Howe Entrepreneurship Course Helps Stevens Engineers Launch Company

Rising Sophomores Building Modularity LLC from University Incubator

8/8/2014

If Modularity LLC ever achieves its goal of being commercially viable to the point where it attracts a buyer, its founders will owe a great deal to the Howe School of Technology Management. 

That’s because the founders are all rising sophomores at Stevens who completed a Howe-led course teaching them to approach the challenges they face as engineers through the viewpoint of entrepreneurs.

As part of the course, Introduction to Entrepreneurship, the Modularity team identified a problem — the shortcomings of power strips in outlet-starved environments, like college dorm rooms — presented a concept, modified it through customer interviews and created 3D models of what it called the Modu-Strip to present to investors, advisers and potential customers.

And while it’s early to call Modularity a success story, their product could be on shelves faster than you think. The students raised $10,000 on the popular crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter, qualifying them for investor funding as well as incubator space at Stevens for the summer.

By all accounts, the team made the most of it, appearing at conferences and other events, building marketing plans and engagement strategies, and further refining their product through customer input.

Gregory McNeil said the first thing listed on his résumé is that he’s CEO of Modularity, which he credits with helping him land a co-op position.

“They were just blown away by the fact that we have a startup, that we raised $10,000,” McNeil said. “I beat out some people that had four times the experience I did. They were really impressed that I knew how to talk to people, which I learned in this class.”

That was the sort of thing Dr. Gary Lynn had in mind as one of the architects of the course.

“Whether they build the company or not is not the issue,” said Lynn, a Howe School of Technology Management professor who specializes in marketing, product development and entrepreneurship. “What company would not want to hire engineers who know how to build something, how to market it, raise money, be in charge of profit and loss, get customers, build a website — even if you fail?”

The freshmen — all 500 in Stevens’ engineering program — accepted the challenge with relish. Twenty-nine teams were listed on Kickstarter, with business ideas ranging from headphones containing storage for an ID card and a key, to a fingerprint-based lock system for bicycles and lockers.

The course emphasizes what Dr. Peter Koen, another architect of the course, calls the “flipped classroom” that eschews lectures for learning by doing, “so the students better retain what they learn.”

“They develop skills in teamwork, marketing, finance,” Koen said. “You need all of those to work at large companies.”

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Companies of all sizes are under pressure to find employees who can think like Stevens engineers are being taught to consider problems.

“The old model of engineering, of throwing something over the wall to manufacture, is something we think very few companies can afford anymore,” Lynn said. “We’re trying to teach students how they can have an eye to the market and another eye on the product, so that when they produce it, they can be sure there’s a market there.”

The value of business instruction

Peter Brine, Modularity’s chief operating officer, said he sees the value of what Stevens is aiming to accomplish through the course.

“Especially now, seeing this and starting to apply some of the things we learned in the class — and seeing what was taught in my engineering design class, and having that mesh so well with the entrepreneurship class — is really cool,” he said. “For the rest of my life, I’m always going to wonder, ‘what’s the entrepreneurial aspect of this?’ and look at problems a little differently to get a new view of them.”

That’s a testament to how Koen and Lynn have designed the course.

“We teach students how to get out with the customer quickly, bounce a low-fidelity prototype off them, and try to understand what the customer needs are — so if they build it, people will come,” Lynn said. “We focus on doing, not planning.”

That’s crucial for education today, and not just for engineers, said Dr. Christos Christodoulatos, vice provost in Stevens’ Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“These are skills you need in order to excel, to be professionally successful, no matter what you do,” he said. Companies “want innovation to be part of their culture — they want people who can think outside the box, who can take calculated risks.”

Going forward, the program’s architects want to keep the focus on the course — now heading into its second year — trained on the fundamentals, like customer interaction and general familiarity with business terms. Lynn also said they may incorporate a West Point-inspired leadership obstacle course to further develop the leadership and communication skills of students.

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The students on the Modularity team pointed to meetings with customers — they are required to conduct 20 meetings with potential customers in their first few weeks in class — as the most valuable component of the course.

“Success is about getting out of your comfort zone,” McNeil said. “You have to talk constantly about your product.” The team did so at conferences throughout the summer, as well as at a Kickstarter block party members attended and other events. “We wore these Modu-Strip T shirts, just walked everywhere talking to people,” he said. “Even if we didn’t get any sales, it helped us refine our pitch and how we explained our product.”

That refinement is evident by visiting Modularity’s office, on the third floor of the Babbio Center. The team’s business canvas — showing the evolution of its idea and refinement from speaking to customers, like pricing and features — hangs prominently, as do posters about the product and reminders about their goals. Hanging from the ceiling like large aluminum Christmas tree ornaments are oversized Modu-Strip units that gently sway when the door opens and closes.

The messaging on those posters is the work of Yonaida Brito, who serves as chief marketing officer and directs the company’s outreach on social media. The course has given her a useful perspective on business, she said.

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“A good amount of students from my high school went to great schools for engineering, and they’re not doing anything like this,” she said. “The engineering curriculum here gives you a little bit of every kind of engineering major before you actually decide, which is good, and throw that little bit of business in there and it’s even better.”

Passion for the project

At other schools, it might be unusual to see a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old engineering students get into a heated conversation about competitive research and pricing. During an interview, McNeil constantly played with a competitor’s product, punctuating a more salient point by snapping off the back end of a plug and exposing the internals.

“Peter (Koen) plugged this one in, and just pulled it out, and it ripped out the entire side,” McNeil said.

Brine, who said Modularity’s product will be UL approved, noted the damage to the wiring that happened when the cover came off. 

“They’re really poor quality,” he said. “So we’re aiming to have that competitive advantage over them, in that we’re aiming to be high quality.”

Once the product is complete, Brito said, the goal is to meet its pledges to its Kickstarter backers and then sell the company.

“It really helps to have an exit strategy,” Brine said. “It helps us keep perspective — not just developing a product, but making connections and actually building the company’s reputation, with an end in sight.”

The Stevens advantage

Among the benefits students in the incubator got, besides the space, were room and board on campus, access to a 3D printer — to create realistic prototypes — and a lawyer who did pro bono work to help them become an LLC.

They also got weekly, if not more regular, interaction with Howe professors like Koen and Lynn — “who constantly remind us that we can’t afford them,” McNeil said. 

“They’re very helpful, since both of them have done startups before,” said Abdullah Aleid, the chief financial officer. “They provide us insight on how to avoid making the mistakes they made.”

For Lynn, it’s a labor of love, since he knows firsthand the impact for an engineer of seeing one’s idea become a product, like a set of crutches he designed. “It’s one thing to design something cool. It’s another thing to see patients actually using your product,” he said. “I swear the rays of sun came right down on the person using the crutches from the company that I had started and built. And that’s a tremendous experience for an engineer, to be able to actually see what they created in actual use.”