The idea man
Ryne Johnson, Chico State’s chief entrepreneur, knows a good venture when he sees it
Meet Ryne Johnson. He’ll make your dreams come true.
That may be a bit of an overstatement, but essentially that’s his goal. Johnson was recently named director of Chico State’s Center for Entrepreneurship, a program he views as an incubator for good ideas.
And Johnson knows a good idea when he sees it. That is, after all, what he does for a living as founder and CEO of the ChicoProject. The company works with small businesses and individuals with good ideas to help them grow to their potential.
Johnson, a Chico native, has worked in the White House and at U.S. embassies in Paris and Chile, and later he entered the business of privatizing transportation. He lived in Russia and Australia, buying mostly airports, and returned to Chico about seven years ago.
The CN&R spent an hour with Johnson, discussing plans for the future and stories about the past. Here’s some of what he had to say:
You’ve been all over the world. What brought you back to Chico?
I had my own company in Perth. My then-wife and I had a child there who was born with a genetic condition that predisposed her to a shortened life. My wife brought her back to the States to meet family, and on her way over here she contracted an unrelated virus that, because of her compromised circumstance, landed her in the UC Davis Med Center. So I flew over here and spent 55 days [with her] in intensive care. She made it through that, miraculously, but ultimately died here.
In that process we were actually expelled from Australia. We ended up back here pretty much with nothing. … About six months after that, when I didn’t really know which way was up, I met Steve Kay. We met one afternoon and sort of on a beverage napkin wrote the business plan for this place [the ChicoProject].
So, about the entrepreneurship program …
About four years ago I wrote a letter to the then-dean of the College of Business suggesting that they should start an entrepreneurship program. Shortly after that I suggested that they ought to create a venture fund and look to have it alumni-supported to help the entrepreneurship program. I think that the university was in the process of establishing it anyway, so I don’t want to take credit for that, but I think that with encouragement from outside parties, it came to happen.
So you were a natural to head up the program?
When the position opened, I thought, “This makes too much sense.” This university was and is uniquely positioned to excel in entrepreneurship. I think that at this university there are some of the most creative minds that I have ever come across.
I actually went to school here for one year, before I transferred to UCLA. I had more fun here, and I did more crazy things here, and I effectively met more creative people here than I ever met at UCLA. Frankly, I actually learned more here, too. And I think that the university has only gotten better since then.
What goals do you have for the program?
What the Center for Entrepre- neurship will strive to do is create scalable enterprises. From the standpoint of a business education, I think it’s the ideal level to take the training process. Because if you just take a central swath of business, where you learn the core principles, which make up the majority of business education, I think it’s a bit dry.
But entrepreneurs are by nature problem solvers. So the idea that you can take all the technical stuff and actually apply it in real life—well, now it’s a puzzle. All of a sudden your business education just blossoms.
Ultimately what I hope happens here is that around projects, be they intellectual property ideas that come out of the engineering college, or artistic ideas that come out of the fine arts department, cross-university teams would be established. So the inventor—who may or may not be the entrepreneur—is teamed up with students from other disciplines around campus, where a business nucleus is formed. It would then be assisted by professors who have expertise in any of the relevant areas of this business objective. We would then, where appropriate, establish external relations to move that process along.