IEEE: A 131-Year Old Startup

President Howard E. Michel on why building a community for founders is a key goal

7 September 2015

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.

In 1877, Edward Weston founded the Weston Dynamo Machine Co. to explore possibilities within the expanding field of dynamo machines. He would later move on to establish the Weston Electrical Instrument Co. in 1888.

In 1878, Thomas Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Co. In 1879, Elihu Thomson and Edwin Houston founded the Thomson-Houston Electric Co., which later merged with Edison’s company to form the General Electric Co.

ENREPRENEURIAL roots

Those four giants, together with a few other leaders in their respective fields, in 1884 started one more organization of note: the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, one of IEEE’s predecessor societies.

Think about that for a moment: Today’s IEEE is the second-generation creation of a startup, founded by entrepreneurs. Actually, both of IEEE’s parent organizations were startups; the 1912 creation of the Institute of Radio Engineers was the direct result of Robert H. Marriott’s desire to create a unified association to support technical professionals in the burgeoning field of radio and wireless communications.

Technology giants of the modern era—Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard, among many others—were started by entrepreneurial AIEE, IRE, and IEEE members. Those companies began with an idea and some solid thinking about how to turn that idea into a commercial enterprise.

When we think about today’s entrepreneurs, we think about garages, dorm rooms on college campuses, or any one of countless locations where individuals and groups have pursued their passions, chased their dreams, and changed our world.

But we also need to think of the people behind each invention. Behind every new invention you will find one person with an idea or a small cluster of people working to find a solution to a problem or create a tool we didn’t have before. Regardless of how an entrepreneurial idea starts, it needs a community within which to grow—and that’s something that IEEE has been providing for more than 130 years.

Diverse communities, ones that allow technical professionals to pursue their ideas in any direction, are the cornerstones of innovation. They are so critical that the current IEEE Board of Directors and the IEEE in 2030 Ad Hoc Committee have made the fostering of such communities one of four key strategic areas of focus in the coming years.

Providing the right conditions for forming startups isn’t just a good thing to do—it’s critical. We live in an era in which technical progress is measured by the year and month; in the coming decade, it’s likely that progress will be measured by the month and week. If IEEE neglects to encourage the growth of communities that seek entrepreneurial outlets for their efforts, it does so at its own peril.

THE NEXT 130 YEARS

During recent industry outreach efforts by the IEEE Board of Directors, we met with industry leaders in Shenzhen, China. Years ago, these leaders were entrepreneurs, armed with ideas, sound thinking, and a desire to bring something new to the global marketplace. And they did. In 1990, Shenzhen had a population of less than 900,000; today, it boasts more than 10 million people.

This exponential growth in just 25 years was made possible by a commitment to fostering a community that values innovation and entrepreneurship. Today the city is one of the fastest-growing technology centers in the world, with a population that averages 30 years of age and is engaged in a dizzying array of entrepreneurial endeavors.

This is the cohort where I truly believe that IEEE will see a blossoming of entrepreneurs—especially within the ranks of our Student and Young Professionals  communities. It’s in these two groups that we find countless engineers working together to solve problems or to invent the next “must have” product or application. In the next few years, I believe we will see these efforts ratchet upward at an incredible pace.

I’m not going to close this article by asking for your ideas about the startup you’re working on. I suspect my in-box would be flooded with tens of thousands of great ideas, all in various stages of exploration. No, asking you what you’re working on is a little too easy.

I prefer to offer a challenge instead: Send me your thoughts regarding what role you believe technical professional organizations like IEEE can play in creating the conditions in which startups can not only form but also flourish. It can be a reimagining of something that’s already in place or a wholly new construct never tried before, but it’s something you believe holds great promise.

Reach out to me at president@ieee.org. Your input is vital as we look toward IEEE’s future. As an organization, we’ve been a seedbed for startups our entire existence. Let us together develop those efforts and accomplish even greater things.

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