Exploring Collegiate Entrepreneurship through Microgrants

Guest Blog for Burton D. Morgan Foundation

By: Tabitha Messmore (Kent State University) & Hannah Schlueter (Baldwin Wallace University)

This guest blog, co-authored by the NEOLaunchNET Staff at Baldwin Wallace University and Kent State University, is the story of two co-curricular university entrepreneurship programs that took their own advice and consciously pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic to better serve student clientele. We hope this piece also serves as a useful reference for other colleges and universities considering similar microgrant-style initiatives.

We are grateful to the Foundation for its confidence in our experience and for the flexibility we are granted to create and pivot our programs as needed. We work closely with our student populations to determine how to best utilize funds to provide optimal environments for college students to explore entrepreneurship.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down university campuses, we were challenged to implement significant programming changes very quickly. Fortunately, we had the support of the Foundation to be nimble and quickly adapt to serve the student entrepreneurs at our schools. In this blog post, we will highlight one pivot in particular — a microgrant program — and discuss what prompted it, how both schools structured their respective programs, and the impact on our students and our programs.

Kent State University
At LaunchNET KSU, we made certain observations throughout the 2020-21 academic year which led us to conclude that simply conducting Idea Olympics – our regular Spring pitch competition – in a digital format wasn’t the most effective way to serve students at the time. With the transition to virtual classes and programs, many students were reluctant to sign on for another virtual event after a day spent in front of the computer for their classes. Even the business school’s large-scale, high-dollar pitch competition was struggling to attain its usual numbers, and most of our student entrepreneurs who were ready for a full pitch presentation were already participating in that competition. During venture advising meetings (VAMs), students expressed the need for smaller amounts of capital to get started on an idea or make a pandemic-induced pivot. Upon weaving these threads together, it was clear that a microgrant program, in place of Idea Olympics, would be better aligned with student needs during this unusual academic year.

In laying out our process for this new initiative, we created an online application asking applicants to prepare a short video pitch explaining how the funds would help them with their ideas. Applicants could request microgrants from $99 to $500. The opportunity was marketed through our own promotional channels such as our newsletter and social media, as well as through partner offices around campus and on campus digital boards.

While we normally recruit campus partners, local entrepreneurs, and professional service experts to serve as judges for Idea Olympics, we decided to keep the judging panel smaller for the microgrants to create a quick and nimble decision-making process. We enlisted graduate students on our staff who are entrepreneurs themselves and who did not personally know the applicants, in order to maintain objectivity.

As the applications came in, we noticed that applicants generally fell into two categories: those just starting their ventures or considering how to make a “pandemic pivot,” and those with more established ventures seeking funds for ongoing business expenses, such as advertising. Because our usual Idea Olympics event is geared toward new ventures or new ideas, we opted to prioritize applicants in the first category. To that end, we encouraged our judges to focus on needs such as inventory, website, and legal services that would help a new venture get to the next step or enable an established venture to make a necessary pivot.

The microgrants initiative had a meaningful impact, both for the student entrepreneurs as well as the LaunchNET KSU program. We were able to make twice as many awards, in smaller amounts, than we typically would have for Idea Olympics. Additionally, the simple change in semantics – from “pitch competition” to “microgrant application” – attracted a new audience, with 40% of applicants being new clients. The concept of a microgrant, as opposed to a pitch competition, attracted students with side hustles and hobby-style projects who had not previously considered LaunchNET KSU to be a relevant resource for them. In turn, LaunchNET KSU was able to reach a new segment of the student population that was not previously aware of or engaged with us.

Although this was just a pilot, we consider the microgrant program a win-win!

Baldwin Wallace University
LaunchNET BW’s microgrant program resulted from an action we frequently encourage our student entrepreneurs to take: PIVOT. After disappointing participation in a unique no-code hackathon we offered, a student survey confirmed that the event did not align with student interests. At the same time, we were inspired by a microgrant program our colleagues at LaunchNET KSU were piloting and decided to test it out ourselves. For our pivot, we kept the microgrant process simple with a brief online application, followed by remote “pitches.” The questions on the application included general demographic information and a few open-ended prompts such as:

  • Describe your venture and why you started it.
  • When was your venture created?
  • What amount of funding are you requesting and why; what will the funding go towards?

Simplicity was key for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted to lower as many barriers as possible so that students did not feel overwhelmed by participating. We didn’t want to make them jump through hoops because entrepreneurs – particularly at the collegiate level – don’t have a lot of time to spare. We also sought to award funding in a quick and nimble manner, so we needed to ensure the assessment process was not overly time intensive for our staff. This was key, because less than 24 hours after the application was posted, we had received 29 applications and 37 VAM requests. Like LaunchNET KSU, LaunchNET BW also engaged with student entrepreneurs who had not yet been on our radar and are now more plugged into the entrepreneurial ecosystem on and off our campus.

When reviewing the submissions, we considered whether the idea was well thought out, easy to understand, and conveyed a sense of urgency for the funding requested. If there was not enough information, a brief 15-minute virtual interview was requested so applicants could pitch their ventures to us. We asked ourselves questions like: has the student invested time and resources into this idea, or did it seem like they were looking for a handout? After applying, we also asked applicants what was the minimum amount of funding that would help their ventures grow. To our surprise, every applicant indicated a lower amount than they initially applied for, which ultimately enabled us to award more microgrants.

After completing the final interviews, 18 microgrants were awarded, supporting startup activities such as equipment purchases, online marketing, skill certifications, software, and prototype development. While the microgrants were smaller amounts than some of the other funding opportunities we offer, the barriers were intentionally lower to reflect the challenges of this unusual academic year.

We consider this pilot program a success. We had an overwhelming number of participants and were able to directly support students actively working on their ideas, side hustles and businesses.

Learnings + Tips for Success
These two pilot programs resulted in important learnings on each of our campuses. At LaunchNET KSU, it became clear that requirements and processes for using the funds should be clearly communicated at the onset. While all students receiving microgrants were required to sign up for a VAM with a LaunchNET KSU advisor, some thought they needed to seek approval for purchases.  Additionally, follow-up surveys can be an effective way to gather feedback on the process and understand the ultimate impact and outcomes of the microgrants.

At LaunchNET BW, our intensive hackathon-style event yielded underwhelming participation and feedback, and we learned that during the pandemic access to capital was one of the greatest challenges student entrepreneurs were facing. Offering even small microgrants, with an accessible and low-barrier application process, can keep a student entrepreneur’s idea alive. Multiple funders recognized the big payoffs these small infusions of cash can have on a student’s entrepreneurial journey.  For that reason, LaunchNET BW hopes to continue the microgrant program as an annual opportunity.

If you’re considering starting a collegiate entrepreneur microgrant program, here are some tips that may help:

  • Make the application quick, easy, and simple for students to speed up the selection process and lower barriers for participation;
  • Require at least one follow-up meeting after making the award to help maximize microgrant impact and identify opportunities for program improvement and potential success stories;
  • Set and clearly communicate expectations for how awardees can spend the funds;
  • Send out a follow-up survey to assess outcomes and gather feedback; and
  • Look for opportunities to partner with other funders and collaborators to expand your impact!