Derick Maggard, executive director of the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, has a style not typical of university administrators.

Maggard’s daily “uniform,” for instance, is jeans and a button-up or t-shirt. One of his favorite “dress code” moments was seeing both President Tim Sands and Pamplin Dean Robert Sumichrast remove their ties on the spot when they arrived at the center’s naming ceremony in April 2015 to find Maggard and the four APEX Systems founders wearing suits sans ties.

Maggard also very rarely takes “no” for an answer. Some refer to him as “a bull in the China shop” — a description he embraces because first and foremost, he said, he is an entrepreneur.

Maggard’s background of founding multiple startups throughout his career and a stint with a Venture Capital firm provides him with the experience and background to lead the center for entrepreneurs and has propelled the entrepreneurial ecosystem forward at Virginia Tech.

“Entrepreneurs like a good challenge, so we get incredibly creative in the way we approach both opportunities and problems,” he said.

“The private sector moves very fast, provides a lot of freedom to experiment, and oftentimes rewards and celebrates both success and failure. I have tried to adapt the same methodology of operating in the private sector to my tenure at Virginia Tech.”

The result is somewhat atypical in education. Essentially, the Apex Center, which last year received the Outstanding Emerging Entrepreneurship Center Award from the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers, operates like a startup within a large organization.

Derick Maggard and Regina Dugan.
Derick Maggard and Regina Dugan.

“We test new things and if they fail or do not match our metrics, we build something new to test. We are constantly iterating and changing to improve and enhance our programming, courses, and events for our students, faculty, and alumni,” Maggard said.

“Our mission is to inspire students, faculty, and alumni to turn their passion, purpose, and ideas into action,” he said. “We accomplish our mission by cultivating an atmosphere and culture that unleashes creativity, sparks vision and innovation, and teaches the skills and principles that are the foundation of successful new ventures.

“I absolutely love what I do. Waking up and coming to work with the most innovative and entrepreneurial students, faculty, and alumni is a dream,” he said.

And, according to Maggard, he and his team have a lot fun. The Apex office has a refrigerator stocked with water, soda, and energy drinks and a candy dispenser wall. Adopting his casual dress code — a staple in his native Arizona — makes everyone feel more comfortable and enhances the center’s innovative, different, and inclusive culture, he said.

Though transitioning from a career in industry to academia was a personal challenge for Maggard, being back at Virginia Tech, where he earned a master’s degree in industrial systems engineering with an emphasis in management systems engineering, also felt like home.

“My wife, Cheryl, and I have raised our family here in Blacksburg, and it is an incredible place to call home,” said Maggard. “I fell in love with Virginia Tech the moment I stepped on campus as a grad student and was immediately immersed in a community of innovators, thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, tech enthusiasts, and startup company champions. The Roanoke-Blacksburg region is a hidden gem, and I consider myself lucky to have found it.”

In his position, being a Virginia Tech alum has been a huge advantage, he said. “I know the landscape. As a grad student, I heard what students like and do not like and find that a lot of what they said then still rings true.”

Some of his professors are now colleagues, working side by side with him at the Apex Center. “Virginia Tech faculty members across campus are incredibly entrepreneurial and have created fantastic companies,” Maggard said. “I strongly encourage them to continue to explore commercializing their research.”

For Maggard, the campus-wide approach is very important and stems back to his grad school days when he seized the opportunity to work with other students and faculty in industrial design, engineering, business, science, politics, and other disciplines.

“We have been incredibly successful with having students, faculty, and alums from every college participate in our programs, courses, and events,” he said. “This interdisciplinary approach helps students learn to communicate more effectively with people in a variety of disciplines as they work together on teams to solve big problems. It also prepares them to launch companies and be more marketable for the job market, because they have the skills to self-start, critically think, network, and drive a project from beginning to end.”

Maggard said that the demand for entrepreneurship at Virginia Tech has skyrocketed in recent years. When he joined Virginia Tech in 2014, there were 100 students in entrepreneurial courses and programs. In 2017, the Apex Center worked with more than 1,940 students.

During his tenure, there have been more than 288 student or faculty startup projects that are trying to find a scalable and repeatable business model. More than 42 have incorporated as companies and continue to grow. ThermaSENSE CorpRedshift Education, Inc., and QuickTech Medical are three examples of these that launched in 2017.

Virginia Tech alumni play a large role at the Apex Center.

“A network of passionate alums that not only invest money but are committed to spending time working with us and sharing their talents with our students is rare and a true differentiator for Virginia Tech,” said Maggard.

“When we meet with our counterparts across the country, they are jealous of the engagement Virginia Tech has from its alums. Our alums are absolutely critical to our success. We would not be where we are without the many amazing alums that have supported us in building up entrepreneurship at Virginia Tech.”

-By Barbara Micale