, we started with just a few students and a couple projects with the hope that we would be successful—and we were.”

Expanding the vision

With the success of the first program—dubbed the New Venture Development Center—and an additional $13 million gift from Lassonde, the roots of the institute grew dramatically. New efforts included Bench to Bedside, a medical innovation competition, and Get Seeded, a grant program helping students test their business ideas. “We met with Pierre to discuss what we had accomplished, and he challenged us to do more and come up with an idea to bring the program to the next level,” says Troy D’Ambrosio B.A. ’82, executive director of the institute and an assistant dean at the Eccles School. “We eventually came up with an idea that had never been done anywhere that would make our program unique in the world. That idea was for a building where students could live, create and launch companies 24/7.”

Lassonde signed on for another $12 million to help further grow the initiative and fund the new Lassonde Studios facility—which also received support from David Neeleman ex ’81 (founder of JetBlue), the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation, Zions Bank, the Fidelity Foundation, the Kahlert Foundation and others.

Incubating creativity

The 160,000-square-foot Lassonde Studios building, which opened in 2016, houses 400 students and includes a 20,000-square-foot innovation hub. Along with the Miller Cafe, which stays open late, it’s filled with hand tools, sewing machines, metal- and woodworking equipment, 3-D printing technologies and other tools to help students launch their startups.

“Our goal is to provide the best student experience possible, and Lassonde Studios is helping us do that by giving our student entrepreneurs and innovators the space and resources they need to pursue their ideas, meet each other, and learn by doing,” says U President Taylor Randall HBA ’90, who was intimately involved with the project as the former dean of the Eccles School. “The building has attracted worldwide attention, but what is more important are the thousands of students who have been living and working here and getting an experience of a lifetime. They are launching more than companies here. They are launching their futures.”

Burgeoning impact

More than 4,000 U students from around campus and 3,000 high school and middle school students now participate in Lassonde programs annually. And since its founding, startups from Lassonde have raised $418 million in company funding and received more than $3 million from seed funding competitions as of spring 2020. “Lassonde is the best place in the U.S. to explore ways to creatively impact the world,” says D’Ambrosio. “Pierre Lassonde had a remarkable vision that inspired leadership at the U to create a unique experience for students.”

The undergraduate and graduate entrepreneur programs at the U have catapulted in status and are now among the top programs acknowledged by U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review and others. “The national rankings are great. But they don’t capture everything happening here,” says D’Ambrosio. “We’re setting the pace, and other places are trying to catch up. We have something here that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Students at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute launch hundreds of student startups every year. Click here to read stories from the institute’s 20-year history.