$1.4 Million Donation Will Help Transform Students' Ideas into Successful Businesses

$1.4 Million Donation Will Help Transform Students’ Ideas into Successful Businesses

Jim Atchison, president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and a UCF Board of Trustees member, said he would have been the first to sign up for the new Blackstone LaunchPad initiative if UCF had offered the program when he was a student.

More UCF students soon will be able to transform entrepreneurial ideas into viable companies without leaving campus, thanks to a $1.4 million donation from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation.

Blackstone and UCF leaders gathered Monday to celebrate the donation and its impact on the university and the region. By expanding the resources UCF offers to students with entrepreneurial ideas, the Blackstone LaunchPad has the potential to generate more than 300 new business ventures in Central Florida over the next five years.

“The increased interaction between business professionals and our passionate students through the Blackstone LaunchPad will expand the strong relationships that our university enjoys with our regional business community,” UCF President John C. Hitt said during the celebration at the Morgridge International Reading Center.

“Most of our graduates choose to live and work in Central Florida, and we are optimistic that many of the students who benefit from the Blackstone LaunchPad at UCF will start innovative companies that will enhance the well-being of our local economy.”

The Blackstone LaunchPad, which UCF expects to open this summer in the Student Union, will host a wide array of speakers and events focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Four staff members and several graduate fellows will serve as advisers to the students, challenging them to turn ideas into more robust proposals. And students who develop strong proposals then will be matched with mentors from the local business community.

“When we have students serious about entrepreneurship as a career path, we want to do everything we possibly can to help them be successful,” said Cameron Ford, an associate professor of management who will lead the Blackstone LaunchPad initiative.

Students from all majors are invited to participate, and even students who don’t intend to start their own businesses can attend the programs. Many companies look specifically for employees who are innovators and who have strong entrepreneurial skills, Ford said.

Stephen A. Schwarzman, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Blackstone, visited UCF Monday along with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, University of Miami President Donna Shalala and Jim Atchison, president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and a UCF Board of Trustees member.

Blackstone LaunchPad is modeled after a successful program developed at the University of Miami in 2008, which has generated more than 100 start-up ventures, 215 new jobs and drawn nearly 2,000 participants.

Since 2010, The Blackstone Charitable Foundation has opened Blackstone LaunchPads on eight campuses in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Each regional initiative will be linked together, drawing ideas and best practices from more established programs, and giving student entrepreneurs at UCF access to a stronger network of expert advisers for their ventures.

“Entrepreneurship is the single most effective way to spur economic growth and job creation,” Schwarzman said.  ”We must all play a role in nurturing talent and through Blackstone LaunchPad, we can foster new generations of entrepreneurs who will transform local economies by creating new and innovative companies.”

Rubio praised Blackstone LaunchPad’s goal of helping students develop important skills entrepreneurs must have to succeed, such as how to navigate complex rules and regulations and how to market a business to potential customers.

Atchison described Central Florida as a “hub of entrepreneurial spirit” and said that if the program had been around when he was a UCF student, “I would have been the first one to sign up.”

Students who develop strong business proposals through the Blackstone LaunchPad program may benefit from additional assistance offered by UCF. The university will establish a “venture accelerator” designed to prepare them to seek seed funding and angel investments and to become potential clients for the university’s Business Incubation Program. The goal of this stage will be to turn “good prospects into outstanding prospects,” Ford said.

Blackstone’s commitment in Central Florida, in addition to the $1.4 million grant announced today, includes investments in several companies in its portfolio, which it manages on behalf of investors.  The companies in Blackstone’s portfolio with operations in Central Florida, which includes Merlin, Hilton Worldwide, Performance Food Group, Michaels, and Sea World, have collectively invested close to $600 million in Central Florida in recent years.

Funding for this program is made possible through The Blackstone Charitable Foundation’s $50 million, five-year Entrepreneurship Initiative, which seeks to target support services regionally for aspiring entrepreneurs, and in turn, the high-growth businesses and industries that are most known to spark economic growth.  Due to the early success of the program, The Blackstone Charitable Foundation was recognized by President Obama’s “Startup America Initiative” and pledged to expand LaunchPad to five new regions over the next five years.