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Through co-op, students see startups firsthand

Co-op jobs with start-ups present great opportunities for students to learn about entrepreneurship. But new ventures are often cash-strapped and lack the resources to hire student employees.

A new initiative, however, has begun pairing Northeastern students with startups, many of which are run by the university’s alumni. The initiative began last year as a pilot program between Northeastern and MassChallenge, an annual global startup competition and accelerator program for entrepreneurs, and has continued this month with a new round of co-op students.

Working for start-ups, which generally employ a small number of people, gives students a unique opportunity to wear many hats and work independently, say those involved in the program.

Shay McDonough, for example, a senior information science major at Northeastern, is completing her final co-op at EverTrue, a venture that went through the MassChallenge accelerator. The small startup builds mobile applications connecting college alumni with features like an open directory, maps and LinkedIn integration.

“In other jobs, there may be a lot of established processes and you often assimilate to how things have always been done,” said McDonough, who focuses on client services for EverTrue. “Here you’re breaking new ground, so often doing things that no one at the company has ever done before.”

McDonough works with Tony DiPasquale, a 2011 College of Engineering graduate who develops applications for the year-old venture.

“This is the kind of co-op I’d have loved to have had at Northeastern,” DiPasquale said. “This job comes with very real responsibility. You play an important part on a small staff, doing work that’s incredibly important for the growth of the company.”

“You get great exposure — you’re the CEO of whatever you’re doing,” added Scott Bailey, MassChallenge’s director of partnerships. “You have real responsibilities and duties, but it might just be you and two or three other people who are doing everything for this new business.”

Beyond providing paid co-op positions with alumni ventures, Northeastern — this year a new sponsor of MassChallenge — and its student-run venture accelerator, IDEA, work closely with the nonprofit organization. This year, three IDEA ventures — Akrivis Technologies, Dynamo Micropower and Ionu Biosystems — are taking part in its competitive summer-long startup development program, which provides workspace, mentoring and support to new companies from Massachusetts and around the world.

“We see a strong correlation between what they’re doing at MassChallenge and what we do,” said Chris Wolfel, a senior in the College of Business Administration and the CEO of IDEA. “We have very similar models — rooted in collaboration and mentorship — and we know that by working closely, we can give our ventures as many options as possible.”

The partnership, part of Northeastern’s new Center for Entrepreneurship Education, gives students the opportunity to learn about start-ups at the ground level, developing skills they can later use in building their own companies.

“Working with MassChallenge companies gives our students a fantastic opportunity to experience early on the thrills and the challenges of building a company and taking a new product to market,” said Esther Chewning, Northeastern’s assistant cooperative education faculty coordinator for entrepreneurship and management information systems. “This co-op, coupled with a traditional co-op in an established company, lays a great foundation for building their own start-up companies.”

Hugh Courtney, dean of the College of Business Administration, explained the importance of the entrepreneurship co-op program, noting its efforts to expand Northeastern’s culture of entrepreneurship beyond the classroom.

“One of the most important ways to prepare our students for life beyond the walls of the university is by putting them to work with businesses and entrepreneurs who are doing new exciting things,” Courtney said. “Startups provide one of the best opportunities for a student to learn and grow.”