Sowing Entrepreneurial Seeds
"When you're at Stanford as an undergraduate, you have this picture of 22-year-old students having a great idea and becoming billionaires,"says Stephanie Hannon, who received her master's in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1997.
But anyone who's been down that road before—Stanford grads included—knows that it takes more than a great idea to grow a great business. That's where the engineering school's Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) comes in. Each year, about 15 students participate in this three-semester sequence designed for seniors and coterminal master's-degree students. The program offers classroom instruction in start-up business basics; a summer co-op experience at a high-tech start-up firm; and a "debriefing" course, in which students examine their entrepreneurial experiences through presentations and discussion. Hannon is just one of about 60 students who have participated in the program since its inception in 1995.
Tom Byers, a high-tech start-up veteran who served as an early officer of Symantec, a successful software company, is the program's founder and director. "The trend now is toward an entrepreneurial economy where engineers need to be better trained in business skills," he says. "We want our young engineers to learn to work in teams, to manage complexity and uncertainty, to be creative. . . . This isn't to say that every student ought to start a company—just that students should be exposed to this as they go through their engineering education. Frankly, we don't care where they work—the issue is thinking like an entrepreneur wherever they work."
Thinking Like Entrepreneurs
That's when the students start their internships with start-up firms, generally defined as companies founded within the past two years, employ fewer than 50 people, and have yet to generate a profit. Students receive competitive wages—typically $9,000 for three months. Throughout the internship, they meet regularly with their mentor, usually the CEO or another high-level executive, and gather as a class for six sessions with Byers and other faculty members to share experiences and seek guidance. Students also keep e-mail journals of their internship experiences.
Mark Shaw, who received his master's in computer science in June 1998, interned at Kana.Com, Inc., a firm that develops software programs to help companies manage large volumes of consumer e-mail. "When I first started, there was no product, just an idea, and now we're in our third revision, with 20 or so customers," says Shaw, who currently works for the company full time. "At first, there were four or five people total, all of us in one room. We would sit around the table talking about the market, about documentation, about design icons. Everyone had input into everything, and I got to see the decision-making process up close."
It's that hands-on, working-in-the- thick-of-things atmosphere that makes the STVP unique. "There's something about immersion in a start-up," Byers says. "Dealing with the uncertainties, just trying to survive and flourish—everything is happening in real time. Working three months in a start-up is like working a year in an established company."
Hannon, who interned for start-up company Granite Systems through STVP following an internship with the well-established Intel, says she appreciated the broader exposure a start-up offers. "A start-up can't afford not to put you on a critical path," she says. "They need everyone to work on that one goal. And after learning [in class] about how start-up companies get financed and managed, it was great to see all those things in action."
In the debriefing sessions, students often report that they have gained a sense of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Most students enter the program having "the unrealistic sense that all they need [to launch their own businesses] is an idea," Shaw says. "But now I see the amount of work that it takes—it doesn't come easy. I used to think that you could just cash in and make a million bucks. But now I know that it's way more complicated than that."
For more information, contact Tom Byers at (650) 725-8271, e-mail: tbyers @stanford.edu, or see www.stanford.edu/group.stvp.
University of Missouri-Rolla
Secrets of Titanic's Steel
Late one evening in 1985, Leighly saw a television documentary about oceanographer Robert Ballard's discovery of Titanic's wreckage some 3,700 meters below the surface of the North Atlantic. He remembers being struck by survivors' recollections of hearing a loud cracking noise when the ship hit the iceberg. "When steel breaks," he says, "you expect a groaning, not a cracking sound . . . unless the steel is brittle" and therefore prone to fracture. Eleven years later, Leighly finally got the chance to test his theory.
In August 1996, he received five pieces of steel salvaged from Titanic by RMS Titanic, Inc. Working with UMR metallurgical engineering senior Katie Felkins and Alex Jankovic, a materials test engineer, he analyzed the metal's chemical composition and tensile strength.
In the early 1900s, manufacturers in the United Kingdom commonly produced steel in open-hearth, acid-lined furnaces. This process yields "semi-killed" steel, which has relatively high concentrations of phosphorus, oxygen, and sulfur, and a low concentration of nitrogen and silicon. Titanic's steel matches this chemical profile.
The relatively high amounts of phosphorus, oxygen, and sulfur in semi-killed steel tend to make it more brittle at low temperatures than modern steel. To determine the temperature at which Titanic's steel would embrittle, Felkins conducted a series of Charpy impact tests on the metal over a range of temperatures from -55ºC to 179ºC. In the test, a swinging pendulum strikes a notched piece of steel held horizontally between two vertical bars. The results showed that Titanic's steel was roughly 10 times more brittle than modern steel at -2ºC, the temperature of the North Atlantic that fateful night in April 1912.
"It was bad steel; there's no question," Leighly says, "but probably the best plain carbon ship plate available at the time." Leighly hesitates to speculate whether a ship constructed of modern steel would have suffered as much damage as Titanic in a similar collision. With today's superior navigational aides, a modern crew could most likely avoid such an encounter altogether. Ultimately, Leighly believes the results of the analysis should be read as a cautionary tale about the inherent limits of design. "More than 1,500 people died that night," he says, "because a combination of factors [many of them related to design] pushed Titanic beyond its limits."
For a complete summary of the research, read Leighly, Felkins, and Jankovic's Journal of Metals article entitled, "The Royal Mail Ship Titanic: Did a Metallurgical Failure Cause a Night to Remember?" online at www.umr.edu/~meteng/wmeteng.html. Leighly is also interviewed about the work in the Discovery Channel documentary "Titanic: Anatomy of a Disaster."