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The rise of entrepreneurship in engineering schools

Posted on October 15, 2012 at 9:00 am

Entrepreneurship in engineering departments at universities is a growing trend. We see this at Stanford’s NSF-funded, Epicenter, dedicated to “creating a nation of entrepreneurial engineers.” And we see signs elsewhere, at other universities which recognize the importance of instilling entrepreneurship training and innovation thinking for our nation’s future. Early in October, I visited the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering to get to know their entrepreneurial ecosystem. The visit was courtesy of Doug Neal, Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE), which is within engineering and supported by the Provost.

U MichiganI was impressed, not only by the leadership displayed by Doug, but by the upper management leadership of the university and their attitude embracing entrepreneurship. I had first heard U Michigan President, Mary Sue Coleman, give the keynote address at the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2) conference earlier this year. At the time, I was struck by how knowledgeable she was about entrepreneurship, and how committed the university was to entrepreneurship and innovation. President Coleman talked about the various funds that were dedicated to funding entrepreneurship throughout campus, including from the university’s endowment. I thought, “Wow, now that’s a university deeply committed to entrepreneurship!” Not many universities have pledged that level of dedication. My visit proved the truth of this.

Doug had arranged for me to meet most of the key members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Dean of Entrepreneurial Programs. They have one of those! I nearly fell off my chair when Thomas told me that they have 40 entrepreneurship-related courses offered in the engineering program. “Four zero?” I asked incredulously? I couldn’t believe it.

Doug had me start my day with meeting the co-director of the new Masters of Entrepreneurship, Aileen Huang-Saad, who gave me an overview of everything around entrepreneurship at the university. Both Aileen and Doug waxed lyrical about the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), which funded Aileen’s first class and which helps many universities get to the next level in terms of education and support for entrepreneurship.Doug Neal

I know Doug through the NSF I-Corps program, run by Errol Arkilic. I met Doug at Stanford when I was there as mentor for a Carnegie Mellon I-Corps project, neonlab, with entrepreneurial lead, Sophie Lebrecht, a post-doc, along with her PI, Mike Tarr, co-director of the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, and Tom Kubilius, another mentor and CEO of Bright Innovation. The I-Corps program, founded in 2011, has expanded; U Michigan and Georgia Tech are nodes, offering the intensive onsites that are part of the customer development program. There are two cohorts per year at each of the node universities. U Michigan, Doug explains that they want to expand the program regionally across the state, offering a similar program around entrepreneurship, although not funded by the NSF and not branded as I-Corps.

UMich engineering schoolU Michigan is already doing it, and doing it well, by my experience. They have numerous active programs around entrepreneurship and innovation, such as MCubed, a new program to fund a researcher in training for a year to work on 250 or more projects that have some common characteristics: 1) interdisciplinary, 2) new, and 3) high-risk/high-impact. U Michigan offers support to entrepreneurially-inclined students through microgrants and JumpStart grants. They have TechArb, an incubator for students. And students are currently competing in the 1000 pitches competition, where the top 10 pitches selected by a team of reviewers receive $1000.

U Michigan’s entrepreneurial programs are growing rapidly within engineering. They are bringing on additional resources and expanding to meet the needs of students and faculty. Thomas and Doug have a clear vision for the future where entrepreneurship isn’t just a series of elective courses, but  is integrated into the very fabric of engineering training. They believe that is a step in the right direction for their university, for their region, and for the nation. I agree!