Helping Engineers Pitch Their Business Ideas

Howe Faculty Work With Students to Refine Concepts into Effective Presentations

5/14/2014

Sheila Ahmady struck a confident posture as she walked to the podium during the project plan pitch competition of the Stevens Innovation Expo. The civil engineering student made solid eye contact, maintained good volume and emphasized the right points as she presented a two-minute pitch to the audience on her team’s idea to restore the inclined railway at Mount Beacon, in Fishkill, N.Y.

A week before, you might not have recognized the Stevens senior or the plan the rehabilitate the Hudson Valley railway that was destroyed by vandals. In a trial run in Dr. Thomas Lechler’s Senior Innovation class, her professor and fellow students offered some suggestions on how to improve her delivery, focusing on everything from how she stood to her energy level, and included a heated, minutes-long debate about how to end her presentation.

The close of the pitch was wordy, but included a plea at the end to help “bring back a piece of history.” Students in the class insisted this piece be kept in, and their professor recommended keeping it — but keeping it short. In the live performance, Ahmady delivered the final line with gusto just as the two-minute timer sounded.

Ahmady said at least part of the improvement was due to time she spent talking herself through it in a place where she could easily note her high and low points.

“I practiced in front of the bathroom mirror, checking my expressions, looking at my hand motions,” she said. She admitted to “talking with my hands a lot,” so Lechler “suggested I hold the podium, at least at first, to help control that better.”

The improvement was noticeable, but the class focused on much more than just the pitches. Engineers who spend the fall selecting a project, doing the technical research and building prototypes for their Senior Design class take, in parallel to their projects, two Howe School-led courses that emphasize the business side of engineering. Next year, 300 seniors will take the course — and increase from the 150 who took it this year — with the ultimate goal of bringing this to every senior engineering student.

“He had us solidify our pitch very early on, which helped make us more comfortable in discussing it,” Ahmady said. Lechler also helped vet their ideas, offered suggestions “and made himself very available outside class to help us develop the business side.”

'Amazing to see'

It’s a process Lechler enjoys.

“It’s amazing to see the students’ progress. At first, they don’t have any concept of value, or whether there’s a market,” he said. “The teams that are very successful are the ones who come to appreciate the need to think about their ideas as business projects.”

“It’s not so much teaching as it is becoming a part of their project, and helping them to think about it in a different way.”

Another of the teams in Lechler’s class, Hummingbird, tied for second place in the elevator pitch competition. Sylvana Azana, who is studying civil engineering, walked potential investors through her team’s drone technology, which would be used by first responders to assess the conditions after a storm, fire or terrorist attack, so rescuers could locate victims and get to them faster.

Azana was clearly audible, and made great eye contact with her audience and was confidently smiling as she walked them through the specifics of the team’s plan, from the costs of the drones to the unmet need the product would exploit.

Her enthusiasm for her product was exactly the sort of thing Lechler emphasized in his classes.

“You need to get out of your comfort zone,” he told student presenters in class a week before the Innovation Expo. “It will help you. Try to use your voice, raise your voice. That grabs attention. You have to play with your voice — gestures are important, but this is a huge crowd.”

The two pitch competitions opened the Innovation Expo, and featured a number of innovative ideas — from VEHSHI, which aims to alert bridge monitoring agencies of trouble spots by measuring vibrations, to POWER, a system to convert pre-consumer food waste, like fruit and vegetable trimmings, into biogas and nutrient-enriched compost. Those two products took first place overall in the elevator pitch and project plan pitch competitions, respectively.

Each presentation incorporated the technical details of the project — critical for demonstrating to the audience that the teams had done their homework and had real deliverables in the pipeline, but Lechler pointed out the trap of going into too much detail. In real world competitions in the past, he said, technical inventions, like pharmaceutical products, often lose to simple ones, like golf simulators — not an innovative idea, but one judges can immediately relate to.

“This is a little bit of a problem,” he said. “They see so many ideas, and when they look at the selection of ideas, it’s very difficult for an investor to judge business ideas outside their knowledge area.”

A focus on energy

Another project finalist that came out of Lechler’s class was OmniBot. In class, Tony Kauffmann was knowledgeable as he discussed the advantages of the OmniBot camera stabilization technology, but he was fast and seemed tired, two areas his classmates worked with him to correct.

“Energy makes such a difference,” Lechler said. “To stand out, you have to get people to think, ‘Wow, this guy is bursting to start his business.’ You want to convince everybody in the room.”

During the contest, Kaufmann hit just the notes he needed to. His simplified pitch emphasized the billions of dollars spent in filming costs that OmniBot, with its robotic technology, could solve, without decreasing the quality of movies. The team’s invention replaces the tracks laid down before shooting begins — a process that’s both timely and expensive. He also simplified some of the technical language without skimping on the core of the business plan — renting the equipment, to save on production and inventory costs.

Meanwhile, Piecewise Devices — which designed a segmented, screw-free rod to use in bone surgeries — was another project that benefited from Lechler’s instruction. Samuel Thomas, the biomedical engineering student who gave the team’s presentation, called the course a valuable component of training future engineers.

“As engineers, we worry about the design and the finished product, but don’t always think about the business case. So sometimes, you make stuff that, in the end, no one needs,” Thomas said. “The class really helped us to keep in mind that, while we love the technical side and it’s important, if you can’t prove it helps anyone, or saves money, it won’t carry any weight in the market.”

Thomas was poised and confident as he rattled off some of the potential savings his team’s product could offer, from both a time and money perspective, and emphasized eye contact with each of the judges — a strategy he said he adopted after reviewing past winning performances. He scored a number of 10s from the panel of judges.

His strategy was repetition — sometimes to the point of annoying others. Thomas said he spent time in a study room in the library memorizing pitch, then repeated it to himself everywhere he went, even on his way to classes. He also pitched it to his roommates frequently; “they were getting pretty annoyed with it, by the end,” he said.

But it was a valuable experience, he said.

“Being able to pitch ideas, whether to management or a customer or supplier, is a skill engineers need, and this class really prepared us for that,” he said. “It also showed me that these things are possible — memorization, what to emphasize, how to get the point across in just two minutes. When we got started, that didn’t always seem possible.”

Through the creation of a platform like this one, the students now have the ability to create a business or manage an entrepreneurial concept, Lechler said — an important consideration for engineers in the field.

Thomas, who will pursuing a master’s degree in engineering management at Stevens in the fall, said he grasped that concept immediately. Lechler, he said, demonstrated the importance of that foundation by understanding the projects and improving the presentation of those ideas.

“He knew our project, so he knew the technical side, to an extent. So he was able to help make the two meet,” Thomas said. “He kept asking us, ‘Would your grandma understand this?’ ”