Entrepreneur's legacy honored with establishment of institute

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

J. Orin Edson was the quintessential entrepreneur. He cared deeply for his community and believed others should have the resources to pursue their entrepreneurial visions.

Edson, who died in 2019 at the age of 87, built his first boat when he was just a kid. By his 20s, he was building boats through a small company that he built into Bayliner Marine Corp., which was the largest manufacturer of luxury boats when he sold the company in 1986. He went on to buy a majority interest in Westport Yachts in 1992 and grew it into a successful yacht-building company before selling his shares.

He and his wife, Charlene, wanted other aspiring entrepreneurs to have similar opportunities for success. They have donated to programs at Arizona State University since 2005 with an initial gift that created the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. Additional endowed and nonendowed gifts to support entrepreneurship followed.

J. Orin Edson smiling on a boat

J. Orin Edson was a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist who gave generously to help ASU students pursue their dreams and obtain real-world experiences. Photo courtesy of the J. Orin Edson family

Today, Edson’s legacy is being honored with the establishment of the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute at Arizona State University. The naming recognizes the Edsons’ longstanding commitment to further entrepreneurship support at ASU, which includes an additional endowed gift. The newly formed institute provides an overarching home for the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative and the Edson Training and Development Network at ASU, which was formed from an Edson gift in 2018.

“It is an honor for Orin’s life and spirit to be alive at ASU, carrying on the entrepreneurial passion he thrived on,” Charlene Edson said.

Establishing the Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute also enables ASU to expand its portfolio of entrepreneurial programs and initiatives in perpetuity. The primary focus of the institute will always remain ASU students and faculty, and the institute will continue to provide support from as young as middle school youth to lifelong learners.

“Renaming the home of entrepreneurship at Arizona State University in honor of J. Orin Edson is a heartfelt tribute to the enduring legacy of one of America’s most dedicated and prolific innovators and education advocates," ASU President Michael M. Crow said." We are immensely proud to carry the Edson name into the future as a hallmark of unparalleled entrepreneurial education and practice capable of changing the world.”

Success through Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation programs

Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute offers a robust suite of support and resources to serve students, faculty and community members to nurture ideas into fruition. Aside from collaborations with several ASU academic programs and colleges, Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation also facilitates multiple funding opportunities, communal working spaces for ventures at all stages, training and development resources and a mentor network.

“This generous gift will allow us to solidify the foundation for our portfolio of entrepreneurial programs and initiatives, as well as set the stage for new collaborative efforts and partnerships across the communities we serve,” said Neal Woodbury, ASU Knowledge Enterprise interim executive vice president and chief science and technology officer. “The J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute will continue to create opportunities for student entrepreneurs and communitywide programming to have a substantial socioeconomic impact on our region.”

The entrepreneurship program has received numerous awards over the years, including being one of the first 12 national programs selected for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Inclusion Challenge to engage diverse entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds, ensuring that communities reach their full potential.

“Our goal is to nurture entrepreneurs for life. It requires that we seek to develop the whole person, to empower everyone to do good while doing well; to build a life, while making a living building products and providing services that bring value to society,” said Ji Mi Choi, founding executive director of the Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and associate vice president of ASU Knowledge Enterprise, who has led Entrepreneurship + Innovation since 2015. “While there are more resources and opportunities for entrepreneurs, far too many people still lack access. All innovators, regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation or background, should have the opportunity to develop and exercise their entrepreneurship. The Edson E+I Institute’s suite of resources and services will integrate all our practice areas and programs for ASU students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community here in greater Phoenix and nationally.”

Since the inception of the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative in 2005, students have been able to transform their ideas into viable ventures with significant impact. There have been 297 student-led ventures supported to date. More than 40 patents have been filed and more than $46 million in external funding raised. Payout from the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative to assist students totals nearly $3 million.

The initial Edson gift formed an endowment that gives ASU students the opportunity to pursue their creative and business goals by providing seed money to help them in their entrepreneurial quests. The awards are for any type of business — ranging from high-tech for-profit startups to nonprofit public-sector ventures. The endowed initiative was designed to spur innovative thought and entrepreneurial spirit in ASU students by providing them the means to pursue their ideas.

In 2018, the Edson Training and Development Network was established from an endowed gift from the Edsons to accelerate innovative talent and increase capacity to train Edson entrepreneurs in greater numbers through an expanded training and development network, enhanced curriculum to augment and complement academic curriculum and on-demand programming. Payout from the endowment has expanded the program into a full year of entrepreneurial training using a co-curricular training suite. It has also provided support for faculty to develop and offer extra- and co-curricular training utilizing a wide range of subject matter expertise.

Over the past five years ASU has increasingly supported student-led teams, growing the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative from supporting 20 student led teams per year to now supporting more than 500 student led teams through the Entrepreneurship + Innovation Venture Devils program, while growing its community programs including a national youth entrepreneurship program.

During the Venture Devils’ Demo Day held every semester, hundreds of thousands of dollars in seed funding is awarded. Freda Sarfo, a master’s degree student in global logistics, won $5,000 in May to expand her enterprise, Tropical Almond. In 2019 she won $4,000 during the entrepreneurial competition to build a small processing facility in Ghana where she grew up.

Sarfo’s enterprise uses Ghana’s tropical almond trees, which are planted for shade and produce nuts that are less sweet than those found in the United States so they often go to waste.

Tropical Almond hires women to collect and crack the almonds, which are then cold pressed and the oil is packaged and sold as a hair product. The nut byproduct is processed into nutritious snacks. For every bottle of almond oil sold, one bag of high-protein snacks is donated. In the first three months, Sarfo sold 350 bottles through her online store. During her presentation in May, Sarfo said she provided income for more than 100 single mothers and fed more than 100 children this year with the snack byproduct.

There are numerous success stories similar to Sarfo’s because ASU has developed a comprehensive ecosystem that includes support for faculty including through programs like the prestigious National Science Foundation I-Corps program, various funding sources, mentors, multiple innovation spaces, co-curricular programs addied to academic courses and community programs that support all entrepreneurs to thrive. The Edsons have played a pivotal role in contributing to entrepreneurial initiatives at ASU.

Edson gifts to spur innovation across ASU

The Edsons have made a transformative impact on the ASU community, donating $70 million to colleges, units and programs.

In addition to generous support to Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation over the years, the Edsons made a $50 million gift that was announced in March 2019 and split evenly between two ASU programs with a focus on health care. The gift renamed the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and established The Grace Center for Innovation in Nursing Education (named for Charlene’s mother, who was a nurse) to enhance education and training for nurses and caregivers. The other half of the gift benefited the Biodesign Institute for research on causes and cures of dementia, as well as tools to manage the disease.

“The passion and generosity of the Edson family over the years has made a huge impact on the ASU community that will resonate for generations,” said Gretchen Buhlig, ASU Foundation chief executive officer. “Their continued support will help students pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, following in Orin’s footsteps.”

Top photo: A group of ASU students meet for an Entrepreneurship Catalysts virtual meetup to discuss ideas and serve as a peer resource for all things entrepreneurship happening at ASU. Photo courtesy of J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute