A Program Encouraging Engineers to Think Different

An entrepreneur once told Dr. Thomas Lechler how he knows he’s hit upon an entrepreneurial idea.

When Ken Zorovich — whose successes include the Zoku Quick Pop Maker that was picked up by Williams-Sonoma — bounces business ideas off his friends and family, he discards the concepts that get the best reactions.

“If they can imagine it, that means others have already done it,” Lechler recalled Zorovich saying. The ideas he pursues, he said, are the ones “where everybody looks at you and says you’re crazy.”

It’s a message Lechler, an associate professor at the Howe School, said he’s been preaching all along, and he’s finding a new audience in bringing business entrepreneurship to Stevens’ Schaefer School of Engineering and Science in their senior design year.

The Entrepreneurship program dates back to 2006, when Lechler was one of three professors who received funding for implementing an entrepreneurial culture at Stevens.

Engineering students, Lechler said, understand the technical challenges to a problem better than students in other disciplines, but they don’t understand the market concepts. That’s where the Howe faculty comes into play.

“We focus on very basic concepts,” Lechler said, such as the difference between creating a new technical solution, called invention, and a product to address new needs in the market, called innovation.

“We have to create that awareness,” he said. “And each step takes longer than the students think it will.”

An emphasis on the real world

Courses are structured more like workshops than traditional classes, with students getting plenty of hands-on time with professors as they refine business or project ideas into real-world concepts with commercial perspective.

A freshman course already is a requirement for engineering students, and in two years, the program is planned to become a requirement for all engineers.

Lechler said that change will be instrumental in guiding students through the idea phase and into execution.

Exposing these students to the types of skills sets they’ll need to succeed here is important in helping them develop that entrepreneurial mindset.

While the program teaches business skills to students of other disciplines, there’s a practical concern, also.

When these engineering students go on job interviews, “this helps them stand out from the crowd,” Lechler said. “They talk about working on projects based on business considerations.” The ability to discuss how they identified a market and competed for resources on a project with a specific business aim, he said, offers “a huge advantage against students who come strictly from engineering studies.”

That’s certainly true, said Dr. Vikki Hazelwood, a professor of biomedical engineering within Schaefer who has been an advocate for integrating entrepreneurial thinking into engineering students’ senior projects.

“We want to train students in the soft skills,” so that engineers graduate with a sense of how to communicate, build timelines and budget, and so on.

Hazelwood has a background in industry, and founded the Lab for Translation Research in Medicine to create collaborations between biomedical engineers and practitioners to create innovative engineering solutions for unmet clinical needs.

“It helps them to win interviews and get them their first job,” she said. “They have good (senior) projects, and learn how to talk about them.”

That’s a credit to the collaboration with Howe.

“It’s not that students haven’t had guidance and support, but it hasn’t been in a formal context,” she said. The workshop, she said, is one way “to introduce this opportunity to every student … not just those who are inclined to entrepreneurship.”

A model for entrepreneurs

Not everyone knows Ken Zorovich — the businessman who runs with the crazy ideas his friends and family don’t understand.

Steve Jobs is another story.

Dr. Thomas Lechler said Apple’s iPad was a defining moment for entrepreneurship from Jobs, its then-CEO. Other companies already were producing tablet computers, and market researchers told Jobs the demand for such a product wasn’t large enough to justify the necessary investments.

Jobs, Lecher said, “believed in that product — that people wanted something like this, that fits into a pocket.”

The rest, of course, is history. The iPad is a market leader in a category it helped create despite the naysayers — “exactly what we’re trying to teach,” Lechler said.