How Things Work

By Jennifer Sutton / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
On a brisk afternoon last December, Chelsea Seale ’03 stood before thirty people in a Barus and Holley conference room and did what you might expect an engineering student to do: she showed off a gadget. Wearing a black pantsuit and a neon turquoise turtleneck, she queued up a Powerpoint presentation and described how a personal digital assistant equipped with a digital camera and a specially developed mathematical algorithm might enable doctors to detect whether or not a patient is anemic. Rather than having to draw blood and wait days for a lab to process the result, doctors using this device, she said, could detect an iron deficiency in minutes by simply photographing the inside of the patient’s lower eyelid.

Seale’s presentation was not a traditional talk about a clever school project, however. It was an example of a revolution now under way in how some engineering professors prepare students for the world they will enter after graduation. Seale is more than an aspiring engineer; she is the vice president of marketing for Anemitech, a company she started with some fellow students to make and market the anemia gadget she was describing. So when she said, “Welcome, everyone. The name of our product is EYEnemia,” Seale wasn’t just demonstrating technical prowess. She was working the room.

Seale was completing a midyear homework assignment for Entrepreneurship I/II, a yearlong course introduced three years ago by Professor of Engineering Eric Suuberg and Associate Professor of Engineering Gregory Crawford. In their class, which is part introduction to business and part hardcore engineering with a little law, marketing, and finance thrown in, teams of students invent new products using existing technology—all intended, in Suuberg’s words, “to allow them to see how industry really works.”

Real-world engineering has been dramatically transformed over the past couple of decades, and universities have in many cases been slow to react. In the years after World War II engineers pondered the technological innovations that came out of the war—radar, for example, and the atomic bomb—and realized that physicists, not engineers, had developed them all. “The conclusion was that engineering was basically a handbook, not a body of knowledge,” says Frank Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. “If things changed, engineers didn’t know how to change the handbook. They were always the last to know.” In response, engineering education transformed itself into a field of study based more on math and science. “It worked brilliantly,” Huband says. “Now engineers were the ones who could innovate.”

And innovate they did. Engineers were snatched up by giant companies such as IBM and General Electric and settled into challenging work, good pay, and long-term job security. The arms race helped, too. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Huband says, half of all engineers took defense-related jobs: “Someone would say to you, ‘We’ve got an airplane and we want to make it go as fast as we can, and you’re going to work on the wing.’ And you worked on that single project for two years.” But after the fall of the Soviet Union much of the defense work dried up. Aided by the high-tech boom they had helped create, an increasing number of engineers found jobs in start-ups, where the division of labor is less rigid. “Now more engineers work at small companies,” Huband explains. “In addition to the constantly increasing technological material, they have to know about marketing and environmental issues and health-and-safety issues and finance and law. Engineers who worked in the corporate defense environment were never called on to know all that stuff.”

This trend continues today. Despite the collapse of the high-tech bubble, new engineers need a broad range of skills to complement their science and engineering knowledge in order to prosper. They must be able to pitch a product to venture capitalists, discuss intellectual-property rights with a lawyer, and market their designs to clients. “Technology people today are leaders, not just people who hang around in a cubicle designing a product,” says Phil Weilerstein, the executive director of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).

While the profession was undergoing this transformation in the business world, university engineering departments faced a related problem in their classrooms: keeping an increasingly diverse student body motivated. Half of all undergraduates who start out in engineering leave for fields they find more rewarding, says Huband, perhaps because the standard courses and teaching methods had been developed when engineering students were overwhelmingly white and male.

In the 1960s and 1970s a few universities—MIT, for one—introduced entrepreneurship courses that explored these broader issues, often in conjunction with a business school. But over the past five years entrepreneurship programs have become much more widespread, and most have a large engineering component, such as Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program. The bottom line, says Huband, is that teaching entrepreneurship as part of the engineering curriculum has gone “from a trickle to a firehose.”

AT FIRST GLANCE, Eric Suuberg and Greg Crawford don’t appear to have much in common. The fifty-one-year-old Suuberg is calm and cordial. Crawford, who is thirty-eight, cracks his knuckles and sucks on a lollipop; if it weren’t for his three-piece suit, he could be mistaken for an overly caffeinated graduate student. A physicist by training, Crawford teaches courses in such things as electronic-display engineering. Suuberg is a chemical engineer who specializes in fuels and combustion.

What the two share is an interest in the world of industry and business: before coming to Brown, Crawford worked at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), a cornerstone of California’s Silicon Valley, and Suuberg followed his doctorate in chemical engineering with a master’s in marketing at MIT.

Suuberg and Crawford launched Entrepreneurship I/II in the fall of 1999 armed with a multiyear $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which was looking to fund new ideas in engineering education. Their idea was to design a course that would ask students to team up and simulate a startup company. Local engineering or biotechnology companies would be involved as mentors, sharing some of their technology with the students, who would apply their creativity by trying to invent a new product with it—in effect spinning off a new company from the existing one.

Admission to the course is by application. Most who are accepted are seniors, and all have a history of good grades and plenty of spare time to make room for the heavy workload. An engineering background is not required; in fact, Suuberg and Crawford prefer to have a mix of students from inside and outside engineering and the sciences. Students are assigned to one of three teams, each of which is paired with a mentor company. Each team’s final project for fall semester is to devise a preliminary business plan. Over the winter and spring, students fine-tune prototypes of their inventions, polish their market research, and write up final business plans. They then compete for seed money from the alumni-supported Brown Entrepreneurship Program, the NCIIA, and other groups that finance student businesses.

What distinguishes the Brown program, say Suuberg and Crawford, is the students’ relationship with mentor companies. “Many entrepreneurship programs are based on student-generated ideas, which are not necessarily well seasoned,” says Suuberg. “We prefer that the initial ideas are generated by people who have a sense that they will work technically and commercially.”

One of these companies is Zebra Technologies, a multinational firm that designs and manufactures mobile bar-code printers and has offices in Warwick, Rhode Island. Steve Petteruti ’83, the vice president of engineering at Zebra’s Warwick office, says the arrangement has been good for his company because “there are a lot of ideas we can’t handle, projects that we may just be contemplating or that may be peripheral to the products we sell. The students become an ad hoc research and design group for us.”

This year Petteruti worked with a team whose company, Spectrosity, took a Zebra product called a PocketEye imager and turned it into a portable spectrometer for use in college-level biology and chemistry classes. DigiPAC, as the product is called, looks like an oversize cell phone, comes equipped with a digital camera (among other devices) and has the potential to give students and professors a fast, relatively cheap way to analyze electrophoresis gels and microplate experiments, which are commonly used in life-sciences experiments. Benjamin Dalley ’03, one of Spectrosity’s public-relations reps, calls DigiPAC “a lab in a box.”

Because this is only the fourth year the class has been offered, the longevity of the students’ products and business plans is difficult to assess, but Ferrosity, one of the companies founded in the 2001–02 class, has had a hopeful start. Last year its product, a glove lined with magnetic fluids meant to protect construction workers from vibration-induced injuries, won the Brown Entrepreneurship Program’s $25,000 business-plan competition; the company also collected an additional $15,000 in cash and legal services. Ferrosity has since incorporated, although because those remaining on the Ferrosity team are either still undergraduates or have taken other jobs to pay the rent, they have had only limited time to grow the business. In any case, Suuberg and Crawford say that forming a real-world company is not their only goal for the students in their course. The first priority, says Suuberg, “is simply to give these students a taste of what they will face after they leave school.”

ONE REASON Entrepreneurship is a yearlong course is that the new world of engineering can take some getting used to. In September, says Brian Norgard ’03, who was part of the Ferrosity team mentioned above,“there you are with seven or eight people you’ve never met before,” not to mention a technology you’ve never heard of. Suuberg and Crawford bring in guest lecturers to address various topics—including group dynamics. “The students really have to mesh together and be a team to make this work,” Suuberg says. “These students are very competitive. They’re used to wanting to beat out everyone else. They’re not used to working together.” Soon, though, student teams are meeting frequently, often late at night, figuring out how to get their companies off the ground.

One challenge is to determine who will do what. While certain students may end up doing much of the product-design work and others focus on the marketing strategy, there’s little room for strict compartmentalization in a tech start-up, whether it’s real or simulated. “Say you’re a mechanical engineer,” Crawford says. “At some point you’re probably going to have to open a biology or chemistry textbook. I worked in electronics at Xerox, and I found myself turning to an organic chemistry book more than anything else.”

Suuberg and Crawford try not to dictate the day-to-day workings of the student teams. Not only do the students decide what role each of them will play within the company; they also draft evaluation forms to review one another’s work as they develop their product. Usually sometime in October the teams and the ideas start to gel, and work begins in earnest. Students on the business side start researching potential costs, clients, and competitors. The techies head for a small general-use lab in Barus and Holley that has recently been outfitted with $500,000 in prototyping machinery; there they begin months of design work.

As their uncertainty gives way to cautious confidence, the students start acting as if their companies are destined for the real commercial world. They apply for small-business grants from the NCIIA and prepare for the Brown Entrepreneurship Program “elevator-speech” competition, in which contestants have forty-five seconds to sell their business ideas to a panel of judges. Chelsea Seale, who delivered Anemitech’s elevator speech, was disappointed not to have won until one of the judges, a former biotech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, approached her and offered to share some of his business contacts. “We had so many doubts,” Seale says, “like, ‘Do we have a good product?’ And to have someone come up to us and say, basically, ‘Yes, you do’—it was very bizarre and exciting.”

In a course that is so connected to the commercial marketplace, grading students on their work seems a little problematic.

If they attract the attention of a venture capitalist by the end of the year, do they get an A? While Suuberg and Crawford certainly hope the students will take their companies seriously enough to enter business-plan contests or to apply for grants, they base their grades solely on what happens in class: how the students conduct themselves and what they produce. Business plans, product prototypes, coworker evaluations,

presentations, and interactions with guest speakers and with mentor-company executives all figure into the mix as well. “When someone isn’t pulling their weight, it shows up pretty easily,” says Crawford.

A COURSE LIKE Entrepreneurship I/II seems somewhat of a departure for Brown, where such practical instruction historically has been rejected in favor of more theoretical work. But the course has the support of Dean of the College Paul Armstrong. “It’s essentially a course in problem-solving, and we have a lot of courses that teach problem-solving,” Armstrong says. “It requires students to think critically and creatively, to collaborate, and to put their skills to use in innovative ways. Those are educational experiences that are totally consistent with the curriculum.”

Besides, adds Provost Robert Zimmer, “solving scientific and technical problems for the public benefit has long been associated with the academy. If you’re designing something with a practical application, you can’t do it divorced from the way it would be commercialized.” And Suuberg and Crawford’s collaborations with local mentor companies are hardly Brown’s only connection with the nonacademic world, Zimmer points out—there is the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance’s consortium with Trinity Repertory Company, and the public-policy center’s association with city and state programs. “The nature of what we want to do inside the academy is enhanced by what’s happening outside,” Zimmer says. “Connecting the two is a way to gain deeper and richer understanding.”

Yet the future of the entrepreneurship course is uncertain. It won’t be offered next year, when Crawford will be abroad on sabbatical. In addition, the NSF grant financing the course is about to run out, and as of press time the two professors are looking for additional funding.

Phil Weilerstein of the NCIIA hopes they find it. The lessons learned in this kind of course are “critical” to the future of engineering education, he says. “The entrepreneurial skills [Suuberg and Crawford] are teaching are generic in a good way. They’re eminently transferrable, whether it’s to the corporate world or nonprofits or government or as business owners.” Zebra’s Petteruti suggests waiting ten years and then asking the entrepreneurship students what college course was most useful to them. “I’m willing to bet that they’ll say this one.”

Former BAM associate editor Jennifer Sutton lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.
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