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Business Officer Magazine
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Finding a Market for Good Ideas

The Enterprise Center at Calvin College encourages development of intellectual property and provides an environment for students and faculty alike to move conceptual ideas to practical reality.

By Andrew Steiner

By the time Ricky Tilton entered Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the fall of 2004, he was already earning money from his Web sites by selling T-shirts, monthly premium memberships, and advertising space. One year later, Tilton and his site were featured in Nintendo Power, the Japanese company's official North American magazine.

Tilton's business inspiration came in 1999 when he was 13 years old. He walked into a local video store in Gap, Pennsylvania, picked up a Nintendo 64 controller, and played five minutes of the game that would change his life. That summer, before he even owned the game, Tilton created a fan site dedicated to Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. “When I finally got the game for my birthday, it only increased my enthusiasm, and I think I updated my site every day that year,” remembers Tilton.

As Nintendo added another game to the series, Tilton created two new sites, one a paean to the new game, and the other, smashboards.com, an online forum where enthusiasts could debate the finer points of character choice and strategy.

Offers to buy Tilton's network of sites—which was pulling in 9 million monthly page views and boasting more than 100,000 registered members—started coming his way as early as his freshman year at Calvin. With medical school on the horizon, Tilton was finally ready to sell. The question was: “How?”

Offering Negotiation Expertise

Tilton needed an adviser, and he found a whole team through Calvin's Enterprise Center, launched in 2007 to help students, faculty, and community members profit from their innovations.

Samuel Wanner, Calvin's director of financial services, served as Tilton's middleman. “Before finding the Enterprise Center, I had begun negotiating with some of the companies by myself,” Tilton said, “but I immediately felt vulnerable to the more experienced businessmen who knew how to negotiate a deal. It was a huge relief when Sam became my spokesperson.”

After a month of negotiations, Tilton closed with Wikia Inc., the collaborative publishing platform cofounded by Jimmy Wales (better known as the creator of Wikipedia). The proceeds from the sale enabled Tilton to postpone medical school while he worked in a health clinic in Peru and played tennis on the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's Futures Circuit. Now in his second year at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Tilton is partially financing his education from the sale of his Web site.

Fostering Research Partnerships

In another example, the Enterprise Center has partnered with biologist Nigel Crompton to commercialize a new genetic screening test that can predict a cancer patient's relative risk of unintended adverse effects associated with radiation therapy. Results of the screening test can be available in as little as 48 hours. The only other similar test, which uses patient tissue rather than a blood sample, can require two months to yield a result, far too long for many cancer patients.

Crompton, who teaches biology at Grand Rapids's Cornerstone University, worked on the assay with the late Calvin biology professor David DeHeer, using the college's flow cytometer, an instrument that allows the analysis of blood samples. Three students from Calvin and one from Michigan State are preparing the samples for analysis. The Enterprise Center's task is to take the test from the lab to the clinic, and Crompton is grateful for their knowledge.

Center director Michael Harris has spent the majority of his career commercializing consumer products in the private sector. He says projects like Crompton's allow Calvin to forge vital off-campus partnerships. The Enterprise Center also cultivates collaboration between Calvin people and departments. “Almost every project has one or more students involved, and usually they're paid,” he said. “My hope is that, over time, we can have more and more students involved.”

The Enterprise Center at Calvin is funded in part by profits from projects like those of Tilton and Crompton. Further, an unexpected but welcome volume of fee-for-service projects from local industry has brought the center to a break-even point early in its history. In the future, any profit left over after the center's expenses are covered will go into Calvin's general operating budget to support the educational mission of the college. See "Wise Buys" in the February 2012 issue of Business Officer to learn about Calvin's real estate investment initiatives in support of further expanding the college's academic and research reach.

ANDREW STEINER is a contributing writer in communications and marketing at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a 2011 Calvin graduate with an English major.