This article was published in the Spring 2022
By Troy D’Ambrosio
In May 2022, the University of Utah and the David Eccles School of Business will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, a unique pioneer in the world of entrepreneurship education, experimentation, and implementation.
In the article below, Troy D’Ambrosio, the executive director and co-founder of the Institute and an Assistant Dean at the School of Business, shares some historical insights into the 20-year journey of the Institute, as well as his thoughts about what the next 20 years of entrepreneurial education may be like at the University of Utah.
We hope you find it interesting and informative.
Many years before the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute was even an idea, Pierre Lassonde and his wife, Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, arrived in Salt Lake City from Canada in 1971. She pursued a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, and he studied in the MBA program. They each graduated two years later, and the time they spent in Utah helped them both achieve success, with Pierre going on to found Franco-Nevada Mining Corporation and she to become a leading Canadian engineer and an entrepreneur that founded Enghouse Systems.
After his wife passed away in mid-2000, Pierre wanted to recognize her and their time at the University of Utah with a new initiative that would bring together business and engineering students. That effort led to an initial donation in 2001 and the creation of the Pierre and Claudette McKay-Lassonde New Venture Development Center. This Center still exists today and pairs graduate students with scientists and entrepreneurs who need help developing a business strategy.
Since Pierre’s initial donation, we at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business have tried to follow one of his primary approaches to business and life, which is,
“When you don’t know what you’re doing, start small and start short-term.”
With the success of the first program, Pierre wanted to help reach even more students. Initial discussions with him led to a $13 million donation to create the Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center in 2006, and its formation marked the first major expansion of what is now the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
Initially, the Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center provided business plan competitions on top of the graduate program the Eccles School was already offering. The Center also gained a new home after remodeling a historic house in the Fort Douglas neighborhood on the University of Utah campus.
Over time, the Center continued to slowly add more programs and reach more students. These included the Bench-to-Bedside program, a medical innovation competition, and the Get Seeded effort, a milestone grant program for students to test their business ideas.
After the first 10 years of the Center, we met with Pierre to discuss what we had accomplished, and he challenged us to do more and come up with an idea to bring the program to the next level. It took us many discussions and iterations, but we eventually came up with an idea that had never before been done anywhere, one that would make our program unique in the world. That idea was for a building where students could live, create, and launch companies 24/7.
A group including myself and the former Dean of the School of Business, Taylor Randall–who is now the president of the University of Utah–presented to Pierre the idea that would become Lassonde Studios.
Pierre recognized the potential of this idea to help the program have an even bigger impact and agreed to donate an additional $12 million to help fund the new facility and elevate the Center into an Institute. As such, in 2014 Pierre and the Lassonde Family Foundation made this new $12 million donation, and the Center was transformed into the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
From the beginning, the idea for Lassonde Studios was very unique, as no one else had tried to build to the same scale or with the same mission. It was truly a one-of-a-kind facility and residence for aspiring student entrepreneurs.
We broke ground on Lassonde Studios in 2014. The building would be the place for all students on campus to “live, create, launch” and the scale was huge. The building would be 160,000 square feet, including a 20,000-square-foot innovation space on the first floor and four levels of residential space above, with 100 beds per residential floor. In addition, it would sit in the center of campus and be covered in copper to serve as community to attract students from across the university.
In anticipation of the growth expected with the opening of Lassonde Studios in 2016, the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute continued to add several new programs and activities. These included the Make Program, the Hours with Experts mentor program, the Food Entrepreneur, the Arts Entrepreneur program, and a variety of workshops.
We also added the High School Utah Entrepreneur Challenge to help inspire high school students to pursue entrepreneurship.
Within a year opening the Lassonde Studios, the initiative proved to be a success, as a record number of students from across the university engaged in Lassonde programs, hundreds of student startup teams received support, and the building generated international attention from The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Bloomberg Businessweek, and other media outlets.
Today, thousands of students from every corner of campus engage with the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and Lassonde Studios along the way to support and create hundreds of student startup teams every year.
Even with everything we have accomplished so far, we still expect the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute to continue to grow and improve in the years ahead. Among other goals, we hope to grow from a Top 10 program to being internationally recognized as the best program for aspiring entrepreneurs around the world.
To that end, the Institute has already taken steps in this direction with the addition of several new programs and more improvements on the way.
For example, in partnership with the Department of Entrepreneurship & Strategy at the Eccles School, the Institute has launched several new academic programs that provide even more depth to the student experience. These include
- Lassonde+X, a three-course program for undergraduate students;
- Lassonde Founders, a residential scholarship program for undergraduates; and
- The Master of Business Creation (MBC), a program for founders to launch and scale their companies.
Additionally, the Institute also offers many extracurricular programs for students across campus and beyond, provides thousands of dollars in grants for startups, offers thousands of dollars in scholarships to student leaders, and manages Lassonde Studios, a world-class facility for student entrepreneurship and innovation.
Beyond these efforts, the Institute will continue to pivot and adapt to meet the needs of its students. The only certainty is that these needs will change, and the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute will change with them as it continues to fulfill its mission to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, creators, and leaders.
Lassonde Studios, the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, the David Eccles School of Business, and even the University of Utah would not be what they are today without the belief of Pierre Lassonde in what students can do with support and encouragement. With his vision, numerous startups have been launched and countless student futures have been positively shaped. These students and alumni are applying the lessons they have learned in our many programs through their diverse careers and pursuits.
With the invaluable support of Pierre and many other alumni, community members, and businesses, the Institute has become a world-renowned, interdisciplinary division of the Eccles School, as well as a leading example of the University of Utah’s excellence to the entire world.
We extend our thank you to all of our donors, supporters, and volunteers who have believed in our mission and make our work possible. We would not be here today without you.
About Troy D’Ambrosio
Troy is the executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and an assistant dean at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. He has launched and mentors hundreds of startup companies and helped grow Lassonde into a Top 10 program for entrepreneurship. Connect with him on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/troy-d-ambrosio.
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