May 2013 | By Jeni Baker
Pratt students who dream of launching companies enjoy resources and support
Professor Jeff Glass has worked with start-ups in a number of capacities—from leading the development lab for a multi-billion-dollar manufacturer to serving on advisory boards and as an interim chief technology officer during a leadership transition. He also has conducted due diligence for venture-capital firms, providing technical and market assessments to help guide their investment decisions.
Attitudes at Duke about on-campus entrepreneurship have changed greatly since Jeffrey T. Glass joined the Pratt School of Engineering as an ECE professor in 2003.
“I was amazed at how much entrepreneurial activity was going on under the radar at the time—none of it very visible or strategically connected,” says Glass, who also serves as the director of the school’s Master of Engineering Management Program and the Hogg Family Chair in Engineering Management and Entrepreneurship.
In the decade since, “there’s been a real transition, at the urging of the university’s Board of Trustees, through which many of these efforts have come together,” he says. “Our administrators have been very supportive of entrepreneurship, as have many of our alumni, who want to help current students have the same types of opportunities that benefited their own careers.”
A changing landscape
On-campus entrepreneurship—at Duke and elsewhere—is coming out of the shadows largely because the academic community overall is much more supportive of commercializing new ideas than it has been in the past, says Glass.
“Entrepreneurship within universities was historically seen as too practical and non-academic, not part of the university’s mission,” he says. “But academic institutions are realizing that by fostering entrepreneurship, they’re encouraging ideas and long-term faculty-student relationships that benefit society, which should always be the goal.”
In addition, says Glass, the IT revolution has created a very rich environment for students, entrepreneurs and investors.
“There’s a phenomenal amount of online information and resources that can help you determine if you have a good idea for a company, help you develop your ideas and find funding, teach you to commercialize something, start a business and find customers,” he says. “Motivated people willing to sift through that information can find what they need to make good decisions.”
“An environment that’s excited about entrepreneurship”
The culture and offerings of the Pratt School and Duke University as a whole—not to mention the proximity of the campus to Research Triangle Park—make it a special place for engineer-entrepreneurs. Initiatives and activities include:
- Duke Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization (CERC) - Multidisciplinary initiative that unites entrepreneurs and facilitates their access to resources and information
- DUHatch - Business incubator housed in the Pratt School of Engineering
- Duke Start-Up Challenge - Annual entrepreneurship competition
- Duke Venture Forward
- Duke Global Entrepreneurship Network (DukeGEN) - Cross-disciplinary group that promotes communication and connection among Duke entrepreneurs
- InCube - A student-run dorm for freshmen interested in starting their own companies
“These efforts, as well as the mentorship and faculty-student partnerships across campus, are indicative of an environment that’s excited about entrepreneurship,” Glass says, adding that Pratt alumna Poornima Vijayashanker—one of the first employees of Mint.com and founder of both BizeeBee.com and Femgineer.com—will spearhead a new Fall 2013 undergraduate course with him about ECE entrepreneurship. “It will be a great opportunity for students to get an applied understanding of how commercial ventures are launched.”
Even if they don’t aspire to start their own businesses, engineering students can benefit from taking an entrepreneurship class or two, Glass says.
“Companies want their technical employees to understand the many issues related to developing new business, to understand and interact with multiple business functions, and to be focused on customers,” he says.
“Learning to develop a business plan gives engineering students an excellent overview of a business, teaches them to conduct an in-depth business analysis on a new technology and present ideas concisely and persuasively. And because entrepreneurship is rooted in understanding how products meet customer needs, learning more about it tends to make employees solutions-minded, not technology-minded.”
To engineering students who dream of launching their own businesses, Glass offers this advice.
“Know that the R&D, the inventing and patenting make up only a small fraction—maybe five percent—of what’s necessary to create a commercial entity. Numerous other business issues—from marketing and quality control to product distribution and human-resource management—will impact the success or failure of a new venture.”
Most of all, he says, follow your passion. “Always be moving toward what you love to do, even if it’s incrementally. Don’t give up. And remember that entrepreneurship involves lots of failure, so be an eternal optimist.”