This article is part of our September 2015 special report on startups, which highlights IEEE’s efforts to attract more entrepreneurial types to the organization.
Today’s entrepreneurs have different needs in terms of fund-raising, product development, and social marketing. Often, the startups are not just developing new technologies but also creating innovative software for existing ones. Creative thinkers enjoy going to networking events with like-minded individuals as well as attending academic conferences. And they are likely to subscribe to credible sources that curate content they’re interested in, including research articles, videos, and other material related to their product ideas.
Those are just some of the findings from a year’s worth of analysis conducted by the 2014 IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Entrepreneurship. The IEEE Board of Directors established the committee to recommend programs, products, and services that the organization should provide to help encourage more engagement with these individuals. After all, record numbers of young people are starting businesses—just the type of people IEEE wants for future members.
“It’s not that engineering research isn’t helpful, but today’s entrepreneurs are looking to network with other talented and creative people, investors, and entrepreneurs in order to develop their companies, markets, and products,” says IEEE Senior Member Ken Stauffer, the committee’s vice chair. “These unmet needs are some of the reasons why it’s not easy for entrepreneurs to find a home within IEEE.”
In 2003 Stauffer cofounded Technology Assurance Labs, an independent laboratory in Orlando, Fla., that provides business-focused solutions and products.
“Forty years ago people looked at you cross-eyed if you came out of college and wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “With the proliferation of software that allows people to develop apps, role models like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and easier accessibility to money through venture capital and crowdfunding, starting your own business is much easier and more acceptable for a young graduate.” In fact, he adds, in some areas of the world entrepreneurism is a young grad’s default occupation because of weak economies and a limited number of corporate positions.
“Additionally, a growing number of large tech companies regularly invest in purchasing and integrating startups, rather than creating an internal R&D department,” he notes. “The world of technology business is changing, and IEEE is working to ensure we add value to this changing model.”
Stauffer chairs the 2015 Technical Activities Ad Hoc Committee on Entrepreneurship, which has been asked by the IEEE Board to carry out some of the recommendations the committee made last year. Those include the creation of a Web portal to IEEE services and programs relevant to the startup community; holding a global networking event for entrepreneurs, investors, and others; and creating an entrepreneurs section in IEEE Collabratec, a suite of online tools with which to network, collaborate, and create.
The committee is composed of volunteers who have experience with startups, plus a team of staffers led by Mary Ward-Callan, managing director of IEEE Technical Activities, and Randi Sumner, director of volunteer engagement and strategy, both in Piscataway, N.J.
“If you think about all the pieces that comprise IEEE’s mission of advancing technology for the benefit of humanity, we certainly have to engage the entrepreneurial community,” Ward-Callan says. “They’re an exciting group of people to work with because they’re always moving technology forward and pushing ahead with new ideas.”
IEEE has been dipping its toes in the startup stream for several years, but getting involved is now a priority.
The ad hoc committee has been taking inventory of all the entrepreneurial activities scattered among IEEE societies, sections, chapters, and other groups. The activities will be posted on a new website along with news and information about resources of value to the startup community.
Entrepreneurs’ communities will be formed in IEEE Collabratec, too, Stauffer says, adding that this virtual way to collaborate will allow the communities to organize globally.
The first IEEE-wide global entrepreneurship event, IEEE N3XT, is scheduled for 14 November, in Toronto. According to Sumner, its three tracks will focus on startup tools, inspiring stories of successful beginnings, and intrapreneurship, which incorporates startuplike innovative approaches and product development within an existing company.
For the past four years, IEEE has held networking events and sessions on emerging technologies for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival. The annual event, a popular venue for introducing new applications of technology, attracts thousands of entrepreneurs.
“Our engagement in SXSW got us involved with its community,” Ward-Callan says. “Most who attend are not setting up traditional companies; they’re launching application-oriented businesses. They care less about the invention of technology and more about a creative use of that technology.”
IEEE has learned several things thanks to its involvement with SXSW. In particular, Ward-Callan says, it has learned which topics interest creative thinkers and how to present research on emerging areas, like the Internet of Things.
IEEE has also partnered with high-tech companies to inspire innovation and startup activities by sponsoring competitions and awarding prizes, Sumner says, including the Little Box Challenge, sponsored by Google and the IEEE Power Electronics Society. The contest sought innovators who could shrink the size of a power inverter by at least 90 percent and in January will award the winner US $1 million to see the design through to production. Inverters convert energy from DC sources, such as batteries, solar cells, and wind, to AC.
And the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society has been helping to promote the first Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, a contest to develop a working handheld gadget that can monitor and diagnose health conditions. The top three teams will share a $10 million prize, which is also to be awarded in January.
Last October, the Toronto chapter of the IEEE Young Professionals group held the Technical Entrepreneurship Mini-Conference, during which entrepreneurs and technologists educated students and early-career professionals about how they can help grow the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The upcoming IEEE N3XT includes on its host committee several of the young professionals who helped jump-start last year’s Mini-Conference. IEEE N3XT will be a larger and far more diverse event, Sumner predicts, drawing on some of the momentum and experience of the Toronto volunteers.
“We are learning how to work and play in the startup space,” Ward-Callan says, “and it is certainly an exciting place for IEEE to be.”
This article originally appeared in print as “Making IEEE a Home for Founders.”