Is there a college, junior college, or university near you? If there is, and you're not making use of it, you may be neglecting a powerful business resource. Many colleges have set up centers, frequently with state money, to assist entrepreneurs. In addition, you may be able to tap a wide variety of services earmarked for students but available to the larger community.

Three years ago, the importance of academia to entrepreneurship became apparent to my wife and me, when we moved our company from Boston to Staunton, Va. Aiming to refocus Omnet Inc. from a provider of proprietary electronic mail for scientists to a broad supplier of online services, we factored proximity to higher education into our search for a new place to live and work.

Shortly after we moved to Staunton, we were introduced by our landlord to a local entrepreneur, who asked us to help him put together a presentation at James Madison University in nearby Harrisonburg. This was the beginning of a chain of connections that led us to cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships with three universities -- JMU, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known more casually as Virginia Tech.

The people we met at JMU pointed us to the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, or CIT, a state-funded organization that networks technology businesses with one another as well as with universities and colleges in Virginia. CIT, in turn, put us in touch with faculty and developmental centers at the two other schools.

Tapping Resources

From what we've learned, academic support for entrepreneurship comes down to a cup overflowing with books, brains, and bodies. Here's what we've gained from having that access and how you can tap into these resources.

  1. Books -- let's start with the library. In some states, such as Virginia, anyone with an in-state driver's license can automatically get free library privileges at any state-funded college or university. Other institutions may offer a library card for a very affordable annual fee.

    To make it even more attractive, many schools offer access to the library catalog via the Internet. You can log on, determine if they have the book you need, and find out if it is on the shelf or out. In some cases, you can reserve the book until you can get there to check it out. Also, see if your local library can get books from the university library on interlibrary loan.

  2. Brains -- these days, many faculty members consult in both technology and business areas. Since they are local, you save expenses over out-of-town consultants, and having them nearby can greatly improve communications. A couple of chats over coffee in the faculty club can sometimes accomplish more than a dozen expensive long-distance phone calls or flying in an expert.

    In addition, campus-related brainpower comes in the form of simple business contacts. Colleges and universities deal every day with a wide variety of businesspeople as vendors, fund-raisers, benefactors, directors, contractors, and even parents. Academic events of all types are opportunities to rub shoulders with such people. In the course of attending academic events, we have met Web designers, programmers, bankers, and funding contacts.

  3. Bodies -- don't forget that great pool of energy, the student body. But don't just think of students as bodies you hire part-time to stuff envelopes. Think of them as smart, ambitious people with credits to earn. Do you need software written? Check with the computer science department to see if anyone needs to do a project for credit.

You should also check whether the school has an internship or cooperative program. Or perhaps a team of undergraduates in a business course needs to do a marketing study or focus group.