Alex Triantis
© RH Smith School of Business

San Francisco, Boston, London, Berlin and New York all now stake a claim as global start-up cities. But would you add Washington DC to this list?

Someone who believes very firmly that the US capital should declare itself as an entrepreneurship hotspot is Alex Triantis, dean of the Robert H Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.

He notes that his school’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship has been teaching business formation and innovation for over a quarter of a century and is recognised as a leading light in nurturing several new companies in the biotech and cyber security markets.

“DC is a pretty good-start up hub,” Professor Triantis insists, adding that the school’s strength is the ability to combine business teaching with scientific talent.

“What is great about being at a top research university is we are also great at science and engineering.”

The problem — in these days when every business school wants to be a centre for entrepreneurship — is getting yourself heard among all the other institutions flashing their start-up credentials.

Professor Triantis admits as much. “There is not a business school dean that does not talk about entrepreneurship,” he says. “The question is how you distinguish yourself.”

As far as the FT rankings are concerned, the Smith school is a contender in terms of qualifications and prospects for its students.

It was ranked 49th in this year’s MBA ranking, slightly above its three-year average of 50.

Its placing has been helped by the quality of the institution’s research, ranked in second place, and its percentage of faculty with doctorates, at 97 per cent the highest in the MBA survey.

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Taking the school’s individual strengths and knitting them together is one way to set the school apart, and help those students with entrepreneurial ambitions to achieve their goals, according to Prof Triantis.

“We will have one MBA student working with a PhD professor in science or engineering to develop a technology and find out how we can commercialise it,” he describes.

This kind of integration enabled one MBA student to develop a 3D image identification system recently, which could be adapted to manufacturing and defence companies, Prof Triantis adds.

“In the MBA class, many students want to be in the entrepreneurial sphere and see the business school as a good opportunity to get experience of starting a business.”

As well as teaching relevant material, such as entrepreneurship, Prof Triantis wants his school to develop a teaching and revenue model that will sustain it into the future.

“The MBA programme continues to be a very strong one for us but we are rethinking what we are teaching and how we are delivering that,” he explains. “It is all about convenience. Students want more convenience.”

Although the MBA will still be delivered physically on campus, The Smith school is on the second year of running an online MBA, in which an intake of 35 students are able to study in a more flexible way using the techniques of the flipped classroom, where they learn from the online material before meeting for seminars in person.

The school is also developing dual degrees where students can take a masters in public policy or real estate development alongside their MBA.

Professor Triantis describes this as expanding the breadth of what is offered by making more of the variety of teaching that goes on at the business school.

Such developments are not about saving money on the delivery of teaching, he insists. “All of this requires a higher touch, it is not a cookie cutter delivery.” This is a problem given that potential students are becoming more price-sensitive.

The solution, according to Prof Triantis, is to provide more scholarships, which in turn means that schools will have to be as focused as ever on fundraising and developing new executive education programmes that companies will back.

Of course, being in Washington offers another advantage to the Robert H Smith school. It is all very well trumpeting entrepreneurship, but in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the demand for teaching that keeps abreast of regulatory changes is a good selling point for business schools.

Whether or not Washington is viewed as an entrepreneurial town, there is no doubting its place as the centre for federal lawmakers in the US, and that gives the Smith school a distinct point of difference.

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