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Michael Fountain Looks Back At How USF's Approach To Entrepreneurship Evolved

Man poses by pond
Michael Fountain, the founding director of the USF Center for Entrepreneurship, will retire in May 2020. COURTESY TOM IACOBUCCI

When Michael Fountain retires next May, the founding director of the University of South Florida Center for Entrepreneurship will be leaving behind both a school and field, that have changed greatly in the almost 25 years he’s been there.

He says the idea of changing how USF addressed the concept of students and faculty creating their own businesses came shortly after he arrived in 1997, thanks to then USF President Betty Castor and three deans: Michael Kovac at the College of Engineering, Robert Anderson at the Muma College of Business, and Martin Silbiger at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

“That collective leadership group saw it as an opportunity to take USF from being an excellent educational program into one that embraced innovation and research and connection to the business community,” said Fountain. “And they saw entrepreneurship broadly interpreted as a way to do that.”

And while USF was strengthening its entrepreneurship program, it was also taking on a rapidly evolving field.

“It’s gone from starting and growing your own business, which is really important, but to embracing corporate innovation and also being involved in creating and developing a sustainable type of world that people can express their own views in now, and really can chart their own courses,” he said.

READ MORE: See University Beat's series of interviews with entrepreneurs with ties to USF

Fountain experienced the changes of entrepreneurship firsthand, because USF was actually his second career. Before that, he worked in the then nascent fields of life sciences and biotechnology.

“Those of us who stepped out back in the late (1970's) and early 80's were really viewed as being rogues,” he said. “You know, ‘What in the world are you doing? You're not going to work for a large company, you're going to work for smaller companies, and really trying to create something of value.’

“Now, I think you've seen that mindset change and it's changed for a couple of reasons – the students that we have now really value what they can do for themselves and what they can do for the world around them. And entrepreneurship is a way to do that,” said Fountain.

In addition, the way people look at their careers has changed. Unlike when Fountain first started working, people aren’t taking work with the goal of staying 30 to 40 years with the same company – they’re changing jobs, on average, every three to seven years.

“So thinking about entrepreneurship gives you the ability to rehone, retool your skills, and seek out those opportunities and create value for yourself and for others,” he said.

Fountain has led the USF Center for Entrepreneurship since its inception 17 years ago. In his last year, the center's graduate program picked up its highest ranking ever by the Princeton Review: No.3 among public universities and No. 8, among all universities.

He credits that success to the foresight of former President Castor and those three deans who worked together almost a quarter century ago – a model that continues to be used today.

“One of the unique things about our educational programs and entrepreneurship and our graduate program and Center is the fact that it is a true partnership between USF Health and the College of Engineering, the Patel College of Global Sustainability, and the (Muma) College of Business,” he said. “That cooperation in that partnership is something that has helped elevate not only our program but the entire university stature within these rankings and around the world.”

Looking forward, Fountain thinks USF will continue that success when it comes to entrepreneurship.

“I think you're beginning to see it all across campus, and that's the idea of helping individuals to see entrepreneurship as a mindset, a way of thinking, a way of living, and seeing opportunities where others don't, and capitalizing on those,” he said.

CONSOLIDATION ROUNDUP: Read more about the consolidation of the accreditation of USF's three campuses

And he believes that mindset will only spread with the consolidation of accreditation for the three USF campuses under one umbrella.

“To bring the university into becoming more than just a Tampa driver, each of the campuses, each of the different programs that are located on those campuses coming together, it's going to strengthen this program, and help not only drive the ecosystem here in Tampa, which is vibrant, but the one that is in St. Petersburg, and help create one that will be incredibly strong in Sarasota as well,” said Fountain.

Fountain said he’ll miss the opportunity of working with students from all over the world that USF provided him, and has advice for anyone considering entrepreneurship as a career path.

“Keep this as a very viable opportunity for you, don't view it as a secondary situation that you might consider, think about it first,” he said. “And while you're in a university environment like this is the best time in the world to really think about starting and actually starting a business. You don't have the encumbrances that you do in later life, with family responsibilities and mortgages and other types of things. And it's an opportunity in a very friendly environment to test those ideas.”

Group of healthcare innovation competitors
Michael Fountain, far left, poses with competitors at the State of Florida Healthcare Innovation Competition in April 2014 in Tampa. COURTESY CANDACE KAW

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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