Northeastern University’s student-run business accelerator, IDEA, connects students with the resources they need to get their businesses up and running. It makes sense that Dan Gregory, who was the founding faculty advisor of IDEA, also made a career out of connecting people to each other.
Gregory, who retired from Northeastern in early June, helped to shape a thriving ecosystem where students share their talents with one another to build businesses from scratch. But when he started, Gregory had no idea how popular IDEA would become.
“The thing just exploded,” he says. “Within a year, there were hundreds of ventures in the incubator, and I was running around town trying to get support for these early-stage businesses.”
The IDEA program started in 2009, shortly after six graduating seniors from the D’Amore-McKim School of Business pitched the idea (pardon the pun) to officials at the university. Soon Gregory was tapped to work with the team of students.
The choice makes sense. Before Gregory began working as a faculty member at the university in 2006, he’d launched a set of magazines for the publishing company Scholastic, created two other publishing companies, and started his own consulting firm.
“My entire career has been about starting products and companies,” Gregory says. “I have a very entrepreneurial background.”
The students founded IDEA with the goal of helping students who wanted to start companies start those companies. The program soon outgrew its capacity, though, as more and more students took their nascent businesses to IDEA. Gregory knew he had to stay one step ahead of “this very organic, natural growth,” he says, and reached out to faculty across the university to help.
One of his first stops was the Northeastern University School of Law, where he met with Susan Montgomery, an executive professor of law and business, to establish bylaws and regulations for IDEA. Since the program was raising a substantial amount of money for student businesses, it needed strict legal accountability and bookkeeping.
Gregory quickly saw that the student-entrepreneurs needed legal guidance for their businesses as well, and enlisted several professional law firms across Boston to help. When the demand outstripped what these law firms could offer, Gregory had another idea: “I thought, why don’t we start a clinic in the law school with law students helping ventures?” he says.
Thus was born Northeastern’s IP CO-LAB, a clinic run by law students and overseen by faculty from the law and business schools that provides entrepreneurs with critical legal information related to intellectual property laws.
Around the same time, Laura Marelic, a student in Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design, was creating a student-run design studio, called Scout, to help startup companies meet their branding and graphic design needs.
Gregory saw that it would be a perfect partner for IDEA, a program full of brand-new companies that needed help branding and designing products.
Soon other student-run programs began cropping up across Northeastern’s campus. There was COMPASS, a financial accounting resource center; Generate, which comprises a group of engineering students that help turn schematics into real products; and the Entrepreneurs Club, an organization that connects student-entrepreneurs with real-world business opportunities.
In all, 11 different student-run organizations were created to help students flesh out every aspect of their businesses. Gregory helped pull these separate programs created across Northeastern’s campus into a cohesive network of services run by students, for students. The network became known as Mosaic.
“It just got huge,” Gregory says. “Students don’t get paid anything, and except for some of the law students, don’t get any grades for all this work. They’re doing it because of the experience they get.”
IDEA provides coaching, mentoring, and funding. Since 2009, thousands of students have worked with the program, which has helped to raise millions of dollars to support upstart companies.
But it’s the tenacity of the students that makes Gregory most proud, he says.
“It’s a minor form of addiction, really,” he says with a laugh. “I get such an incredible charge out of watching the students and young alumni grab onto something and build it.”
Gregory has stepped down as the faculty advisor for IDEA to make room for “some new blood” in the program, he says. He’ll stay involved in the process, though, as a board member of Mosaic and as co-chairman of the McCarthy(s) Venture Mentoring Network at Northeastern, which provides mentors to students, faculty, and alumni who need help addressing business challenges. He has big plans for the next decade, too: building a global leadership institute that will teach students and young alumni how to be better leaders earlier in their careers.
“This is just a really large, caring community, and that’s what keeps me in it,” he says.