Zell Lurie Institute: An Unwavering Commitment to Innovation in Entrepreneurial Education

Shannon Beeman
September 23, 2013

In 2013, the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business reached a new pinnacle of success, earning national recognition for the first time as the premier graduate program in entrepreneurship education. The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine ranked the Zell Lurie Institute the No. 1 Graduate Entrepreneurship Program among the top 25 programs in the U.S. More than 2,000 schools were surveyed by The Princeton Review. This is the fourth consecutive year the Institute has placed in the upper echelon of contenders, underscoring its commitment to moving entrepreneurship to the forefront of business education. In the last decade, 4,450 students have pursued their entrepreneurial ambitions by participating in Zell Lurie Institute programs, and thousands more have taken part in its symposiums, conferences and events.

Over the past year, the Zell Lurie Institute also developed succession plans for its first major transition in leadership. In July, Stewart Thornhill ─ a leading educator in entrepreneurship at Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business in Canada ─ was named the Institute’s new executive director and the Eugene Applebaum Professorship of Entrepreneurial Studies. Effective September 1, Thornhill succeeds Thomas C. Kinnear, who has led the Institute as executive director since its inception in 1999. Kinnear, who is the D. Maynard Phelps Collegiate Professor of Business in the marketing area, will return to full-time teaching while supporting the Institute throughout the transition period and beyond. In addition, he has been reappointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to a three-year term on the Early Stage Venture Investment Corporation board of directors. Managing Director Tim Faley concluded his 10-year career at the Institute in July when he accepted a new position as the Sokoloff Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Extending the Scope and Depth of Entrepreneurship Education  

The Zell Lurie Institute extended the scope and depth of entrepreneurship education at the University of Michigan over the past 12 months through innovations in its entrepreneurial-studies coursework and expansion of its robust program portfolio of grant-making, internships, venture-investment funds, international Multidisciplinary Action Projects and business competitions. The Institute’s matrix of multidisciplinary classes, action-based learning, staff and faculty seminars and alumni networking provided entrepreneurial-minded students with the skills, resources and experience needed to traverse the “Entrepreneurial Arch” ─ a pathway for transforming an idea for a new venture into a viable business. Students who master and apply six core skills – opportunity identification; designing, assessing, planning and resourcing the business; and managing growth – can achieve their goal of starting and operating a successful company.

In 2013, nearly $400,000 was awarded to advance entrepreneurial student teams involved in new ventures. The Dare to Dream grant program ─ which has three different stages that propel a student team from a nascent idea to a developed business ready for launch ─ grew substantially and broadened its impact across campus. The Institute’s three student-led venture-investment funds ─ its signature $3.5 million Wolverine Venture Fund, Social Venture Fund and Zell Lurie (formerly, Frankel) Commercialization Fund ─ invested a total of $400,000 in emerging start-up ventures over the past year. Currently, the three funds have $6.5 million under management.

New courses and course content introduced by the Institute in the 2012-2013 academic year helped to meet the skyrocketing demand for entrepreneurship education among students entering and enrolled at the University. These pioneering courses engaged U-M freshman, sophomores and juniors in entrepreneurial studies earlier in their collegiate careers and enabled graduate students in business, engineering and other disciplines to burnish their entrepreneurial acumen and skill sets in the specialized areas of business law, marketing and clean tech.

The Zell Entrepreneurship And Law (ZEAL) program, launched in January 2012 at the U-M Law School, unveiled six entrepreneurial-studies courses designed to familiarize law students with venture finance, private equity, entrepreneurial business, negotiations, real-estate entrepreneurship and exit strategies. Thus far, ZEAL’s student-led, faculty-supervised Entrepreneurship Clinic has provided pro bono legal services to a total of 47 student start-up ventures, including Fetchnotes and Focus Solutions, to help them form the right type of business entity, create ownership and employment agreements and make intellectual-property assignments. Recently, the clinic expanded its services by establishing office hours at the Zell Lurie Institute, the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the TechArb student start-up accelerator.

“Michigan now has three major well-funded entrepreneurship centers ─ in law, business and engineering ─ that serve the entire campus,” says Erik Gordon, director of ZEAL and faculty managing director of the Wolverine Venture Fund. “This is a big step forward in the University’s efforts to create a campus-wide entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Setting a Strategic Course under New Leadership

The Zell Lurie Institute’s new executive director, Stewart Thornhill, brings a multifaceted background and years of experience as an educator, researcher, entrepreneur and investor to the University of Michigan. “I often describe myself as a jack-of-all-trades,” he says. “I didn’t follow a traditional academic career path. However, after trying a lot of different things, eventually I was drawn to teaching and research at the university level.”

Thornhill studied mechanical engineering at the University of New Brunswick and later returned to school to earn an MBA in finance and a Ph.D. in strategy and organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He worked for a time in industry and started his own company on the side, encountering many of the challenges entrepreneurs often face. Over the course of Thornhill’s teaching career, he has held professorial appointments at the Universidad de San Andreas in Buenos Aires; Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany; the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris in France; and the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

Prior to accepting his new position at the University of Michigan, Thornhill taught strategy and entrepreneurship at the Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario, and served for five years as executive director of the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship. He championed executive education as faculty director for the Maple Leaf Leadership Academy, Industry Canada’s Executive Learning Initiative, and the ATCO Strategic Leadership Program. Thornhill also coached entrepreneurs at leading high-growth companies through the annual QuantumShift Executive Development Program. Based on these activities, he sees opportunities for the Zell Lurie Institute to extend entrepreneurship education into corporate settings and entrepreneurial companies operating outside the collegiate realm.

“One area with great potential is non-degree entrepreneurship education for U-M alumni as well as entrepreneurs who did not earn a degree at Michigan,” Thornhill explains. “Executive-education programs could assist these entrepreneurs at various stages in their business growth and development and help executives take their companies to the next level. The lessons-learned and the incredible talent at Ross and the Institute could be applied to a broader downstream market, making Michigan the go-to place for entrepreneurs who want to improve their own performance and drive the success of their businesses.” Bringing seasoned and less-experienced entrepreneurs together in networking communities also would stimulate the cross-fertilization of ideas, he adds.

Thornhill identifies several trends that are shaping entrepreneurship education and offer a fertile field for experimentation. These include the increasing popularity of business incubators and accelerators and the greater emphasis being placed on going beyond the business plan in class to seed and support new ventures. In addition, there is a growing conversation around new start-up methodologies, which are evolving almost daily. Another movement taking root on college campuses, including at the University of Michigan, is the effort to break down academic silos and promote entrepreneurial synergy, research commercialization and new-venture creation among students and faculty from different disciplines.

“If we are learning from experimentation and applying those lessons to our curriculum and programs, we won’t have the same educational models in place year after year,” Thornhill says. “The Zell Lurie Institute needs to continue its evolution in order to keep pace with the ever-changing entrepreneurial business and investment landscape.”

For more information on recent Zell Lurie Accomplishments, take a look at our 2013 Fall Report.