Helping Engineers Bring Ideas to Market
It's Not Enough to Just 'Build It'
Avi Berkowitz recalls discovering that even the best engineering ideas are unlikely to achieve commercial success unless they are inspired by a solid sense of what the market wants.
Berkowitz, a 2005 graduate from Penn Engineering, acquired an early understanding of the realities of innovation when he took Professor Thomas Cassel's introductory Engineering Entrepreneurship course in the spring of his senior year. The course, one of three in Penn's Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, equips students with the tools to turn technologies into business startups. It showed Berkowitz and his classmates that entrepreneurial expertise is a critical component in any plan to capitalize on an engineering idea.
"It's 10 percent about the technology and 90 percent about the business model," says Berkowitz, now an entrepreneur working on his latest startup. "The idea that ‘If you build it they will come' is a non-starter."
Student interest in intellectual property, venture capital, operations strategy and other aspects of starting a technology business helps to explain the popularity of the 12-year-old program that has attracted more than 3,200 students and garnered a series of awards. These awards include the prestigious Provost's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2007 for Cassel [pictured above], who is the Director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program and a Professor of Practice. The program immerses students in the world of high-tech startups, using case studies to demonstrate how to write a business plan, marketing and sales forecasts, patent protection, and team leadership.
The program, also offered as a minor to juniors and seniors who mostly but not exclusively come from Penn Engineering, is peppered with prominent guest speakers from industries ranging from medical devices and pharmaceuticals to defense systems contracting and venture finance.
The real-world emphasis has its roots in the business career of Cassel, a Penn graduate, who co-founded Reading Energy Holdings, an owner and operator of waste-fueled power plants that began in 1978 as an engineering and economic consulting firm, and evolved to become a pioneer in the then-nascent independent electric power industry. Cassel and his team developed three large power plants in California, Pennsylvania and Illinois, which were eventually sold in the 1990s. With a successful business career behind him, Cassel then briefly considered retirement but was persuaded in 1999 by Dean Eduardo Glandt to start an engineering entrepreneurship course at Penn. After discussions with both practitioners and educators on the West and East Coasts, Cassel designed a program whose mission was, and remains, to help engineers develop their products in response to real market demands.
While aiming to give young engineers the business savvy to make their ideas work, the program leaves them with no illusion that it will be an easy task, says Jeffrey Babin, the program's Senior Lecturer and Associate Director. "One of the things the course teaches is how difficult it is to become a successful entrepreneur," he notes. That's shown by the experience of J.R. Cromer, who took two of the Engineering Entrepreneurship classes, EAS 545 and 546, in 2004 and 2006, respectively. After leaving Penn, Cromer tried and failed at an Internet startup, and then launched a business providing construction and education for the solar industry.
Cromer's solar business initially did well but struggled when subsidies declined. He ended up closing the construction side of the business, and redesigning the company as a solar education service for architects and engineers, with just one employee—himself—who now crisscrosses the country to provide solar training to his clients. Cromer credits Cassel's program with helping him to be flexible without losing sight of his vision. "That's what engineering entrepreneurship taught us, to adapt to market opportunity."
Niranjan Kameswaran, another former student, said he took the course because he wanted to learn about real-world applications of technologies that he had only encountered in the classroom. "The class looked like a great opportunity for me to understand just what the world outside of research was," he says. "I wanted to know how to take something out of the lab and make something useful out of it."
Kameswaran, a bioengineer whose Ph.D. research was focused on repairing nerve damage, became a teaching assistant for one of the courses. He now applies his entrepreneurial skills in a healthcare consulting firm, advising clients such as pharmaceutical companies on how to identify market opportunities for new drugs. The program's real-world relevance helps to explain the flood of students who regularly oversubscribe the courses and submit glowing course evaluations. "This course was so inspiring to me," wrote one student. "It has paved my path into the entrepreneurial world with no fear and immense confidence." The program continues to attract more students, whose numbers rose to a record 500 this year.
To meet the growing demand, Penn Engineering hired Elliot Menschik as Adjunct Associate Professor in August 2012. Menschik, a physician, neuroscientist, engineer and successful entrepreneur who has lectured in the Department of Bioengineering, is the recent founder of Venturef0rth, a Philadelphia company providing strategic and operational support for startups and early-stage technology businesses.
For his part, Babin attributes the program's popularity to student interest in how technology companies work in the marketplace, and to the fact that it focuses on high-profile technologies and the companies that use them. "It gives them a broader context for their engineering education," he notes.
While the program has encouraged startups by students like Berkowitz and Cromer, most have not (yet) done so, and that's fine with Babin and Cassel. The pair is more focused on giving students the skills they will need when and if they choose to launch a high-tech venture than they are with unleashing a flood of technology startups. "It's not a metric for success," Cassel says, referring to the number of startups by program participants. "We want them to be prepared so that whenever the opportunity crosses their path they will be ready to seize it."
View the article in Penn Engineering magazine "Helping Engineers Bring Ideas to Market" by Jon Hurdle.