“Not all innovation comes from the business school:” New incubator program at Providence College for liberal arts students

She said the Ryan Incubator has already begun supporting innovation minors and other entrepreneurship-related activities on campus.

Kelly Ramirez, the former co-founder and CEO of Social Enterprise Greenhouse, in June 2021.Matthew Healy for The Boston Globe

How does this incubator program differ from your past work at SEG or elsewhere?

The Ryan Incubator will be a wide-ranging entrepreneurship support initiative where students and alumni in local and global entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at creating economic and social value. So, of course, the big difference will be that the incubator will be more student-oriented.

Are you hoping to cooperate with SEG?

I’m a big believer in the ecosystem approach we’ve developed at SEG, and we hope to bring some of what we’ve learned and developed there to a campus environment. At this stage we envisage that some of the work will be student-led and some will be student-supported. Of course, I hope that the Ryan Incubator will work closely with SEG and many of the other leading business support organizations in Rhode Island.

But we’ve also started researching other successful university-based entrepreneurial initiatives and plan to learn from what works elsewhere. [Ramirez also helped built a social enterprise initiative at the University of Michigan Business School]

Has the computer ever had an incubator?

Not a formal incubator program, but students have been participating in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship courses for some time. I have been teaching social entrepreneurship at PC for almost 10 years now and have witnessed firsthand the growing entrepreneurial spirit and talent on campus. And computer science students are recognized for their entrepreneurial initiatives. For example, in 2021, a computer team won first place with their venture “UMeal” at the BIG EAST Startup Challenge [an annual competition where teams pitch product ideas to a panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and BIG EAST alumni].

What new products, services, or organizations do you hope the students will introduce?

We expect a wide range of ideas to come from students and are open to all kinds of innovation. That being said, we already know that there are some areas where there is interest in incorporating environmental and sustainability issues; science and health technology; social entrepreneurship and community engagement; family business; and nonprofit entrepreneurship, especially those that support the College’s Catholic and Dominican identity.

How is this incubator space intimately connected to the Ryan family, who donated $2 million to this program?

Ryan was a political science major who went on to become a successful health technology business owner [Ryan was chairman and CEO of CareCore National in South Carolina, which is a company he co-founded to provide benefit management services to health care providers.].

He championed the value of a liberal arts education and believed that his computer education — without a business degree — provided him with essential skills and mindsets such as critical thinking, effective communication, a love of learning, an expansive outlook, and intellectual curiosity that he needed , to be a successful entrepreneur. [Providence College’s] business innovation minor and the incubator are specifically designed to support those students who are pursuing liberal arts or other non-business degrees but who want the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship.

How does this program help non-business students?

Small Business and Innovation is specifically designed for non-businesses [students]. The logic is that students pursuing a business major would have adequate exposure to business fundamentals, making a minor unnecessary.

The hope is that the incubator’s programming and physical space will provide an opportunity for “collisions” between business faculty and students and other non-business faculty and students interested in entrepreneurship. The Ryan Incubator can also serve as a “clearing house” for all computer entrepreneurship related activities.

Can you give an example?

Imagine a chemistry major interested in developing a test strip that detects nitrogen and phosphate in stream runoff entering Narragansett Bay working with a biology major studying fertilizer-induced “dead zones” in commercially important mussel habitat . This student can use resources in the incubator to explore ways to commercialize the technology, obtain a patent, conduct market analysis, find grant funding, work with government regulators, etc. The Ryan Incubator and staff will facilitate connections between science students and faculty who have technical expertise and business students and faculty on the business side, while creating the necessary community connections.

What is the benefit of non-business students participating in this incubator program? What skills could they take with them into non-business careers?

In my opinion, the most successful entrepreneurial ventures have diverse teams that bring different perspectives, strengths, and skills to the venture. Innovative ideas are often developed in response to the needs of specific industries. Our vision is for this incubator to break down traditional silos and for student teams to come together from different schools in the caåmpus, partner with community leaders, alumni and others to come up with the most innovative and effective innovations to solve complex challenges.

Although successful business ventures need people with business skills, we know that not all innovation comes from business school.


The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research and changing the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosh at [email protected].


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.

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