Before they became some of America’s most successful businessmen, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were all just college kids – some of them dropouts – with big ideas.

Their success stories have become the new American dream for many brainy college students. But some University students taking classes in entrepreneurship at the University say Michigan’s struggling economy has them developing business plans for other reasons.

The College of Engineering is offering three new entrepreneurship classes this term, with each being taught by University alumni and faculty and local business owners looking to give students an insider’s perspective.

Jeffrey Schox, University alum and Ann Arbor-based attorney, recently finished teaching a one-credit course explaining how to get patents, copyrights and trademarks for business ideas.

Schox said he taught a similar class a few years ago, but his students this term had a stronger entrepreneurial spirit. He said the economic struggles in Michigan have driven people to develop their own business ideas.

“There has been a dramatic shift in the Michigan economy over the past few years,” Schox said. “Students don’t look at Ford, Toyota or GM as being secure jobs anymore, and are now looking at smaller companies where they can stand out.”

Schox said today’s students are more interested in learning how to obtain start-up funding and learning what it takes to build their own companies from the ground up.

His course, and another engineering course on venture capitalism being taught this semester, are geared toward students with more defined business goals.

The College of Engineering is also offering a semester-long entrepreneurship seminar, which features guest speakers who give advice to students about their own successes and failures in the world of entrepreneurship.

One of the seminar’s speakers – University alum Brian Balasia, who started the Detroit-based information technology company Digerati Solutions when he was 18 years old – served as motivation for students in the course.

Balasia, who is now 26, said Digerati works with companies to help them improve the efficiency of their business operations and human resources programs, among others.

Both LSA junior David Yen and Engineering junior Alex Was said Balasia was the best speaker in the series so far.

Yen and Was, who plan to launch their own web-based company in a few weeks, said they could relate to the struggles of trying to balance a business and schoolwork – something Balasia chronicled in his speech.

Yen said he liked the structure of the class because it has given him a chance to learn from entrepreneurs who have real-world experience.

He said the University should expand its entrepreneurship training programs.

“U of M does a great job making students attractive to potential employers, but it doesn’t teach you how to think outside the box to start your own ventures,” Yen said.

Engineering Prof. Thomas Zurbuchen, who coordinated the three new entrepreneurship classes in the College of Engineering, said the seminar was also designed to help young entrepreneurs connect with one another.

Zurbuchen said he initially wanted to limit the entrepreneurship class enrollment to 75 students.

The Friday afternoon entrepreneurship lectures now have more than 250 students in attendance.

Although Zurbuchen joked that the gourmet catering after each seminar might be part of the reason students stick around, he said it was important that students have a chance to share ideas with each other.

And while some students may hope to establish a business relationship like the one formed by Google’s Page and Brin, Zurbuchen said the entrepreneurship classes aren’t just for students who want to someday run Fortune 500 companies.

“The kind of entrepreneurship that we’re talking about isn’t just focused on becoming a CEO or starting the next Google,” Zurbuchen said. “It’s about changing the industry and solving the world’s problems.”

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