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Knight Center Wins ASU Innovation Award

April 15, 2010

The Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Cronkite School has been awarded the 2010 President’s Award for Innovation from Arizona State University.

ASU gives the award each year to recognize innovative and multidisciplinary programs and projects.

Knight Center students have launched more than 20 digital media projects and companies since the center was established in 2008. They include everything from a service that turns digital signs into a kind of news bulletin board to an online news and information site for Phoenix light rail riders. The latter was a winner of a $95,000 Knight Foundation News Challenge grant in 2009.

Examples of many of the projects can be found at http://knightcenter.asu.edu.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Knight Center brings together students from various disciplines throughout ASU to develop their own digital media products and services.

The students work under the direction of Knight Center Director Dan Gillmor, a leading expert in digital media, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence CJ Cornell, a venture adviser with experience in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. Gillmor and Cornell, both of whom have been media entrepreneurs, are professors of media entrepreneurship in the Cronkite School.

“The center teaches students how to innovate and think and act like entrepreneurs – something that’s more important than ever in a rapidly changing digital media world,” said Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan. “Under Dan’s and CJ’s leadership, students are developing projects that we think will help shape the media of the future.”

The students have launched new Web sites, started their own companies, successfully pitched ideas to venture capitalists and generally learned to think like entrepreneurs, Gillmor said.

“CJ and I both have been media entrepreneurs, and we want to help students appreciate the start-up culture – the fun, the hard work, the ambiguity and the satisfaction of working in a fast-moving environment,” he said. “And we want them to play a big role in the next wave of community information.”

Gillmor came to ASU in January 2008, and the center became fully operational later that year with the opening of the new Cronkite building on the ASU downtown campus. He and Cornell teach a class in entrepreneurial thinking and work with students on individual and team projects. The students come from various majors across the campus, including engineering and business.

Cronkite senior Jeremy Rudy of Bozeman, Montana, who took the class last fall, already has launched two digital start-ups. At the Knight Center, he came up with a new service that allows individuals to pursue their education and connect with experts and instructors online.

“I learned so much,” Rudy said. “It was great because the environment was very entrepreneurial.
“Now I want to work for start-ups and gain more experience, then go out on my own.”

Gillmor, who often tells students they need to invent their own jobs, said he wants students to understand the Silicon Valley culture of fast-paced innovation where the fear – and cost –
of failure is low.

That’s a message that Cronkite graduate student Jenny Matthews of Salt Lake City said she has absorbed. Helping to develop a website for single fathers, she said, has taught her that technology isn’t as scary as she thought.

“I learned that if you have an idea or something you want to do, there are a lot of ways to do it that are free or almost free,” she said. “I feel more confident that I have the skills to take an idea and make it real.”

Cronkite graduate student Lisa Ruhl of Agawam, Mass., is part of a team that is developing a cell phone service for immigrant women in need of services such as crisis abuse intervention or health care. The project is one of three developed by students in the Knight Center that have been named finalists for the ASU Innovation Challenge, a program that provides seed money for students to develop their ideas into viable products.

At the Knight Center, Ruhl said she is learning to appreciate the business side of journalism and how to work with online developers.

“I’m learning a different skill set that not all journalism schools teach,” she said.

In giving the award, ASU President Michael M. Crow emphasized the creative and entrepreneurial skills the center teaches. Students, he said, are learning to “help lead the changing media industry.”
Crow presented the President’s Awards at a reception on the ASU Tempe campus last week. In addition to the innovation award, recognition went to programs that advanced sustainability and social embeddedness.

The Knight Center is the result of a Knight News Challenge grant awarded to the Cronkite School in 2007. The three-year, $552,000 gift was one of the largest granted in the first year of the News Challenge. It is matched dollar for dollar with a grant from the Kaufman Foundation, part of a $5 million gift to ASU for entrepreneurship programs.