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Stoking the Entrepreneurship Engine(er)

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti [1], Vol. 2, No. 5, September 2005

"We in engineering don't study entrepreneurship per se; we do entrepreneurship. We create products and processes that people use. Together the combination of management and engineering provide an ideal underpinning for technological innovation and entrepeneurship."

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The word "engineer" derives from the Latin word ingenium: innate character, talent, or ability. "Entrepreneur" has its roots in the French word entreprendre, which means to undertake or take action. An engineer applies mathematics, science, and systems-integrative approaches to conceive, design, build, and operate useful objects or processes. An entrepreneur assumes the tasks of organization and management as well as the risks of new-project creation or new-venture startup.

In going beyond the words to examine engineering and entrepreneurship, I see the two as having a natural symbiosis. In fact, holding faculty positions in both the Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering, I also see entrepreneurship as an organic bridge between these two disciplines.

Today, the MIT School of Engineering strives for "leadership through technical excellence and innovation" and seeks to create a new breed of graduates who, having a strong foundation of technical expertise, also possess the additional leadership qualities of inventiveness, risk-taking, and a sense of adventure.

The School has embraced a major initiative in Emerging Technologies to continually fuel next-generation technologies and move early-stage, cutting-edge ideas from the research lab into the marketplace, an endeavor that deeply involves both engineers and entrepreneurs and the engineer/entrepreneur. It builds on a wide-ranging portfolio of existing activities and organizations at MIT related to innovation and entrepreneurship. (See "Entrepreneurship Ecosystem" in Technology Review). These include:

Many of the entrepreneurial activities at MIT flow from research consortia and major projects that receive industrial and federal funding, such as the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). Entrepreneurship is also an important component of several MIT initiatives including the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI) and the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA).

MIT has always been an entrepreneurial haven, as evidenced by a brief review of some MIT contributions that at one time were "next-generation technologies." These include modern gasoline production, mass production of steel, microwave radar, servomechanisms, analog computers, inertial guidance systems that put man on the moon, a prototype of the Internet, Internet protocols such as TCP/IP that we all now use every day, chips that release drugs continuously and as needed (the so-called "pharmacy on a chip"), and artificial skin. That's quite a list, and yet it only scratches the surface concerning MIT's numerous technological innovations.

Innovations burgeon at MIT

In the fiscal year 2003, MIT's Technology Licensing Office (TLO) reported over 450 invention disclosures and about 20% of its licenses (17) granted to startup companies. In the first national study of the economic impact of a research university conducted several years ago, BankBoston found that graduates of MIT have founded 4,000 firms, translating their knowledge into products, services, and jobs. These firms in 1994 employed over one million people and generated worldwide revenues of $232 billion. About $1 billion in sponsored research is conducted at MIT annually, with nearly half of that at our campus in Cambridge.

Taking a multi-pronged approach, the School of Engineering's Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation works to bridge the innovation gap that often exists between leading-edge technologies and the marketplace. For example, it involves "catalysts" from the local business community who connect Deshpande Center-funded projects with local entrepreneurs and others to help turn research into real companies and licensable innovations.

Can entrepreneurship be inculcated?

MIT is clearly working to fuel more innovation and entrepreneurship, including instruction in a number classrooms. The School of Engineering's Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, or "UPOP," provides sophomores with a better understanding of what engineers actually do. They learn that engineers create products, market them, and finance them; that engineers must work in teams and in organizations; and that they must be entrepreneurial. At the graduate level, a course jointly taught by faculty in the School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management entitled "i-Teams" (short for "Innovation Teams") links the classroom to the laboratory and to the marketplace. Each semester, students on five teams based on technologies funded by the Deshpande Centerdevelop go-to-market strategies for their research projects with the guidance of faculty and volunteers from the business community. Technologies for the fall 2005 semester include hemostasis (cessation of bleeding), smart drug delivery, carbon nanotubes, infrared sensors, and fabric manufacturing.

A great deal happens at MIT from what I call "touching the leaves" in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Something of the spirit of entrepreneurship is in the air, a culture of innovation we all absorb, whether we are inherently entrepreneurial or not. Students working in MIT's research laboratories benefit from working with faculty members who are enterprising inventors. Apprenticeships and tutoring serve as complements to formal instruction in management and financing. We in engineering don't study entrepreneurship per se; we do entrepreneurship. We create products and processes that people use. Bringing together management and engineering provides an ideal combination: teach the underlying scholarship and theory, learn from real-life scenarios, and yet remember that entrepreneurship is a contact sport.

Support from our national government

I recently had the opportunity to chair a skills working group of the US Council on Competitiveness's National Innovation Initiative that presented a set of recommendations to the US government concerning innovation. One recommendation proposes a US National Innovation Education Act, modeled on the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of the 1950s, that would serve as a vehicle for attracting more graduate students interested in innovation to engineering and science.

Should the government choose which technologies to pursue? As MIT professor Vannevar Bush, former director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, proposed in his report, "Endless Frontier," government should provide research funding but adopt a hands-off approach while universities provide the talent to fuel industrial development in the US economy. I concur: let the market decide.

How would I advise the aspiring researcher-entrepreneur?

Strike a balance. Obtain a strong grounding in science, math, and technology because entrepreneurs need to have a firm understanding of basic underlying technologies. However, a broad base provides perspective on the context in which innovation occurs: the entrepreneurship ecosystem. Some knowledge of the market and finances is essential. What I would argue against is becoming exclusively technology-focused or studying entrepreneurship without a firm technological base. Much entrepreneurial success comes from the complementary relationship between management and engineering and from an open, inviting, and stimulating environment like MIT that serves as a fertile incubator for our next generation of entrepreunerial leaders.

[1] This article was adapted, with permission, from "Of Engineers and Entrepreneurs" by Lay Leng Tan, Innovation magazine, Vol. 5, No. 3. (Innovation magazine is jointly published by the National University of Singapore and World Scientific Publishing.)