Greg Crawford is a professor at Brown University (Providence, RI) where he teaches high-technology entrepreneurship courses for both undergraduate and graduate students. Crawford has lectured on student-based entrepreneurship in China, Malaysia, Spain, Japan, and he spent 14 months in the Netherlands developing a similar program at Technische Universiteit Eindhoven (TU/e).
In the classes offered at Brown, students take product development from idea to market. The ideas for the projects are gleaned from a variety of sources, such as industry, marketing, and even hospitals.
"We feel it's important to have people who are working in the real world to bring in some of that practical experience," he explains.
After selecting the projects, Crawford and colleague Eric Suuberg divide the students into teams depending on the core expertise needed for the individual projects. The teams consist of about half engineering students and half humanities or economics students.
The projects encompass three key areas of high-tech entrepreneurship: engineering design; marketing and law (intellectual property, corporate, and liability, for example); and globalization.
"We stress engineering design and also put a lot of emphasis on prototyping, something that demonstrates the core principles and underlying concepts to people," explains Crawford. "If there's an investor coming, showing them something gives them a sense that you're at a level of sophistication that maybe other people aren't."
Crawford says the class "brings a taste of realism into the curriculum because we are interacting with the outside world. It brings all of the students' coursework together. They are drawing on their resident knowledge from all the different courses they have taken during their undergraduate career, including engineering, science, and non-technical ones."
The advantages of an entrepreneurship class such as Crawford's are clear to students hoping to join a small startup or create their own. He points out, though, that larger companies, such as 3M, Philips, GE, and the like, are more actively promoting "intrapreneurship" within their companies.
"These companies have incubators now where you can get yourself away from the bureaucracy and start something new within the company, run with it, and use the infrastructure and resources, but still have the small company feel," Crawford explains. "I think this model is becoming more and more prominent within big companies, and having this entrepreneurship training greatly helps new employees excel within the company."
Not only is an entre-preneurship course a big advantage once on the job, students say the experience is a great advantage in job interviews. "They can really show the person who's doing the interview their skill set in areas other than just their technical education," Crawford says.
In addition to entrepreneurship training, he says the best thing students can do to supplement their engineering courses are: Take business and/or economic classes. Take a course that focuses on globalization. Go on an exchange program to another country. Take classes in other languages.
"Spend the time and take a couple courses in another language, and learn about that culture," urges Crawford. "It helps a lot to really understand people and other cultures. When it comes down to it, good engineers have strong technical skills, but exceptional engineers also understand people, events, and culture, and they're able to apply those skills in very different environments."
Crawford predicts the expectation for engineering students to enter the workplace with some business or entrepreneurship background will increase in the coming years.
"Students are asking for it, parents are asking for it, and companies are expecting it from employees," he says. "All the forces are there to make this an expectation, that if you don't have a program in entrepreneurship, you certainly need to make one at a university."
Erin M. Schadt, SPIE Professional Managing Editor