“My philosophy is that entrepreneurship needs to be discovered, not taught,” remarks alumnus and Professor of Practice Dr. Hadi Bozorgmanesh (B.S. Mechanical Engineering, ’70), who built his career at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a company renowned for its agile, innovative tech culture and the archetypical intrapreneurial organization.
With the goal of nurturing entrepreneurial skills and an affinity for innovation – and with the support of the School of Engineering and the UConn Office of Economic Development – Bozorgmanesh debuted a new, results-oriented two-semester course last fall, Experiential Technology Entrepreneurship I and II. With a hands-on, freewheeling discussion format and extensive interaction among the 10 participating (primarily graduate) students, Bozorgmanesh and guest lecturers, the course is intended to prepare students to succeed as entrepreneurs or as innovators within a larger organization.
As the spring term begins, the course has already hatched four new businesses, with another six poised to launch later this year (click here for profiles of all 10 companies).
While the course pivots on technology, Bozorgmanesh is hopeful his “proof of concept” model course can be expanded to embrace students from across the entire UConn campus. Another aim is to transform engineers from “I-shaped” students into “T-shaped” individuals who have deep understanding in their technological focus area complemented by more generalized knowledge in areas crucial to business leadership.
“The course has helped me to view myself as a businesswoman in addition to
a civil engineer. It is one thing to develop something
great in research; it is another thing to
see it used in society.” – Alicia Echevarria
Bozorgmanesh sees his role as that of a mentor. “I provide an environment for discovery, and the tools the students will need to run a business. I don’t necessarily believe entrepreneurs are born; rather, people learn the skills to become innovators. Innovators are people who convert constraints into opportunities,” he said, adding that a desire to learn, paired with perseverance and imagination, are key qualities of a successful entrepreneur.
Class enrollment was limited to 10 engineering graduate students to accommodate the intensive, personalized format, and includes: M.S. candidates Adam Herman, Joseph Mummert and Jeffrey Peterson, and Ph.D. candidate Thuy Pham – all of Biomedical Engineering; senior Ryan Vantine, M.S. candidate Alicia Echevarria and Ph.D. candidate Kevin Zmetra – all of Civil Engineering; M.S. candidate Matthew Cremins of Mechanical Engineering; post-doc Dr. Yanbing Guo of Materials Science & Engineering; and Ph.D. candidate Vishal Dhagat of Electrical & Computer Engineering.
As the class began in September, students arrived with either their own innovative idea or a patentable technology developed at UConn that could be commercialized. Besides having to develop their own businesses, students were required to self-select into two multidisciplinary teams that would, over the semester, develop a business model around two additional product or service concepts.
The goal of the team exercise, explains Bozorgmanesh, is to foster leadership and professional collaboration skills required for most small businesses; the students agreed among themselves on a commercially viable product, administrative structure and responsibilities.
During the fall semester, Bozorgmanesh and visiting experts presented wide-ranging topics, such as common pitfalls of business startups, how to identify and assess commercial opportunities, startup strategies, market assessment and effective marketing approaches, business plan development, hiring strategies, “elevator pitch” formulation, intellectual property (IP) protection, packaging, industry analysis and trends, avenues for financing a startup and venture capital strategies.
Kevin Bouley, CEO and President of Nerac, who contributed ideas toward the course content, appeared as a guest lecturer, and is helping the startups link up with investors, notes, “You need look no further than the vibrant and growing community of entrepreneurs and new ventures in Cambridge, MA, and its resulting impact on economic growth in that region, to see why engaging UConn faculty, students and alumni to foster our own culture of research-driven entrepreneurship is so important.”
“You don’t need someone else to tell you that it’s ok to take advantage
of opportunities. I’ve learned to give myself permission to embrace
opportunities, and to challenge assumptions by thinking differently.” – Matthew Cremins
As the course begins its second act, Bozorgmanesh said the focus will be more tailored. He and a loose team of business launch experts will work with the four businesses that have officially launched, to secure more sustained growth funding and take their businesses to the next level. For the students whose business models were still evolving in December, he will help them refine their product/business models to the point where the businesses can stage a launch. In addition, the student entrepreneurs will “job shadow” CEOs, chief technology officers, human resource personnel, venture capitalists, tax specialists, policy makers, SBIR experts and other decision makers so they may experience first-hand the myriad tasks and responsibilities entailed in operating a business, whether it be a startup or a large organization.
As the new businesses advance, the challenge to obtain funding will grow more urgent. The teams can compete for “Pathfinder” seed funding intended to sustain the businesses in the vulnerable earliest stages, when the young entrepreneurs are consumed with registering with the state, applying for patent protection, prototype development and testing, and pursuing additional seed funding, according to Bozorgmanesh. The newly-launched startups all received Pathfinder funding in December:
3D Array Technology, LLC
Advanced Column Solutions, LLC
Herman and Peterson Engineering
Secor Water, LLC
Additionally, both Advanced Column Solutions and Herman and Peterson Engineering recently delivered presentations before an audience of entrepreneurs, investors and business experts during a January XcellR8 meeting held at Nerac Inc. in Tolland. XcellR8 gatherings are part of the Connecticut Growth Network and aim to help local startups refine their business concepts and connect with financial resources.
“The networking opportunities, start-up assistance, and faculty support we have
received will help us become successful entrepreneurs
at a young age.” – Adam Herman
“Presenting our business ideas and value propositions has become
second nature, giving Nanolyze a real shot at success.” – Jeffrey Peterson
While one objective of the class is to nurture entrepreneurial skills and approaches, Bozorgmanesh notes these skills are not restricted to the startup realm. “Starting a business isn’t what defines an entrepreneur. A savvy person might be employed by a large organization and still be innovating and entrepreneurial. Innovation is not just inventing a new widget. It’s doing things differently, taking a different tack and experimenting.”
“Hadi’s entrepreneurship course equipped me not only with basic
knowledge and direction, but also the business shape, venture team
and potential connections that may help me along the startup path.
Now, I am ready to go.” – Yanbing Guo
“What we want to do is to build a culture that embraces the monetization of innovative ideas and provides the skills needed to put those ideas into practice. This culture will enrich students in diverse degree programs across the entire university, and it will contribute to the state through economic development,” says Bozorgmanesh.