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Growth spurt? SLU weighs ideas to make money, advance mission

An archway entrance to Saint Louis University
chuteme | Flickr | Creative Commons

Would you pay a few thousand bucks to sit on the bench during a Saint Louis University basketball game as an honorary coach? Or be willing to round all your university purchases up to the next dollar and turn the difference into a donation instead of pocket change?

Those are just a couple of the hundreds of ideas submitted to a program called GrowingSLU, an effort to bolster the university through programs, academic or not, that contribute to both its mission and its bottom line.

David Hakanson, SLU’s chief innovation officer, is heading the effort. He doesn’t know of any other campus that is trying to raise money with ideas like these that are also tied to a university’s long-range plan.

“An initiative for the strategic plan was to be an innovator and an entrepreneur in all that we do,” Hakanson said.

“As the university has been looking at the plan and how do we create programs to support those efforts, we looked at creating a program around the culture of innovation, the culture of entrepreneurship. That's where GrowingSLU really came out of.”

Using an anonymous $1 million gift, Hakanson and a team of faculty, staff and students began earlier this year soliciting ideas that would make money for the university. A series of information sessions were held to explain the concept, and a $1,000 cash prize was offered for ideas that made the first cut.

Hakanson and his colleagues encouraged team efforts in the competition, and they cast a wide net. “All ideas will be reviewed,” the solicitation said, “and no idea is too small for consideration.”

“We did not want to put restrictions on it,” Hakanson explained. “We wanted everyone to be able to think creatively.”

The result: more than 300 ideas were submitted over a six-week period ending March 25. Then, the GrowingSLU advisory committee began vetting the submissions and selected 20 non-academic ideas to move on to the next round, which includes feasibility studies and mini-business plans. Rough drafts of the plans are due July 29, with a final deadline of Aug. 19.

Then, the advisory committee will make its final decisions on which ideas will be funded from the original grant.

“The point of the program is to provide some level of seed funding to get the idea going,” Hakanson said. “There are some ideas we found that don’t have any costs at all, so we can start those without having to inject some seed funding.

“Our goal is to fund as many of the ideas as we can, whether it’s three ideas or five ideas or 15 ideas, because we know that everyone has taken a lot of time to submit their ideas. They’re very interesting and very broad, so we want to support as many as possible.”

Trash to treasure, coding to drones

The ideas that survived early scrutiny range widely. Here are a few:

-- Honorary coach. Offer donors the opportunity to be the “honorary coach” of a men's basketball game, either by auction or a set donation level ($5,000, $10,000). The 'honorary coach' could sit with the athletes and receive tickets immediately behind the bench for his friends and family (so they can see him/her 'in action'). Other items could also be included (autographed ball, jersey, team photo, feature in game program, etc.). This could also be expanded to other sports, such as soccer and women's basketball, for a lower donation amount."

“We wanted to see if there is a way that we can have people feel like they’re a part of the team,” Hakanson said. “Being an honorary coach would certainly be something that would have a broad appeal to our athletic fans.”

-- Coding camp. The university should begin intensive coding camps for elementary through high school students both regionally and nationally where there is an emphasis on computational thinking. These camps could be year round or intensive summer retreats or both. The students should be encouraged to return each year for progressively more advanced training. These academies would be highly effective recruiting tools for the university as well as a source of revenue. … An endowment should be created to fund underprivileged children thereby engaging and providing a service to the community.

We have computer science programs and computer information system programs,” Hakanson said, “so we have a lot of programs that are very much related to the code camps. Nationwide, we're seeing a lot of interest in hackathons, whether that be something that's on the technology side or maybe a social hackathon that's looking at social issues.

'We looked at creating a program around the culture of innovation, the culture of entrepreneurship. That's where GrowingSLU really came out of.' -- David Hakanson

“We believe at the university, we can be looking at all these areas and say how can we create programs that support this innovative thinking, this entrepreneurship by our students.”

Round Up SLU. Any visitor, student, faculty or staff member who makes a purchase at a SLU bookstore, coffee shop, food vendor or Chaifetz, can make an instant, easy-on-the-wallet donation to SLU.

“We think this is a spectacular idea,” Hakanson said.

“Just like we experience every day being at the grocery store and other facilities where we go in and the person asks us do we want to round up to the next dollar or add a dollar for some charity, how can we offer that opportunity to people at the university, to visitors to the university, so they can round up or potentially add a dollar to support student scholarships?”

Drone Wars. Leverage Parks College expertise to create a competition using drones. Drones would battle for a flag in a defined battleground with obstacles and a height limit, it could be indoor as well. Teams from other schools would be invited to compete and television rights could be sold to a cable TV channel. The competition would raise SLU's national awareness and Parks College's reputation. Plus, TV money!

“We've seen a lot of interest nationwide over the past few years related to robotics and having robotic competitions,” Hakanson said. “So this idea of drone wars takes it to the sky. Is there some way we could do some competition or some sort of program around that that not only is interesting to the community but also provides an educational component for our students?”

Trash to treasure. Each year, the Center for Service and Community Engagement plans the Trash To Treasure Program, which allows students moving out of the residence halls at the end of the year to donate materials they no longer need (furniture, appliances, clothes, etc.). The St. Vincent de Paul Society picks up the donations, giving $750 for each large truck filled. For this idea, we propose (working with Facilities, Housing and Residence Life, and other departments) to install permanent donation locations (provided by St. Vincent de Paul) around campus. Students, faculty, and staff can bring items to these locations (which are equipped with sensors to let SVDP know when they are full), and then SVDP can pick up materials. SVDP then pays SLU per pound of materials collected. This not only generates revenue, but furthers environmental sustainability as well as helps SVDP accomplish their mission of helping the poor.

“With this idea,” Hakanson said, “what we're looking to do is instead of having that be an activity once a semester, at the end of a semester, how do we continue through the entire year, so that people can bring those things that maybe they don't need anymore, and then that can go toward serving our mission, as with the original trash to treasure program?”

David Hakanson, chief innovation officer, Saint Louis University
Credit Saint Louis University
David Hakanson

Other ideas include on-campus daycare for the SLU community, a lunch delivery service for those whose schedules are packed with back-to-back meetings, installing solar panels on university buildings and branding a Billiken Beer.

Hakanson says the school doesn’t have any projected goal for how much money can be raised. He just wants to make sure the ideas are not only lucrative but also advance SLU’s overall objectives.

“Ultimately,” he said, “GrowingSLU is a program around culture. How do we encourage innovative thinking? How do we encourage entrepreneurship? How do we help the university community to make sure we're ambitious?

“So we're excited to see what ideas we decide to pursue and what comes out of them. I would say the program has already been a success in the fact that we've had over 300 ideas, and there's been a lot of excitement around the ideas that have been generated and the possibility of where this will go.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.