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UNF Center downtown is a hub for entrepreneurism

Ribbon cutting for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Tre Gregory believes in innovation. In fact, he lights up talking about the ingenuity of creative minds and how a simple idea can change the world. But Gregory, a new UNF business alum who graduated in April, is also a realist. He recognizes that even people with brilliant minds may need some direction and support to make their dream a reality.

Gregory got his degree in business management with minors in entrepreneurship and finance, and for the past three years, served as president of UNF’s student entrepreneur society, Entrepreneurs, Creators and Innovators. He views the new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which officially opened in February, as a game changer for Jacksonville and the local entrepreneurial scene.

Igniting Business Growth In Jacksonville
“The Center will be a great resource for Jacksonville startups,” Gregory said. “There has been a need for a hub here where people could congregate for entrepreneurship. Unless you are on an entrepreneur track in school, most people generally aren’t taught about all the pieces that are necessary to get a project off the ground,” he said. “The Center will not only help people think creatively, but will also provide resources to help them turn their ideas into something tangible.”

In 2016, a task force was formed to study local entrepreneurism and successful university-affiliated models in other cities. Mark Dawkins, dean of the Coggin College of Business, said the group looked at the top 50 entrepreneur centers around the country, identifying best practices and components that were appropriate for Jacksonville. Plans for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation developed from that effort.

“The ultimate objective is to grow business for Jacksonville and build a strong and sustainable entrepreneurial climate — for the success of the community and our students,” said Dawkins, adding that as the local entrepreneurial environment continued to grow, it became clear that the University needed to be involved.

A Generous Gift Fuels Project
Longtime UNF supporters Luther and Blanche Coggin, for whom the Coggin College of Business is named, gave the lead gift of $1 million to make the Center possible (see story below). The gift is particularly meaningful coming from the Coggins, considering their success in the area and history of entrepreneurship.

“The Coggins have had an enormous impact on the future business leaders in Northeast Florida and beyond with their long history of investing in higher education,” said UNF President David Szymanski.

As a successful entrepreneur, Coggin was attracted to the UNF project, not only to promote business development in Jacksonville, but also because of its location. “Blanche and I agreed it would be great to have UNF downtown,” said Coggin.

Launching the Center
The Center is a startup in and of itself. At the helm is the Center’s director, Karen Bowling, who has spent the last few months developing the foundation and workings of the Center with the guidance of the new advisory council. 

As a UNF alumna, the former CEO and co-founder of Solantic and a past CAO of the City of Jacksonville, Bowling loves working with college students and community partners.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in our community,” said Bowling, who has been busy building the Center from the ground up, working with the advisory council to develop its structure and processes, raising awareness and support, hosting events and working with stakeholders across the community who are eager, excited and ready to work together.

Strategically located downtown in the recently renovated Barnett National Bank Building on the corner of Adams and Laura streets, the Center is in an inspiring location, steeped in local history — something Bowling said adds to the mood and energy of the Center.

“This beautiful building was built in 1926 for Barnett Bank, which was started as the Bank of Jacksonville by William Barnett, one of Florida’s most celebrated entrepreneurs,” said Bowling.

“You are inspired just being here. The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is a perfect fit for this building with that history.”

The Incubator
At the core of the Center’s mission is the incubator. Budding entrepreneurs from the community and the University will pitch their ideas to a panel of experts through an application and interview process in hopes of being selected to receive space and support in the Center.

The Center includes open concept individual workspaces, conference rooms, private meeting rooms, collaborative spaces and even a large outdoor patio with multiple tables and seating areas.

Applications opened this summer with a submission deadline in July. Final selections will be made by the Center’s advisory council. The aspiring entrepreneurs will move into the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in late August, and office space will be provided. The entrepreneurs will work through their plans, collaborate with experts and other entrepreneurs as they assess market feasibility and develop their businesses.

The Florida Small Business Development Center and the Small Business Administration will have a presence in the Center to connect aspiring business owners with resources and advice.

Students Provide Expertise and Gain Experience
The Center will be a learning lab for UNF students as well, providing opportunities for students to assist entrepreneurs with everything from financial statement creation to engineering prototypes, as well as coding, software development and marketing.

UNF students will be hired as interns to work with entrepreneurs. The internships will be open to all students. Interns may provide assistance in their specific areas of expertise, such as accounting, computer science, engineering, health, education, marketing and more, but also can assist the entrepreneur with general help in a variety of capacities.

Dawkins said the internships not only provide support to the entrepreneurs but give students experience and connections to the local business community that will prove beneficial as they prepare for life after graduation.

“It is a living, learning lab for the entrepreneurs and for our students,” said Dawkins. “They will gain experience thinking strategically, working with entrepreneurs and business leaders to solve problems. It is an ideal opportunity to apply what you learn in the classroom to the real world.”

Partnering to Support Corporate Innovation
The Center will serve as a central location for corporate innovation and collaboration, and relationships and partnerships are already being developed among the Center and other local incubators and service providers such as the Life Sciences Incubator at Mayo Clinic, Beaver Street Enterprise, PS27 Ventures, SourceFuse, The Jim Moran Institute and the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Entrepreneurial Growth. The goal is to ensure that regardless of what door an aspiring entrepreneur enters in Jacksonville, they will be connected with the appropriate resource to launch or grow their business.

Numerous events have already been held in the space aimed at unifying entrepreneurial efforts throughout the First Coast. A recent event at the Center, Coalesce Jacksonville, brought together over 20 service providers and others committed to nurturing startups and small businesses in the community. Before a room full of budding entrepreneurs, representatives from each organization shared information on how they could benefit and support venture development in Jacksonville, while entrepreneurs spoke to what services and assistance they believe would be most beneficial.

Businesses Courses Downtown
In addition to serving as a community business incubator, the Center also includes classrooms for certain graduate level business courses. Courses in the Master of Science in Management were offered during the spring and again this summer, and MBA courses begin in August for the fall semester. The classrooms are equipped with high tech equipment that also allows for synchronized distance learning, in which instructors and students can interact in real time from different locations.

Paul Fadil, professor of management in the Coggin College of Business, taught one of the first graduate courses in the Center during the spring semester. “I think there is tremendous potential to reach new graduate students who may work or live downtown,” Fadil said. “And as efforts to enhance downtown continue, the Center could really be integrated into the fabric of that revitalization.”

There is no doubt that there is an air of enthusiasm about the Center, about the aspiring entrepreneurs and about Jacksonville’s future. “There are so many local groups promoting and supporting innovation,” said Dawkins. “The Center is a great central resource for Jacksonville and North Florida. We are excited about the opportunities it holds for our students and for the region.”

More about the Coggins:
Coggin Gift Launches Center
Automobile mogul Luther Coggin was mowing lawns when he was just six or seven years old. Paid a quarter at home for the task, he expanded his service to neighbors. “Fifty cents for the front, and 75 for front and back,” he recalled. A few years later, he had a successful paper route, and not too many years after that, he owned his own car dealership.

There is no doubt that Luther Coggin is the ultimate entrepreneur, and that his wife of almost 70 years, Blanche, has played a huge role in his success.

It is indeed fitting, and not at all surprising, that the lead gift to open UNF’s new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation came from the enterprising couple. They particularly liked the fact that the Center was located downtown in the heart of the city. The $1 million donation to get the Center off the ground was just one of many gifts the Coggins have given to the University of North Florida, including decades of donations to student scholarships, fellowships and professorships. In 2002, the Coggins donated $5 million to UNF’s business college, which through an equal state match and another anonymous donation generated a total of $12 million for the college. In recognition of the impact they have had on the college and University, UNF’s business college was officially named the Coggin College of Business. In 2004, Luther and Blanche also received the distinction as honorary alumni of UNF.

While the couple has donated significant resources to UNF, they have been generous with their time as well. Luther Coggin served on the UNF Board of Trustees from 2002-10, and both he and Blanche have helped lead successful fundraising efforts for the University, serving on the steering committee for the Access to Excellence capital campaign that topped $100 million, and as honorary co-chairs for UNF’s Power of Transformation campaign that raised $130 million.

“The main reason we are involved is to help people,” said Coggin, who said he loves reading the many letters he receives from scholarship recipients who are so grateful for the funds that have enabled them to go to college. “They thank us for making it possible for them to get a college degree and not be in debt [when they leave college],” he said. Funds have also gone to send students around the world to study a variety of economic systems and successful businesses. Proudly displayed in his conference room are photos of UNF students grinning ear to ear while studying abroad, wearing shirts that read “Coggin means business!”

“Blanche and I are thankful to the good Lord every night for all the blessings we have received,” Coggin said. “To be able to share them with other people in great need is comforting to both of us.”

Blanche Coggin said she especially enjoys meeting with scholarship recipients and watching them develop during their time at UNF. “When we meet with freshmen,” she said, “they always ask ‘How do I make a lot of money?’ By the time they are seniors, they ask ‘How do I run a successful business?’”

The question is one that certainly will be asked many times over in the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation as aspiring business owners hone their ideas and, just as the Coggins did, reach for their dreams.