The Sustainable Enterprise Hatchery: Creating Solutions for Credit

In early 2008, students at College of the Atlantic completed a winter-term venture-planning class. They researched and developed plans for sustainable enterprises—enterprises that create social, economic, and environmental prosperity—ranging from a community-supported farm offering organic agriculture education to a scalable company focused on energy efficiency. At the end of the term, students concluded that they wanted College of the Atlantic to offer a course where they could move from planning to launching ventures. After six months and numerous conversations involving students, administrators, and faculty across disciplines, College of the Atlantic’s sustainable enterprise incubator, the Hatchery, welcomed its inaugural class.

Seven years and dozens of enterprises later, the Hatchery has resulted in some remarkable accomplishments. Enterprises originating from every academic area have traveled through the program. Students have received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and private foundations; they have been recognized at conferences and in national publications. In 2015, the Hatchery was endowed and renamed the Diana Davis Spencer Hatchery. Word of the program is spreading, and individuals at other colleges, universities, and organizations around the globe have inquired about the curriculum.

Curricular Support for Student-Driven Solutions

Hatchery students devote all of their academic credit for the spring term—the equivalent of three classes—to designing and launching their enterprises. The decision to structure the Hatchery as a class as opposed to an extra- or co-curricular activity has been fundamental to its success. Because Hatchery students receive academic credit for their efforts, they are able to focus completely on their enterprises. More importantly, when their enterprises are a core part of their educational experiences, students are able to align their studies, actions, and interests. Furthermore, the Hatchery frequently functions as a capstone course. As such, it not only prompts students to synthesize their previous coursework, but also acts as a bridge to life after graduation.

Hatchery students pursue enterprises across the disciplines. Entrepreneurs from the arts, policy, sciences and engineering, international and community development, and food systems take the interdisciplinary course together. These students launch for-profit and nonprofit enterprises ranging from niche lifestyle organizations to scalable ventures. The class meets students where they are academically, some having taken multiple sustainable business courses, others having taken none. All Hatchery students receive start-up capital; office space and mentorship; and legal, accounting, and graphic design services.

The Hatchery wraps exploration around skill building over the ten-week term. Like many traditional courses, the Hatchery course includes weekly readings and deliverables, with a focus on business analysis and opportunity development. Topics include creativity, pitching, establishing unique customer benefits, graphic identity, public relations, operations, legal entities, and taxes. Students also have individual weekly meetings with faculty to review content and address specific issues.

While completing Hatchery coursework, students explore their enterprise ideas, performing the research and planning necessary to launch prototypes of their concepts by the term’s end. As necessary, students draw on knowledge from other courses and mentors, such as best practices for community partnerships or market entry. The prototype development process forces students to confront their greatest fears and the potential for failure. Projects undergo substantial revision over the course of the term and students learn to embrace mistakes as opportunities for reflection and improvement. Substantial revision is part of the process rather than an indicator of poor performance. After the spring term, students (including graduating seniors) can continue to use the Hatchery space and resources for an additional nine months.

In the Hatchery, success does not equate to launching a viable venture; enterprise creation is the means, not the end. Students deepen their understanding of their fields and learn the process of entrepreneurship while having access to a safety net. In their final presentations, students provide an analysis of their work, indicating whether they will continue, take a new direction, or abandon their enterprises. Regardless of the enterprise outcome, students gain a nuanced understanding of their subject areas and develop resilience as a result of their continuous reflection and revision.

Elevated Learning through Academics and Action

Hatchery students are developing enterprises to solve problems and bring about positive social and environmental change. They want an education that both teaches them how to think and helps them achieve their goals. While rigorous coursework across disciplines is necessary for students to delve into the complexities of various issues, it is not sufficient. Students both want and need opportunities to bring their theories of change beyond the classroom, to engage with the world as part of their educations. The Hatchery provides a framework for students not only to launch remarkable enterprises, but also to ignite their passions, learn new skills, and reinforce their intellectual journeys as they make direct connections between their ideals, their studies, and the world around them.

So why are programs like the Hatchery that award academic credit for entrepreneurship the exception rather than the rule? Anecdotal evidence gathered in conversation with leaders of social innovation centers and incubators suggests that faculties are often reluctant to approve academic credit for such endeavors. Faculty members may express concern that creating an enterprise might degrade the academic experience, as if there were a tradeoff between academics and action. Some have suggested an analogy: that students will focus on turning the screw rather than on understanding the physics behind the action. Our experience suggests otherwise. As in a science lab, Hatchery students learn to formulate and test hypotheses, analyze results, and revise their methodologies. They develop their ideas over weeks, seeking input across diverse disciplines to create rich and nuanced learning experiences. For Hatchery students, academics and action enrich each other.

Hatchery students are committed to their projects and their learning. They have to complete a rigorous application process to join the class, and they devote an entire term of their college educations to their enterprises, becoming subject matter experts in every aspect of their ventures. Like professors conducting research while on sabbatical, they are able to delve deeply into their various areas of interest (see sidebar). One student who founded a biofuel company pored over academic studies, applied for research grants, and later took additional chemistry courses to improve his fuel fermentation process. After graduation, he was accepted to a biochemistry doctoral program at the University of California–Berkeley, where the selection committee saw his ability to bridge science and business as differentiating him from other candidates. Another student got a crash course in international development and government relations through the Hatchery, and used his experience to bolster the Diyalo Foundation’s work building schools, supporting local agriculture, and expanding access to renewable energy in rural Nepal. He plans to attend graduate school in China as part of the inaugural class of Schwarzman Scholars, a one-year master’s degree program for young leaders focusing on China’s role in global trends.

In these and many other cases, Hatchery students are reaching across disciplines, simultaneously pursuing academic exploration while developing the human relations skills needed to move ideas into action. Merging theory and practice, these entrepreneurs are aligning their studies and sustainability interests. The Hatchery is elevating their academic experiences while giving them the confidence to undertake endeavors to improve the world.

Sustainable Enterprises Launched through the Hatchery

Students in College of the Atlantic’s sustainable enterprise program, the Hatchery, have launched a variety of enterprises. Their accomplishments have included

  • developing Gourmet Butanol, a biofuel company that converts organic waste to fuel (www.gourmetbutanol.com);
  • establishing a framework to make Mount Desert Island, Maine, where the college is located, carbon negative;
  • preserving ancient foodways by founding Del Rincón, an agave farm using traditional production techniques in Mexico;
  • revamping Earth-in-Brackets, a climate advocacy organization that provided the youth statement at the 2011 Durban, South Africa, Climate Conference (www.earthinbrackets.org);
  • helping to expand the Diyalo Foundation and provide humanitarian relief for hundreds during the April 2015 Nepal earthquake (www.diyalofoundation.org); and
  • systematizing the operations of Share the Harvest, a program that provides organic produce to people on food assistance.

For more information about the Hatchery, visit www.coa.edu/hatchery.


Jay Friedlander is Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business at College of the Atlantic.

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