Entrepreneurial Activities Give Villanova Engineers an Edge

One of the VSEC Award winners developed an inexpensive, portable rice huller to benefit impoverished rice farmers

Today it’s not enough for engineers to possess solid, or even exceptional technical skills. In the dynamic and increasingly competitive global marketplace, employers need whole-brain thinkers who can innovate and create; strategize and lead; collaborate and execute.  Villanova’s College of Engineering graduates such engineers.

In 2008, the College of Engineering launched its unique minor in Entrepreneurship for Engineers, and helped create and produce a number of campus-wide programs and resources to foster the development of the entrepreneurial mindset throughout the Villanova community.  As part of the Center for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE), the College of Engineering is helping engage students in cross-college, interdisciplinary collaborations. Each year, the University sees increasing interest and involvement in these courses and related competitions.

Engineering Entrepreneurship

The Engineering Entrepreneurship initiative receives support from the Kern Family Foundation whose objective is to instill engineers with a “big picture” mindset that enables them to contribute to business success.  Serving as the catalyst for the program and many of the University’s creative and entrepreneurial activities is director Edmond J. Dougherty. Dougherty’s objective is to unleash an entrepreneurial mindset on campus, especially for engineers who tend to focus only on the technical aspects of a project.

“Through exposure to entrepreneurship, students begin to see the bigger picture as a systems problem, to consider the customer, the societal impact of their work and of course their own careers and personal lives. It’s about more than technology for technology’s sake,” he explains.

Clearly students are eager to see the big picture. Enrollment in the Engineering Entrepreneurship minor increases each year. Currently, 20% of the freshman engineers have signed up for the minor, the largest in the College.  

Among the specific lessons students learn in the Engineering Entrepreneurship minor is how to make the “pitch.” Dougherty spends a good deal of time helping them become comfortable with telling their product’s story – as succinctly as possible.

“We teach the students they need to be able to explain their ideas, hopes and dreams in less than a minute.  We call that an ‘elevator pitch’ because they should be able to convince an important person they meet on an elevator to be part of their vision before the elevator reaches the executive floor.  And to add drama, we actually have the students give their pitches in an elevator,” says Dougherty. “Those in the entrepreneurship minor probably give their elevator pitch a dozen times a year.” 

Other related exercises include the grandparent/grandkid pitch. Dougherty says, “You need to be able to explain your idea so your grandparents and their grandchildren can totally understand it. If they can’t – it means you have more work to do understanding it yourself.”  

Idea Bounce is another technique described by Dougherty as “Karaoke for innovators, where students individually stand up in a room full of entrepreneurs and faculty and explain their ideas and obtain instant feedback.” And then there are the 50/50 interviews, which require student teams to speak face to face with 50 potential customers in 50 days to gauge market interest and gather feedback on their product concepts.

The students’ hard work culminates in a trade show in April, which draws hundreds of people from around the Philadelphia area. For this event, student teams in the engineering entrepreneurship minor set up exhibit booths of their own design to present their prototypes and explain their business concepts to passersby. They are required to have a person on their team do an exit survey with each visitor to gauge how well the visitor understood the presentation.

Why does Dougherty think there’s so much interest in the Engineering Entrepreneurship program? “The students describe it as ‘refreshing,’” he says. “It’s very different from what engineering students usually do and requires them to use the other side of their brain. There’s also increasing awareness of the importance of being well-rounded and having a higher level of systems thinking and creativity to differentiate you in the workplace.”

ENTREPRENEURIAL COMPETITIONS

With encouragement from Dougherty, II Luscri, Director of the Center for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE Center), and many others on campus, students are engaging in an increasing number of opportunities to test their creative, technical and business acumen. In addition to engineering-specific competitions, there are a variety of interdisciplinary, campus-wide challenges, and national contests that present even more possibilities. Here is just a sampling of the competitions that engineering students entered in 2012-2013:

24 Hour Imagination Quest

Introduced this year, Imagination Quest is a 24-hour challenge during which interdisciplinary teams demonstrate their creativity and originality. Supported by funds from a Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) grant, Villanova invited the University of New Haven, a fellow KEEN member, to participate. The group formed five teams, each tasked with identifying an opportunity, developing a vision and proposing three possible solutions.  What followed was a 24-hour whirlwind of activities that included:

  • Elevator pitches for their initial product ideas
  • Selecting the best solution
  • Planning a prototype
  • Marketing the idea
  • Creating the prototype
  • Developing and presenting a trade show for their product

The final step on Sunday morning required each of the teams to make a 10-minute pitch in the “Cat Cage,” a boardroom with Apprentice / Shark Tank-style judges who tested all of the teams’ entrepreneurial skills with probing questions. 

Paul Pelullo ’16 EE was a member of the winning team, Alpha Dogs. He enjoyed the experience and would happily participate again, though he did acknowledge the challenges. “It's difficult at first because you have very little time to get to know each other and you censor yourself because you don't want to risk offending someone,” he says.  Paul adds, “Working with a team that you don't know does have its advantages, however. It forces you to think outside of the box and stops you from falling into the same rhythm that you might have with a team you've worked with before.”

Another Imagination Quest competition is anticipated in the fall of 2014. 

Villanova Student Entrepreneurship Competition (VSEC)

In 2009, the Villanova Student Entrepreneurship Competition was founded by two engineering graduate students, Ronald Warzoha and Timothy Montalbano. Created as an extracurricular, entrepreneurial experience, the competition runs the course of one semester, allowing students across various academic disciplines to collaborate and develop innovative ideas that seek to fill a need in today’s world.

Just two years ago, 17 teams entered VSEC; in 2013, that number had grown to 55. From those, seven teams were selected to present their ideas to an audience of judges; five of those seven finalists teams included engineering students as members. Mechanical engineering senior Tom Belatti was with “Fun Run,” the team that took first prize for its competitive, socially driven mobile application designed to add motivation and fun to exercise. This is the third consecutive year that an engineering student participated on the winning team.

The third-place VSEC award went to “Du Riz,” a team of engineering juniors. Members Frederick Hesse-Tetteh CpE, Warren Chan CEE and Joseph Reckamp ChE developed an inexpensive, portable rice huller to benefit impoverished rice farmers. Du Riz also took home an award for being the most promising social entrepreneurship idea. Having first shared the rice huller idea in the 2011-2012 Annual Review (“Student Snapshot”), Joseph was pleased to report, “It’s fulfilling actually getting to put the product together instead of just talking about it in class.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

For the 2013-2014 academic year, the College of Engineering will be offering three sections of its Creativity and Innovation course. Normally contained to one section, the increase is in response to interest from students campus-wide. For the first time, those in the School of Business and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have enrolled in the course.

It’s clear that Villanova students are developing a passion for a whole-brain approach to thinking, exploring, learning and creating. Ed Dougherty says, “We really are Igniting Change; I can see the entrepreneurial spirit spreading across campus.  It’s one more characteristic that will set Villanova students apart.”