From Idea to Innovation

It is not surprising that interest in entrepreneurship among engineering students has grown dramatically in the past few years, says Professor W. Bernard Carlson, chair of the Department of Engineering and Society. “Engineering is inherently entrepreneurial. Engineers are problem solvers who use the laws of physics and the language of mathematics to create new things.”

The challenge for the School is to equip engineering students with the skills they need to express that entrepreneurial impulse in the world of commerce. “Most great ideas for products that engineering students think of are eventually put on a shelf and forgotten about,” says nanomedicine engineering student Kevin Eisenfrats (ES ’15). “As undergraduates we just don’t know that there is a path for bringing them to fruition.”

Three years ago, at the suggestion of students like Eisenfrats and interested alumni, the Department of Engineering and Society launched a Technology Entrepreneurship concentration to complement the School’s engineering business minor. It is not enough to have a grasp of physics, calculus and programming. Practicing entrepreneurs must know how to raise money, manage a team and market their products, among other skills. To give courses in these areas real-world immediacy, Carlson has recruited veteran entrepreneurs and technology experts to teach them. For instance, Douglas Muir, who has created a series of successful new businesses in Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., teaches Start-Up Operations for Entrepreneurs. James Cheng (Darden ’87), former Virginia secretary of commerce and innovation, teaches Government and Entrepreneurship.

But as Carlson points out, “You can’t get a full sense of dynamics of entrepreneurship in the classroom. It’s a discipline that you have to practice to master.” Another veteran engineer and entrepreneur, Elizabeth Pyle, has joined the department to help students develop as entrepreneurs.

As associate director for technology entrepreneurship, Pyle helps students combine their product ideas — many inspired by work in their engineering design courses — with the knowledge gained from their entrepreneurship classes and begin the journey toward commercialization. “There are several paths to the marketplace,” Pyle says. “You have to be discriminating about which path you choose and how you navigate it.”

One way she helps students grow as entrepreneurs is by assisting them in preparing for University-wide entrepreneurial competitions, each of which takes budding entrepreneurs a stage further along the road to commercialization. At the U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup and Darden Business Plan Competitions, teams pitch concepts. At the Effectual De-Risking Competition, they demonstrate that they have followed a series of “effectuation” principles for managing the commercialization process. At the Galant Challenge, student entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to angel investors.

Pyle coached five teams that participated in this year’s Entrepreneurship Cup, among them Eisenfrats’ team, which won the $20,000 first prize for Contraline, a gel-based contraceptive injection for dogs and cats. Engineering teams have also been successful in the Darden Business Plan Competition. This year Contraline won, while in 2014 a team led by Tara Raj (CS ’17) and coached by Muir took first place for VotersChoice, a direct-polling and analytics app to improve communications between elected officials and voters. Raj and her group also secured an investment at the Galant Challenge. A number of the teams Pyle has coached have been accepted for a prestigious internship at the University’s Innovation Laboratory, an incubator program for early-stage startups.

Carlson argues that these activities and others focusing on entrepreneurship find a natural home in the Department of Engineering and Society. “All the other departments at the Engineering School produce experts,” he says. “We give students the skills and insight they need to take that expert knowledge and operate in the world.“