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Careers

Educating Entrepreneurs

by Rachel Petkewich
November 6, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 45

All over the world, whether in Tokyo or Strasbourg or California, kids coming out of school have a rough time adjusting to the culture and practices of industry, even if they had the highest possible grade-point average in school, says Earl H. Wagener, chief executive officer of Tetramer Technologies. So he designed a class to teach students a little bit about industry before they leave academia.

Several university chemistry departments offer a class like Wagener's, a whole program, or even a graduate degree, but some academics debate whether these kinds of classes even have a place on the university campus.

Wagener, who has decades of experience in industrial R&D, got a Discovery Corps Senior Fellowship from the National Science Foundation in 2003 to teach his course at Clemson University in South Carolina. In the course, students evaluate four technologies using project analysis tools similar to those that companies use to evaluate the economic value of a research project. The students rate, for example, competitive advantage, market attractiveness, value to the customer, and technical feasibility. According to Wagener's design, the class should not be taught by an academic; limited to 24 students, it must be taught by someone with extensive industrial experience.

Finding someone with that experience to commit to prepare and attend the class for 14 consecutive weeks is a challenge, Wagener says. Both graduate and undergraduate students sign up for the class. And three years after the pilot course at Clemson, Auburn University in Alabama and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University have adopted the class model, and the University of Tennessee, the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and the University of South Carolina are considering it. Even better, Wagener says, his students who went on to jobs in industry are writing to thank him.

Other schools address entrepreneurial aspirations. For example, Cornell University has an alumni-funded, cross-disciplinary, and active program called Entrepreneurship@Cornell. It's not a major or a separate department; rather, it is a series of courses taught by faculty in the science, engineering, business, humanities, and social science departments, says Bruce Ganem, an organic chemistry professor who teaches an entrepreneurship class in the department of chemistry and chemical biology.

Ganem acknowledges the reservations that some academics have regarding teaching entrepreneurship on campus. However, he says, the pedagogical values are student empowerment and problem-solving skills. "It's not all about making money or really even about starting businesses. It's about setting goals and figuring out how to achieve them," Ganem adds. "I enjoy teaching these entrepreneurship courses because you put science students in situations where they have to decide what they would do if they were faced with a business decision, a marketing decision, or a regulatory decision. That's a useful life skill."

Meanwhile, at Case Western Reserve University, students in the Science & Technology Entrepreneur Program (STEP) can undertake commercialization assistantships as part of a master's degree program. Students can specialize in disciplines such as chemistry. At roughly 20 hours per week for 12-18 months working on an actual commercialization project, it's less like a traditional internship and more like a laboratory research assistant position, says STEP Director Cyrus Taylor.

Many of the students in the STEP program already have graduate degrees in science. "We've had a steady stream of interesting students come through the chemistry program in STEP." Due to changes at the university, including Taylor being appointed as the university's interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, STEP admissions were suspended this year, but they should be open next year, Taylor says.

Despite the various methods already being used, educational institutions around the world continue to polish their methods of teaching future entrepreneurs. Taylor says a great venue for sharing success stories and brainstorming new techniques is the Roundtable on Entrepreneur Education for Scientists & Engineers, an invitation-only event coordinated by Stanford University, which has a prominent and lively entrepreneurship center. Roundtables will be held this year in the U.S., Ecuador, Germany, and Thailand. Previous participants have included private and state universities, businesses, colleges, and research institutes.

Other resources for educators and entrepreneurs include the National Network for Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization (N2TEC) and the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance.

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