Entrepreneurship

The Best Way to Create a Successful Tech Company? Teaching Empathy -- and it's Working at Stevens.

In three years Stevens students created six multi-million dollar tech companies. Here's how.

Stevens Professor Mukundan Iyengar helping a student build a tech company.

“We like creating monsters.”

Those are the words of Mukundan Iyengar, a teaching professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Stevens Institute of Technology. 

More specifically, the department is creating “monstrous technology, fueled by courageous students,” as Iyengar puts it. “Our mission is to take you from the classroom to the boardroom, and in the process teach you how to make the world a better place.” 

He’s not exaggerating. 

Under Iyengar’s guidance, ECE has launched six student-driven technology companies in three years. Those companies include “a browser better than Google Chrome, an investment portal faster than Blumberg, a planner app better than Yelp and a patient care portal that’s unparalleled on the market,” Iyengar summarizes. 

The net worth of those companies? More than $20 million. And that kind of success is built into the department’s curriculum. 

“In the past, most students would spend a summer working on some kind of project,” Iyengar explains. They worked hard and were often successful, publishing their results or even filing patents. But Iyengar found that after all that effort students would drop those projects entirely once the fall semester started. He explains that, “We began to realize we could teach them not just how to prototype things, but how to understand human beings. How do you take your piece of technology, whatever it may be, and genuinely try to make their lives better? How do we create value in this world with our skills? And how to do we capture that value in a way that scales? Before long, we had a recipe for creating companies.”

Beginning their freshman year, ECE students do just that. They’re taught about business—and so much more: 

We teach them the importance of empathy—talking to people and understanding pain. We teach them how to make technology needed to build solutions. We teach them legal and marketing—incorporating companies, declaring stocks, generating revenue and raising capital. All of those things are above and beyond any Stevens curriculum.

All of those things are also uniquely possible to ECE. Creating a tech product allows students to reach customers directly and iterate products quickly; that’s not true of drug development, calculus teaching platforms, or any other areas of research at Stevens. “With one click of a button, you can reach anyone on the planet,” Iyengar summarizes. “Likewise, changing the product overnight is just as easy.” 

While the recent evolution of technology has advanced many fields, “five to seven years ago, it wasn’t easy to reach people at this scale,” Iyengar says. “Not everyone had smartphones, and programming these things wasn’t well understood. But now, we’re at a point where if you have an idea, you can prototype it at breakneck speed and have it in your hands—and millions of other people’s hands—in a month. And all you really need is a laptop and a stable Internet connection. Every student at Stevens has those.” 

ECE students pursue 10-20 ideas in the hopes of finding one viable technology product or service to patent and, ultimately, market. “We avoid work that is trivial and building yet another app. We always look for ideas and products that are not easy to replicate,” Iyengar explains. “That keeps the barrier to competition high.

It takes at least 18 months to develop a viable product. It takes 18-24 months to raise money to develop it commercially. That entire process is full of failure. “You have to fail repeatedly before you succeed,” Iyengar says. That’s how the tech world works, and “students know that’s the deal.”

And students succeed. 

Kevin Barresi, a member of the Class of 2016, was Iyengar’s first success. Barresi created iUbble, the web browser better than Chrome. “At a safe estimate, that’s at least two million lines of code he wrote. By himself,” Iyengar explains. For comparison, he adds that “Google hired over 300 engineers to build Chrome.” For that accomplishment, iUbble was acquired by FinTech Studios in March 2016—and Barresi became their Chief Technology Officer. 

Nishant Panchal and Bryan Bonnet, members of the Class of 2014, were also successes. They created Noteworth, the patient care portal. It’s earned more than $7 million in venture funding to date. 

Ephraim Russo, another member of the Class of 2016, was yet another success. He helped found VentureMe, the planner app better than Yelp. It’s actively seeking seed funding.

But what happens to the students who put in just as much work and don’t succeed? 

“They have a resume 100 times better than the average college graduate,” Iyengar says. “They understand human beings. They understand technology. They understand business. They understand legal. And they understand marketing, in addition to being champions at technology.” Some even have patents. 

That pedigree has “easily landed them jobs that pay twice as much as peers who got a 4.0,” Iyengar adds. And if the business world wasn’t for them, they could just as easily go into the nonprofit world or “walk into places like Stanford,” and continue their research, teach. They do whatever they want. 

“These students are really awesome,” Iyengar says. “They’re a bunch of tigers. They work 100-plus hours a week. They should be celebrated.”