The multimillion dollar idea Carol Hilkirk Latham ’61 developed about polymers in the late 1980s combined plastics and ceramics in a unique process, drawing from the fields of chemistry and engineering. But she knew the idea was just a start. Going on to create the company Thermagon, based on her innovation that found a way to keep electronics like laptops from overheating, was the real challenge.
“Getting an idea into the marketplace, that’s where my passion lies. You have to look across borders; it has to be multidisciplinary,” Latham says.
After quitting her job at British Petroleum, with her children off to college, Latham leased out her house, moved into an apartment and lived on the difference, betting on herself and her idea. An initial order from IBM set her and the company on their way, and with a later order from Intel, she knew she’d found success.
Now, Latham is looking to encourage that same sort of practical innovation with the creation of the Entrepreneurial Scholars Program. Her seven-figure gift to the University is being used in concert with a wide range of faculty members across disciplines and will be housed in the Woltemade Center for Economics, Business and Entrepreneurship. The program will have three components, with the signature piece being the Latham Entrepreneurship Fellows.
“Ideas are just out there,” Latham says. “To carry that forward and to figure out how to actually get it to market and have it work, be viable in the marketplace, that’s what I’m trying to get across to students at Ohio Wesleyan. That’s the hard part. Ideas are a dime a dozen.”
The Latham Entrepreneurship Fellows program, modeled after OWU’s successful Economics Management Fellows program, will give internship stipends to 10 to 15 sophomore, junior, or senior students from a wide variety of disciplines, allowing them to investigate real-world applications of ideas.
Encouraging entrepreneurship is already an area of pride for OWU: Forbes magazine ranked the University No. 17 among “America’s Most Entrepreneurial Colleges 2015,” a list of schools graduating high numbers of business founders and owners, and No. 1 in the state of Ohio. (For more examples of alumni entrepreneurs, see Data Driven story.)
Entrepreneurs such as Latham gained a greater understanding of the world and learned how to draw on multiple disciplines while at OWU. They come from all majors and all geographic areas and are linked by a common drive to succeed and an appetite for measured risk, creativity, and a desire to solve problems. As Latham puts it: “I like to solve real problems, for real life.”
One critical component of this is encouraging collaboration. During her career in the corporate world, Latham often saw that one department didn’t know what the other was doing. “To get rid of these silos and to get people to interact is very difficult. Whereas at Ohio Wesleyan, it’s so much easier. To bring all the ideas together and to give all the departments the chance to think entrepreneurially is exciting,” she says.
Daniel Charna, assistant professor of economics, joined the faculty in 2013 after more than 30 years of business experience, including as a founding partner of a consumer products company, and so he understands well the value of real-world experience. “This is the essence of OWU,” Charna says, “creating experiential learning opportunities for students so they can follow their dreams.”
Latham’s gift could also help create a lecture or panel series on entrepreneurship, bringing successful entrepreneurs to campus to share their stories with students. Field trips to “makers’ places” such as the Columbus Idea Foundry, a community workshop, will be encouraged.
Since selling Thermagon in 2004, Latham has continued to work with start-ups. “I usually have somebody I’m working with to get an idea out into the marketplace,” she says.
Latham’s gift to OWU will ensure that students benefit from that same guidance and encouragement, with real-world experience. “The idea is that this program will help attract students and ultimately create a better University, something that differentiates us,” she says.
– Molly Vogel