Rising Above Expectations: The Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation

By Kathryn M. D’Imperio

Don’t be surprised if you start to see more small businesses popping up in the Lehigh Valley. Lehigh University’s Dexter F. Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation offers students, faculty, and alumni guidance in recognizing their ideas and seeing them through to fruition as successful enterprises, whether for-profit, non-profit, or social ventures. Generously supported by the Dexter F. and Dorothy H. Baker Foundation, the Baker Institute formally kicked off in March of 2010 but it’s been an unofficial faction – and philosophy – at Lehigh for quite some time.

As a part-time student in Lehigh’s MBA program in 1957, Dexter F. Baker, was challenged by one of his professors to think outside the box when crafting his thesis. Now, Baker, the former chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Air Products, is empowering future Lehigh students in all disciplines to spark their creativity and challenge the status quo through the establishment of the new Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation. In 1981, Lehigh awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Engineering degree to add to his Lehigh ’50 BSE and ‘57 MBA degrees. Along with his wife Dorothy, he has established a scholarship program for students in the performing arts, and together they led the capital campaign to establish Zoellner Arts Center where Baker Hall is his namesake.

“The Baker Institute is very consistent with [Dexter F. Baker’s] vision that creativity and innovation and entrepreneurial processes really drive the American economy and American competitiveness,” says Professor Todd A. Watkins, the director of the University’s Baker Institute and director of Lehigh’s Microfinance Program.

Even though the institute formally incepted in 2010, Lehigh has long been a breeding ground of student-formed companies and innovations.

One notable student business that  evolved at Lehigh is the wildly successful EcoTech Marine, founded by Tim Marks (‘04 undergrad; ‘06 masters) and Pat Clasen (‘04 undergrad; ‘07 masters). As its flagship product, EcoTech Marine manufactures and sells aquarium pumps that mimic the native aquatic ecosystems for a more life-like environment. The company was named one of the fastest growing companies in the country by Inc 500 and also as #8 in Newsweek’s list, College Kid to Millionaire.

“They have really set the pace for the way we think student entrepreneurs can really blossom here at Lehigh,” says Lisa Getzler-Linn, the administrative director of the Dexter F. Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation.

Another student company, LifeServe Innovations, received recognition for founders Zach Bloom and Rick Arlow as America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs in 2010, according to Business Week. A few other recent student advancements include numerous startups in fashion and retail, and a nonprofit that currently focuses on building composting toilets for use in third world countries.

In terms of the program itself, Lehigh ranked #16 in the country for undergraduate entrepreneurship education according to The Princeton Review, as published by ENTREPRENEUR Magazine. The University Economic Development Association also recognized Lehigh with the national Technology Commercialization Award, which spotlights the entrepreneurship support pipeline that assists undergraduates in launching companies like EcoTech Marine.

We don’t think of it as a business thing – it’s a process with skills, whether you’re Bill Gates, or Jeff Parks trying to launch ArtsQuest here in Bethlehem,” says Watkins. “If you are going to create an organization and help it grow and sustain it and create a lot of value, culture social environment value, that process is similar in a lot of ways. The entrepreneurial journey is what we are all about.

“The Baker Institute is specific to Lehigh University students at this time,” Getzler-Linn explains. “We have a two-prong mission: to provide support for students who want to start a new business at Lehigh, and to provide a window for entrepreneurial thoughts and behaviors.”

Lehigh University offers students more than a dozen undergraduate courses in entrepreneurship, including Intro to Entrepreneurship, venture capital courses, biotech startups, new media entrepreneurship, and some for international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and non-profits, among others. The graduate offerings include the VENTURESeries modules such as developing a business plan, intellectual property, and entrepreneurial marketing, to name a few.

Students at Lehigh can also participate in the Integrated Product Development (IPD) program, which allows them to work on a product with industry-backed funding for course credit. The IPD program inspires innovation within diverse interdisciplinary teams to create an environment where student entrepreneurship can flourish.

“We spend a great deal of time and resources in bringing back alumni and having current students working on their own companies provide a real platform for sharing ideas and getting feedback from those in the industry who are experts,” says Getzler-Linn.

In addition, Lehigh rewards students who follow their entrepreneurial dreams. The Eureka! Ventures Competition Series is an annual program that recognizes and awards student entrepreneurs across all disciplines. Winning students receive startup capital to develop their plans and grow their business models. Beyond competitions and coursework, students, faculty, and even members of the community can enjoy the extracurricular programs offered at Lehigh University’s Dexter F. Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation.

“Extracurricular things are important in part because we can reach a lot more people that way,” Watkins adds. “Baker likes to say part of our mission is to inoculate as many students and faculty as we can with a little bit of entrepreneurial bug. That is very challenging to do if everyone does it through courses. We have reached more than 2,000 people through extracurricular programs so far this year.”

Some exciting things to come for Lehigh students interested in entrepreneurship include a Masters of Entrepreneurship for fall 2012, a robust adventure series of graduate courses, and summer programming for a hybrid course focusing on English as a second language and emerging entrepreneurial leadership for foreign students who come to Lehigh. The LehighSiliconValley programming for next January connects students with intellectual property people, venture capitalists, angel investors, lawyers, and other professionals to help students understand Silicon Valley. Finally, students may also enjoy the budding partnership with Ben Franklin TechVentures, a high-tech workspace and startup company community, where students may also be able to jumpstart their entrepreneurial dreams come next year.

Watkins and Getzler-Linn stress the importance of the entrepreneurial mindset, a way of thinking and behaving that creates value in a student’s own discipline no matter what the subject matter. The entrepreneurial mindset can absolutely vary from one person to the next – whether they wish to start a non-profit, form a corporation, or just use creativity and innovation in their everyday thought process. Last semester the institute helped more than 30 companies in various early phases of startup. The Baker Institute also places great focus on helping one or two companies with similar outlook as EcoTech Marine to launch each year. On a separate note, the institute’s offerings will still be an invaluable asset to the many students who will develop their skill sets for existing companies.

“We want to make this available and relevant to students and faculty in every corner of campus – engineering, finance, it doesn’t matter to us – in the process of ramping up courses and extracurricular offerings that will attract students of different interest,” says Watkins. “Not everything we put on will be interesting to every student, so we’re putting together a wide range of workshops including art, technology, green and environmental things, to make sure we are visible and relevant to the entire campus, not just the business school or the engineer.”

The Dexter F. Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation
(610) 758-5626

Chemical Heritage Foundation

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram