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School gets stock in company for every new hire

Wichita State promotes local economic development with new job creation program

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Wichita State University (WSU) is pursuing its goals of fostering local economic development and enhancing student experiential learning through a new self-funded organization called Ennovar, which recently announced a $600,000 partnership with California-based tech firm PassFail LLC, a subsidiary of Social Networking Technology, Inc. The unique partnership not only creates new jobs for university grads, it also generates revenue for the school in the form of company stock for every new hire culled from the campus.

Many universities and TTOs have expanded their focus to regional job creation and economic growth, and WSU is no exception. Its strategic plan to become an Innovation Campus through its stated goals of “innovation, applied learning, entrepreneurship and economic impact” will benefit from Ennovar’s business partnerships, which, in addition to supplying students with employment opportunities, also reward the university with unique perks such as company stock and scholarships.

Tonya Witherspoon, executive director of Ennovar, tells Technology Transfer Tactics that although WSU has a dedicated technology transfer office that handles patents and licensing, “the larger part of what we do for tech transfer is creating jobs and working with businesses in our region to create new job opportunities and new alliance partnerships with them. Because we’re a third party, we can do research for multiple companies at the same time. We can also train students and have them working on real jobs here at Wichita State, and get them ready for the workforce.”

WSU has a long history of job creation, training, and industry engagement: its National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) has been focused on those areas for more than twenty years. “But that has been specifically in the aerospace industry, which Wichita is known for. What we’re doing with Ennovar is taking that experience that we’ve had in aerospace and actually moving it across multiple verticals.”

The effort is designed in large part to diversify the region’s job base beyond what has become a rather stagnant industry. “The [aerospace] industry has changed. It’s not hiring new people. We’ve lost, just in the Wichita region, 20,000 jobs over the last 10 years,” explains Witherspoon. “We’re trying to build those

out in other areas. Ennovar is about innovating, specifically in the high tech industry. All of our partners and clients are in the high tech industry right now, and we’re specializing in a few things that are very good for the companies in our region.”

A win-win compensation arrangement

The latest Ennovar partnership, with Silicon Valley based company PassFail, is groundbreaking because of its unusual compensation arrangement. The company will grant 250 common shares of stock to the university for each hire it makes, every semester. With 18 new students brought on for the first semester of the partnership, it could end up being a hefty award. “We’re starting our first semester. At the end of summer, in August, they’ll issue those shares based on the number of students we have working — and we have 8 teams, so it’ll be quite a chunk. They also are also awarding each student, in addition to the student wages, an $800 scholarship. So after the students work the summer, they’ll get $800 applied to their fall tuition bill,” says Witherspoon.

PassFail also pays the university’s lab rates, which are used to run the programs as well as to pay student wages.

Other Ennovar partnerships, including one with data management companyNetApp, provide a wide range of benefits to students and to the university. NetApp has given a scholarship to WSU as part of their arrangement, grants students access to their internal curriculums, and sponsors regular colloquiums for networking and educational opportunities. Another partner company, FiresharkGaming, which develops 3D gaming environments, rewards student employees with free gaming time as an incentive for good work.

The student experience

Students apply for employment with Ennovar via an online resume submission page, and those with skill sets matching current job openings are called in for traditional interviews. Interviewees must also pass a performance/skill test relevant to their desired position. The tests last 3-4 hours and take place in Ennovar’s offices. “If [students are] applying for a software development job, it would actually be a software development task, and they would do some type of software development. If [the job] was in our reference architecture lab, they would be doing something with setting up hardware…. We would give them a task of installing and configuring an application or a server setup,” says Witherspoon.

Post-graduation hire rates are not yet available for Ennovar, although student response to the program has been nothing but positive. NIAR, which serves as the model for Ennovar’s structure, has hire rates that are “very, very high. Here in the region, when students have NIAR on their resume, they get an interview right off the bat, because NIAR has such a high reputation for their training and the knowledge and the skill [it provides],” says Witherspoon. It’s expected that Ennovar will produce similar results.

Witherspoon emphasizes that Ennovar is much more than a staffing agency. “Every company we work with is truly a partnership. If a company is just looking for staffing, that’s really not somebody we want to partner with. We’re not a staffing agency. We’re not here just to find people to fill current needs. I’m not saying we wouldn’t want to help companies do that, but our career services department here at Wichita State really takes care of that. We’re trying to add a bigger value on top of that, to create a partnership that truly grows more job opportunities and new ideas. Companies don’t partner with Ennovar if they’re just looking for people to work for them. They partner if they’re … also looking for some longer range opportunity for developing something new,” she elaborates.

Enhancing tech transfer

Ennovar’s business relationships could have future implications for tech transfer and sponsored research at the university. Witherspoon points out one current partner project that involves a patent-pending technology. “It’s going to be patented. The patent [applications] are already in, and the students who are working on it will have their names on this. We have all kinds of different opportunities and projects, and that’s why it enhances our TTO. It really provides a lot more opportunity,” she says. “I’ve also had our [TTO] call me with new ideas … that are similar to something we might be working on with a current partner, and they want to know if that partner would be interested in teaming or having a meeting. That’s another benefit of being a third-party of the university. We can broker those exchanges between companies in non-competitive ways to increase our economy and grow more jobs.”

According to Witherspoon, university leadership has been essential to the formation and early success of Ennovar. “You can’t do things like this without that type of leadership, support, and push,” crediting vice president of research and technology transfer John Tomblin and university president John Bardo for their commitment to and vision for WSU’s Innovation Campus goals.

Other universities interested in establishing similar industry partnerships and providing students with job experience are cautioned against trying to serve as staffing agencies. Witherspoon advises that “most colleges have a career services department or a co-op department that helps provide internships. We’re not trying to take away from that; that’s still a very important service. This is a different kind of relationship — this is really becoming a partner with the university, and doing more than just hiring. This is trying to be a partner to see how we can drive new workers. We’re also listening to what the companies have to say about what we need to do to change our curriculum, or what we can do to better prepare students for the workforce.”

Contact Witherspoon at 316-978-4771 or tonya.witherspoon@wichita.edu.


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