How IEEE Will Leverage Entrepreneurship to Engage Young Professionals

A new program would provide training and financial support for startups

23 May 2017

In recent blog posts, I reported on the results of the IEEE Student and Young Professional Congress, which was held in December in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The congress was more than just a typical SYP event; it reinvigorated and ignited curiosity among young people in the country. The meeting triggered a chain of events that are now helping to create the framework for innovation and entrepreneurship there.

Since December I have been working closely with many stakeholders to better define the innovation process and how IEEE and partnering organizations can help support young people in their engineering journey. At the IEEE Board of Directors retreat held in January, several of my colleagues and I emphasized the importance of leveraging entrepreneurship to engage young IEEE members and young people in general. In light of our suggestions, the Board endorsed that IEEE “create a global entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.” Furthermore, it agreed that could be done by creating entrepreneurial activities in three to five developing countries.

Countries are to be selected based on the following criteria: low gross domestic product (GDP), low per-capita GDP, high percentage of youth unemployment (greater than 20 percent), and a strong IEEE presence. Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, has one of the highest youth unemployment rates: a staggering 67 percent, according to the World Bank. The country’s GDP is US $18.5 million, and its GDP per capita is $4,200. There are other countries that fall into those financial categories, but not all of them have a strong IEEE presence. Sri Lanka and Uganda are good examples of countries that fit the criteria. Both countries also have ranked low on the Global Innovation Index.

The IEEE entrepreneurship ecosystem should leverage all the diverse assets it has, including technical and nontechnical documentation, videos and, most importantly, IEEE volunteers who can serve as experts. The ecosystem also should define how IEEE interacts and supports the ambitions of budding entrepreneurs, experienced entrepreneurs, potential investors, and other stakeholders.

The rationale behind the local entrepreneurship events is simple: Such events engage with communities, allowing IEEE to attract members and nonmembers who might feel disconnected from the organization’s large-scale global events. IEEE is focusing on developing countries with the abovementioned criteria because it is where the organization can make the biggest impact with its new approach.

With the right investment of knowledge and some financial support, IEEE has an opportunity to create an ecosystem in such countries to support the career development of young people and their ideas, play an integral part in increasing youth employment, and bolster economic development. IEEE can engage the next generation of our membership by applying our collective knowledge and leading by example. The Bosnia and Herzegovina SYP event could be used as a model.

HOW THE MODEL WORKS

The SYP Congress used a five-step process: education, participation, presentation, incubation, and launch. The participants were university students and young professional engineers. The event was not only for people who had entrepreneurial experiences but also for individuals and groups with no knowledge about how to launch a business from an idea.

All participants undertook an intensive education program that included face-to-face and online training. The first component addressed idea generation, creative thinking, and design. It provided participants with the fundamental knowledge in theory and application of innovation as well as covered the design thinking process to discover and define problems, capture primary research, generate ideas, conceive a design, and prototype, validate and evaluate it. The design- and idea-generation component is based on the Ideas to Innovation course at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, that IEEE Member Matthew Felicetti and I developed. It is, however, only one of many methodologies that can be applied.

The second component involved workshops organized by our partner, the Youth Employment Project, supported by the Swiss embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The workshops used the CEFE (competency-based economies through formation of entrepreneurs) methodology. CEFE is a comprehensive set of training instruments using action-oriented and experiential learning methods to develop and enhance the business management and personal competences of a wide variety of target groups, mostly in the context of generating income, employment, and economic growth. Again, CEFE is one of many methods that can be used.

After completing that stage, attendees participated in a 10- to 12-week innovation challenge in which they were assigned a mentor experienced in business and technology. After completing the innovation challenge, the preliminary judging process reviewed the projects for quality and narrowed down the ideas to the 10 to 12 that best met the criteria. Those ideas were then pitched to a panel of experts at the SYP Congress as well as investors, who selected ideas that had real potential.

In the new ecosystem, IEEE would provide the technical support, and mentors would come from IEEE societies that best match the innovation. IEEE would review the technical aspects of the innovation, similar to the peer-review process used for publications. For example, if an idea involved RFID technology, the IEEE Council on RFID would review it. If the project passed the review, it would be stamped with the council’s logo. That not only would provide visibility for the council but also give the innovation recognition outside the council. In this new ecosystem, there would be two options for investment.

One would call for IEEE to partner with a local incubator; the second would be to launch the startup immediately. IEEE would provide limited seed capital to kick-start the innovations deemed to have potential. The goal would be to ensure that a local or international investor could at least match IEEE’s investment. IEEE seed capital would be used to develop a sustainable and long-term program whereby the startup would return the invested capital within 24 to 36 months after launch. Furthermore, members of the successful innovation teams would be expected to become judges as well as mentors and speakers in the near future. Knowledge transfer is central to the success of IEEE’s vision.

The IEEE Entrepreneurship community would support and mentor the startup. Each team would be assigned a mentor, who would be involved in the processes taking place before the judging. The mentors would provide ad hoc support for innovations that were incubated or launched.

In my next blog, I will profile DevStudio, a startup from the 2016 SYP Congress that quickly became a successful business.

Eddie Custovic is editor in chief of Impact, the publication of the IEEE Young Professionals group, and is the chair of the IEEE Victorian Section, Australia. In his day job, he is an academic and industry project coordinator at La Trobe University, where he founded and directs the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Foundry, an interdisciplinary research, development, and commercialization laboratory.

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