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Blazing an Entrepreneurial Trail

- By Barbara Mathias-Riegel    

Engineering students who graduate from Michigan Tech's Enterprise Program have a choice. They can take a job working for someone else or they can start their own companies.

It's one thing to be an engineer and quite another to be an entrepreneur, but Michigan Technological University offers its students an opportunity to be both. It's called the Enterprise Program and its growth is surpassing all expectations with more than 400 students participating from both the College of Engineering and the School of Business and Economics.

When Robert Warrington, dean of the College of Engineering, first came to MTU in 1996 he had a goal: "I believed strongly that all our students should graduate with the confidence that he or she could start their own company. Not that they all would, but based on that premise, and along with the fact that engineering education is more discovery-based learning, we put together a proposal for the National Science Foundation to fund a project that would integrate the learning with the whole campus."

Two years later, MTU received a three-year grant from NSF, and by 2001 the program was well underway and self-supporting. "From all the anecdotal evidence, we know it's working," says Mark Plichta, department chair for materials science and engineering. "I know the students love it, the faculty involved believe in it, and industry thinks it's a great idea."

Here's how it works: For three years, from sophomore to senior year, students join and run an Enterprise team that operates as an organization, similar to a real company in the private sector, complete with a president and board of directors. Each Enterprise team's goal is to work with private industry and government to identify specific needs and problems that they can address. When the Rockwell Corporation wanted to determine what measure of interference occurs when passengers use entertainment and communication systems in a commercial aircraft, the Communications Enterprise Team proposed and built data analysis software and a robotic system that works in a large empty room (representing the body of the plane) and takes measurements of radio signals.

According to the team's faculty advisor, David Stone, an associate professor in the department of electrical engineering, "Rockwell played with the prototype over a summer and then said, ‘Great, now make us a full robotic system.'" If all goes well, says Stone, the students will eventually collect royalties. He adds that he and all Enterprise faculty "never get a penny" from these contracts.

Enterprise students make more if they initiate an idea and sell it to the industry, rather than if the faculty pursues the industry or if the industry makes the first move. The decision as to who gets how much is a matter of careful documentation by the students at the end of each semester. And as more students join the enterprise, all those factors are considered in the division of the pie, including the alumni who are partners from afar. Essential to the program is the Enterprise minor curriculum that requires 20 credits from a selected list of cross-discipline courses covering a wide range of business and economic issues, from the demographic and cultural effect on the markets to cost performance. There are also several courses in communication where students learn the written and spoken art of persuasion and clear presentation. As Dean Warrington points out: "You have to, of course, have a good technical background, but those engineers who have people and communications skills are the ones who are really successful."

 

AND THEY'RE OFF

Since 2001, the Enterprise project has been self-running with industry support, and some of the teams are strongly in the black—a feat many real companies can hardly claim. But money in the students' pockets isn't the only draw. Indeed, it is too soon for many of the students to receive royalties. What they are also interested in is the chance to come up with a product or idea that will make a difference in the real world. As Stone observes, "When the students graduate with the engineering degree, they are going to find ways to help people, not just by knowing the equations and experiments but by creating products that are of service."

To date, the Enterprise projects include: a water assessment for streams and septic systems, a clean-air snowmobile, a vision system for a Streamsweeper—a barge that scoops up sand to prevent erosion, a wireless optical engineering education kit for high school teachers participating in summer workshops, a cold weather communications system for extreme weather, numerous robotic and automotive projects, some stemming from national competitions, and on the lighter side—a toasted cheese sandwich machine for the MTU winter carnival.

Enterprise students also learn the politics associated with working on cross-functional teams, an inevitable challenge in business. Jason Markesino, a senior on the Robotic Systems Enterprise Team is excited about working along with the Alternative Fuels Enterprise Team that's developing a power source for an autonomous vehicle, a project funded by the U.S. Army. "We want to get into the mechanical side of designing and choosing the motors, while they will be developing the batteries," says Markesino.

The crux of Enterprise is working with established and viable industry. According to Mary Raber, the industrial project coordinator of Enterprise, the companies involved are primarily from the Midwest, particularly Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. They include industrial giants like the Ford Motor Co., General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, SBC Ameritech, and Kimberly-Clark. Enterprise has also dealt with the Environmental Protection Agency, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, and NASA, to name but a few.

" We tend to get the most success with the companies that do a lot of recruiting on campus. For them, it's an opportunity for visibility," says Raber. While some Enterprise Teams go to the industrial site to present their product, most participating industry come to MTU's campus in Houghton—in the far northwest upper peninsula—where they can connect with talented engineering students. In between visits, the teams rely on e-mail and video conferences. There are currently 17 teams and the target is 20 with 500 students, not an unrealistic figure with prospective parents and students already requesting more information about Enterprise. If they go beyond the 500, says Raber, MTU will undoubtedly have to expand its support staff, as well as the facilities. Collectively, they now have over 11,000 square feet of workspace dedicated to operating the program. And by next fall, they plan to establish a "foundry-based enterprise team" so they can use the revamped, century-old foundry on campus, complete with furnaces and casting capabilities.

What makes Enterprise different, explains Raber, is the fact that it is a full-curriculum minor and a three-year commitment, allowing students to take on increasing levels of responsibility and ownership. "Ideally, they stick with the same Enterprise and think of it as joining a company."

And yet, as Warrington points out, "Not all the Enterprises will live on forever. Some will fold when they are not successful or sustainable. They will shut down and the students will go on to another ‘company' with a different idea—as in real life."

Students also learn how to keep their business alive in the face of competition. When Kimberly-Clark gave gift money to develop a paper product, after much deliberation the Product Manufacturing Enterprise Team chose a disposable bib, one that would prove economical and handy for traveling. Unfortunately, while they started to develop the bib, they learned that Proctor & Gamble had concurrently come out with the same idea. Never mind. It's back to the drawing board as the team is looking at what they can do to make their bib even more appealing to the consumer.

Unquestionably, all of this means extra work for engineering students. "It is time-consuming," agrees Keith Nacker, a senior and president of the Wireless Communication Enterprise Team. "But it's based on self-motivation, and it's a different kind of learning. It's not like class work. I don't even care about how many hours I put in; it's something that is exciting that I want to do. This whole experience has been invaluable. I really want to continue with the entrepreneurial spirit and eventually own my own company."

Roger Cass, a systems simulation and advanced engineering manager at the Robert Bosch Corporation, has been working with several Enterprise teams for more than a year. He's particularly amazed with one three-member team that came to Bosch with what he considers, "an ambitious project," that is, a semi-active suspension interface module—a sensing system to provide better control of a vehicle as it goes through cornering and braking maneuvers.

" At first, I told them they may have bitten off more than they can chew, but they seem to be doing well," observes Cass. He compares this team to the senior design team that he also handles. "(The Enterprise team) seem to be more autonomous or independent. They have come for help maybe three or four times, while the design team calls every week."

Last Spring when the Enterprise team reported on its progress, he was impressed with everything from their presentations to their computer skills. "They were acting like professional engineers," says Cass. "We've hired three grads recently, since the exposure to Enterprise teams. These guys hit the deck running, and that's what we need."

 

Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
She can be reached at bmathias-riegel@asee.org.

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