In our last post we looked at the wave of innovation centers that colleges and universities are building across the country. These centers are designed to spark creativity, encourage serendipitous encounters, and drive an entrepreneurial culture.

Engineering and Entrepreneurship

In our current IoT, high-speed mobile, and cloud technology revolution, it’s relatively easy for students to launch companies. Universities are nurturing students’ entrepreneurial drive and creative energy by building innovation centers specifically geared to help startups thrive.

There are those in engineering education who argue that fostering an entrepreneurial mindset is just as important for the future of engineering as encouraging diversity and active learning. An entrepreneurial mindset, which entails communication, creativity, empathy, and teamwork, enables engineering graduates to thrive in a work environment that is constantly shifting. These skills are also useful for engineering design.

Encouraging Entrepreneurship: Princeton University’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering

The Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering is not new – it was created in 2005 as part of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The goal of the center then was “To inject more engineering into the liberal arts and inject more of the liberal arts into engineering.”

Now the Center’s website reads: “The Keller Center seeks to prepare all students – both engineers and non-engineers – to be leaders in an increasingly complex, technology-driven society.”

The Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub, which opened in 2015 as part of the Keller Center, is a startup incubator that houses the eLab Summer Accelerator Program and Tiger Challenge Program. The latter grew out of a popular “Creativity, Innovation and Design” course.

This course asks students to tackle “wicked problems,” intractable real-world problems in their community. It also teaches a five-step process called “design thinking” that includes empathy or deep understanding of the problem, reframing, ideation or free association, prototyping, and testing. The course is so popular that it is now taught several times a year.

The Keller Center and the Office of Technology Licensing and Intellectual Property also support student entrepreneurship through the annual Innovation Forum. Graduate students and faculty present three-minute elevator pitches to an audience of angel investors, venture capitalists, students, and faculty. Prize money is awarded to the top three candidates.

Northwestern University’s The Garage and the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Northwestern University is so dedicated to innovation that they have an entire website devoted to it: Two of Northwestern’s innovation spaces are the Farley Center and The Garage.

The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The Farley Center is part of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and opened in 2007, a time when Northwestern offered few entrepreneurship courses.

Now, in addition to courses, the Center has an incubator space for startup businesses in downtown Evanston. It also allocates preseed money for startups and offers guidance to entrepreneurial students and professors.

Mike Marasco, the director of the Center, says, “Engineering is more than just prototypes and research. A design that never sells is not a great design. A product that never gets traction in the market is not a great product. The Farley Center gives students and professors the means to leverage an idea and build it into a company.”

The Garage

The jewel in Northwestern’s innovation crown is undoubtedly The Garage, which was designed by Gensler and opened in June 2015. The 11,000 square foot “startup central” houses over 60 student startups per quarter and welcomes over 1,000 visitors per month.

The Garage houses a prototyping area, a 3-D printer for testing ideas, an open-plan kitchen, flexible meeting space, a large lounge space, privacy booths, and offices. This interdisciplinary accelerator space also partners with 1871, a digital startup incubator in Chicago, to provide students access to opportunities like mentors and internships.

Executive director of The Garage Melissa Crouse wants students to feel free to try new things without worrying about failure. She values the entrepreneurial skills that students learn through the process of creating a startup, regardless of whether the business succeeds or fails. These skills include critical thinking, creative problem solving, and teamwork.

Encouraging Entrepreneurship and Engineering at Northwestern University

An example of a successful Northwestern startup created by engineering students is Luna Lights, a tool designed for the elderly and infirm. Matt Wilcox, a mechanical engineering graduate, and Donovan Morrison, a biomedical engineering graduate, both had grandparents who had fallen.

Their app is connected to a sensor that detects when someone leaves the bed, and automated lighting reduces the risk of falling. This app also collects data and can send text alerts to caregivers and family members.

Northwestern University’s innovation website contains a directory of startups that began at the University, as well as in-depth profiles of “Northwestern Innovators” and news on awards and new startups.

The Farley Center and The Garage work together with the Kellogg School of Management and the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center to produce VentureCat, an annual entrepreneurship event. Student teams of both graduates and undergraduates compete in this pitch competition for a prize fund of over $100,000.

The Importance of Entrepreneurship for Engineering

A recent article argues that the skills needed to succeed in engineering and other STEM fields “provide unparalleled value to the way that an entrepreneur works.” Critical skills for entrepreneurship, like teamwork, empathy, and creativity, are widely accepted as vital to engineering as well. There’s no doubt that many universities believe in the value of amalgamating engineering and entrepreneurship.

In our next post, we’ll look at innovation centers that provide a place for local industry and students to build crucial relationships.