A Road Map for Engineering Students Who Aspire to Start a Company

Designed by entrepreneurs, the plan guides them from idea to marketplace

10 November 2017

When you’re out to launch your first company, questions abound: Will people buy what I want to sell? Where do I get funding? How do I build a team?

To help budding entrepreneurs find answers, IEEE Member Steve T. Cho and Aram Chavez, both lecturers in technological entrepreneurship management at Arizona State University in Tempe, wrote “A Map of Technology Entrepreneurship: Aha to Exit.” In 10 steps, and a minimum of 15 courses, students learn ways to turn their idea into a profitable venture. The steps are displayed in an infographic that provides the framework for ASU’s program, which leads to a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation. Chavez presented the map at the IEEE Technology and Engineering Management Society Conference, which The Institute attended.

ASU offers the country’s only entrepreneurship undergraduate program administered by an engineering school—the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering—rather than a business school. Students take the program in the order shown in the infographic.

“Many of our engineering students take courses that allow them to minor in entrepreneurship—and in these courses, they’re exposed to creating startups, filing intellectual property, building teams, launching products, and other vital skills,” Cho says.

“Our years of guiding and investing in startups has given us the template to create the map,” Chavez says. “It integrates the best practices in entrepreneurship and provides a comprehensive view of the journey.”

STARTUP INCUBATOR

Chavez and Cho are no strangers to the startup world. For the past two decades, Chavez has been providing funding and guidance to small businesses through Pacific Investment Partners, a private equity firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he is managing director.

Cho, a nanotechnology engineer, has led several engineering startups during his 28-year technical career.

The ASU entrepreneurship program, which has grown from 50 students in 2012 to more than 850 this semester, is offered online and in person. It is open to students pursuing all majors—not just those studying engineering or business.

The program has helped several students launch successful ventures, Chavez says. One is Lvl Up Dojo, a subscription-based service that offers online videos to help professional video game players train for competitions. Another is SCI Creations, a digital marketing firm in Chandler, Ariz., that specializes in data services.

Aspiring founders at the university also learn from each other. “Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely experience,” Cho says. That’s why ASU launched the Startup Village, a residential building where students who want to start their own businesses can live and network, share resources, and help each other solve problems and flesh out ideas. Professors and recent graduates often visit the building to act as mentors. There is not a similar program yet for online students.

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES

The two lecturers noted that students—especially engineering undergraduates—often are knowledgeable about the technology they’re working on but might not understand all its potential applications. The program helps students narrow down what they want the technology to accomplish. It has them identify a target audience and find and interview potential customers to learn what they want from the product. Cho and Chavez refer to the audience as a cult—a group of influencers and experts likely to use the technology.

After students identify and consult with their cult, they learn how to develop a prototype and test it, then create a marketing campaign.

Completing those steps helps give the students confidence to present their startup to potential investors, Chavez says. “It can be a challenge for entrepreneurs to connect with investors,” he says, “especially if they don’t live near a major startup hub, like Silicon Valley.

“Our students often come up through the mud,” he says, explaining that some start with nothing but money borrowed from friends and family. And many must pay off student loans before they have capital of their own to invest. Therefore, he says, it’s especially important to develop a product and a business plan to impress angel investors and venture capital firms early on.

“The engineering school at ASU emphasizes learning by doing,” Cho says. “Entrepreneurs are often afraid to get started, because they fear their idea isn’t good enough, or that they won’t be able to get funding. Our students are confident enough not to have those fears, because we take them through every step of the process.”

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