Research - Acting Like an Entrepreneur

Studying the strategies of small business owners can pay dividends for your research program.

Douglas M. Green

Small businesses can grow into great successes, especially in these flush economic times. But getting such a venture to soar is no easy feat and, though it may surprise you, the challenges and the paths to success are quite similar to those that confront engineering professors running research programs.Illustration by Robert L. Prince Keep the following small-business credos in mind to help your stock rise.

Articulate a plan. Before launching a business venture, a conscientious businessperson develops a well-reasoned, easily understood business plan. Such a plan helps increase the probability of success as the entrepreneur enters less familiar territory. Similarly, before pursuing a new research subspecialty, a dedicated engineering professor should develop a refined statement of user need, a plan for systematic inquiry, and a reasonable financial model for achieving research objectives.

Prepare your pitch carefully. Most start-up companies require investors, so small businesspeople must effectively sell their ideas and their expertise to others. The business plan itself can be an invaluable marketing tool to communicate with venture capitalists and other potential financiers.

In the same way, engineering professors can use their research plan as the skeleton for a winning proposal for funding. The litmus test for any proposal is its abstract. If a fellow faculty member (outside your own subspecialty) reads the abstract of your proposal and finds it compelling and easy to understand, you are headed in the right direction.

Hire good help. A small businessperson is responsible for recruiting and managing employees for a new enterprise. Once the employees are on board, they often require specialized training and education to effectively perform the specific tasks needed. Likewise, engineering professors must find graduate students and/or postdocs to do the bulk of their research work, and then manage their grad students' progress toward their degrees.

A common recruiting method that many professors use successfully is exposing students to various research subspecialties in senior and graduate courses. Students, in return, get specialized education both in the classroom and by one-on-one contact with the professor.

Know your market. Successful businesspeople know the demand for their particular product or service. Equally important, they know their main competitors and the strengths and weaknesses of each. This information can be critical when deciding where to invest time and money to attract new business. Similarly, engineering professors should know the demand for research in their area. If there is no demand, there will be little funding for that particular research effort.

Knowing the strengths of your research program relative to others can help you make wise choices about which grant opportunities to pursue. And today, it is even more important to know the strengths of your competitors' research programs. In the past several years, a number of federal granting agencies have emphasized collaborations between researchers at multiple universities. If you are intimately familiar with the research capabilities of your colleagues around the country and the world, you will be better able to form strong partnerships with a subset of these colleagues.

Focus on the customer. Small firms can always compete effectively with larger firms in the area of customer service, and a small businessperson knows that keeping customers happy is the key to attracting repeat business. After every big job, smart businesspeople contact their customers to ask if they are satisfied. If customers are not 100 percent happy, many times the situation can be corrected with minimal effort-leaving the customers satisfied and knowing that the firm cares about keeping their business.

Customer service is important for an engineering professor, too, especially with industrial sponsors. After you prepare a final report, a courtesy call to the sponsor may reveal some surprising results. What may seem to you to be a trivial oversight may be the key element of interest to the sponsor. The problem may be an easy fix, helping to cement the relationship between you and your industrial contact, and opening the door to more opportunities later.

By approaching your research work as a business venture, you can avoid the twin traps of complacency and carelessness-and watch your fledgling program develop into a blue-chip operation.

Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council and associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins. The opinions in this article are solely his own.

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