Can Draper University of Heroes really teach innovation?

Tim Draper won big by investing in Skype, Tesla and Baidu. But why does his new entrepreneurship school teach hydroponics and painting?
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor

First, the name seems a bit silly: Draper University of Heroes.

Then, there’s the Hogwarts-like division of students into teams with names like Wonders, Angels and Magic. 

Finally, there’s the curriculum, which includes head-scratching items such as hydroponics, painting, and first aid and suturing. 

These may be some of the reasons why some press has been ever-so-slightly mocking of this new Silicon Valley entrepreneurship boarding school founded by Tim Draper of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson

But given how right Draper’s bets have been in the past --  Hotmail, Skype, Tesla and Baidu -- and the wave of new education programs trying to produce entrepreneurs -- such as Cornell Tech and Peter Thiel’s Fellowships, which gives those 19 and younger $100,000 to skip college and work on their self-education -- could Draper University (Draper U) have the last laugh? 

“We are graduating more heroes,” says Andrea Draper, the university’s program and admissions director and Tim's daughter-in-law. “They’re change agents, and they’re going to go out and do something big in the world.”

The program, which launched in summer 2012 and runs four sessions a year, admits 18- to 26-year-olds, 45 percent of whom are international, hailing from places as far-flung as Iraq, Estonia and Kyrgyzstan. Instead of having a faculty, the school invites guest lecturers such as Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, to talk about their experiences under themes like “Vision and Future,” “Speed and Strength,” and “Survival.” The program also features a wide range of topics from the above-mentioned hydroponics to filing an LLC and mergers and acquisitions, plus activities like go-karting and yoga. At the end, students pitch a panel of 15-20 venture capital judges. So far, about 20 percent have received funding. 

When asked about the purpose of curriculum items such as hydroponics, Andrea Draper says, “We like to do things that are non-traditional -- so things like hydroponics, it’s the future. We do not teach history at our school, we teach the future, so we teach anything in that realm to give students a snapshot of all the up-and-coming things that we think they should know about. A lot of it is a quick snapshot, so they’re not going to become experts, but a month, five months or five years from now, they’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute -- I’ve heard of that.’” Chief Operating Officer Carol Lo adds that some companies like Netflix “leapfrog” existing technologies, so Draper U tries to expose students to the future direction of industries.

Andrea Draper says every activity relates back to business, including, say, martial arts, which is part of “Survival”: “You’re here, and your startup is being bootstrapped right now, and you have a certain amount of money, what kind of resources do you really need? How do you work as a team through a challenge?” 

Allen Houng, 26, who attended the 2013 summer session, worked on two failed startups before attending Draper U. His latest venture is Looped, a wearable device that allows conference or convention attendees to exchange contact information or pick up e-collateral with a handshake. It has so far raised $50,000 from Tim Draper himself. 

When asked what he learned about startups during the program that he didn’t know before, Houng repeats the question, says "huh," and pauses. "I guess I learned a lot about Silicon Valley -- what the dynamics are here, how entrepreneurs meet each other and how they pitch to VCs.” He also says the program taught him not to waste time or effort on, say, building a product before knowing whether there’s demand for it. That’s why he and his cofounders are generating interest before they build the Looped wristband.

Cal Newport, a Georgetown University professor of computer science and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues that the program is missing hard skills -- and that a few-hour lecture on mergers and acquisitions isn’t enough. 

“The history of innovation tells us that with only a small number of exceptions, important innovations always come from people with cutting-edge knowledge of the field they’re innovating, whereas this curriculum takes attention away from the hard work of building up cutting-edge knowledge in a particular field and turns it towards much more replicable, easy, short-term soft skills,” he says, criticizing the notion that “we’re all capable of changing the world, we just have to change our attitude and be bold.” 

“Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page of Google] were experts in information retrieval,” he says. “It’s not just ‘I’m feeling bold and courageous.’ That stuff takes hard work. You’re going to have to build the skills if you’re going to have an impact.”

But when asked about the few exceptions that become innovators without having cutting-edge hard skills, Newport mentions people like Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, who jump right into startups and see what works, what doesn’t, what needs a new business could fulfill. In other words, Newport admits, the exceptions -- the people who manage to become innovators even if they aren't experts in their fields -- are the ones who run with ideas and see what works -- like Houng, the Draper U alum. 

Sounds like Tim Draper, by inspiring people to launch startups, and investing them, could have more winning bets on his hands.

(Photo: Courtesy of Draper University of Heroes)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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