Credit: Photo of Joan Stanescu (left) and Katelyn Noderer, graduate students in Lehigh University's Technical Entrepreneurship Master's Degree program, courtesy of Lehigh University
"We're trying to generate the next generation of innovators," John Ochs told BusinessNewsDaily. "But innovation alone is just not enough. We want them to be able to understand that they must be able to commercialize innovation. A product doesn't do any good until it gets to the market."
Ochs is a mechanical engineering professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., and director of the school's innovative new professional master's program in technical entrepreneurship. Launched this spring, the one-year residential program is designed to help student entrepreneurs create, refine and commercialize intellectual property through licensing or launching a new business.
Innovation has become a cottage industry in academia, with new graduate and undergraduate programs in entrepreneurship sprouting up from coast to coast. With enrollment in graduate schools overall declining for the second straight year, it's one of the few growth areas in graduate education. Overall enrollment in graduate programs in business, mathematics and computer sciences has ticked upward.
The big ideas business
Cultivating big ideas has become the one going concern on campuses.
But the big ideas business suffers from a low signal-to-noise ratio when it comes striking pay dirt and turning technical innovation into cold, hard cash. The patent office and bankruptcy court records are littered with good ideas that never earned enough to pay the rent. While academia may excel at inspiring and nurturing the ideation of the next big thing, the skills and tools to successfully bring it to market are often overlooked in the classroom.
That's not an issue for students at Lehigh, a residential research university whose undergraduate entrepreneurial programs consistently rank among the best in the country. Commercialization is baked into every aspect of the school's approach to entrepreneurship.
Commercialization is baked in
Under Ochs' aegis, the new program builds on the success of Lehigh's undergraduate Integrated Product Design program and the Baker Institute for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, both of which have nationally recognized track records of teaching innovation and launching successful student companies.
The inaugural class of 15 students in the technical entrepreneurship master's program matriculated this spring.
The program will let Lehigh do at scale what it's been doing in ones and twos, Ochs said. Its launch was the culmination of the university's increasing involvement with student entrepreneurship projects over the past several years.
"Over the past five or six years, we have launched roughly a dozen student companies that are still in business," Ochs said.
Lehigh administrators knew they could do this in the ones and twos, he said. But could they do it in the 15-to-20-to-30s?
"We built a full-time, fully immersive program that's focused on starting your own business," he said. "We scaled what we were doing. We're fully ramped up this time around to get a class of 30."
Tenets of the entrepreneurial mindset
Lehigh bases its approach to entrepreneurship on what Ochs calls the 10 tenets of the entrepreneurial mindset.
"The first one is that innovation fueled by creativity is this generation's most important economic development engine," he said. "Lee Iacocca, a Lehigh graduate, said it best: 'You innovate, automate, integrate, emigrate or you evaporate.'"
The Lehigh program also conforms to another of Ochs' entrepreneurial axioms, placing a premium on cross-disciplinary education. The program's first class, for example, includes students from engineering, design, business, political science, journalism and general studies.
"The greatest opportunity for innovation exists at the intersection of disciplines," he said. "When you get an interdisciplinary team together, they bring a skill set that far exceeds the sum of their parts. They can just create and innovate the pants off anyone who is very discipline oriented."
Ochs and his faculty look for that same spark in students applying for admission to the program. That is, they look for interest, passion and curiosity and a willingness to build on the student's last four years of education.
"One of our mottos is, 'Don't take a job, make it,'" he said. "There are people who have a mindset where they want to fit in. The people who say, 'I'm going to take a job.' We're looking for people with a much broader view of the world and who want to be involved in all aspects, from idea through commercialization."
The entrepreneurial ethos
That ethos appealed to Matthew Fuchs, who graduated from Lehigh with a degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering, then returned to enter the master's program after a stint of employment that left him insufficiently challenged.
"I didn't want to be a cog in a wheel anymore," Fuchs said.
The commercialization piece was the missing link in the entrepreneurial equation for Katelyn Noderer, who joined the master's program after receiving an undergraduate degree in design.
"As a design major, I learned how to make things, but I didn't learn how to bring them to market," Noderer said.
Though largely unspoken, one of Ochs' goals is to develop a program that could keep even the likes of Steve Jobs interested.
"Why the hell are all good people leaving universities to start companies?" Ochs asked. "That makes no sense. We have all these resources here. We should have a program and a curriculum that allows people to come to the university and start a company. We believe we have the best ecosystem for student startups in the country."
Ecosystem for startups
That entrepreneurial ecosystem marshals the resources of more than 50 programs and organizations, including the Baker Institute, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Small Business Development Center, Office of Technology Transfer and Integrated Product Development program, along with the physical resources available at the Wilbur Powerhouse, including a prototyping lab.
The selection of graduate program faculty also reflects Ochs' belief that innovation thrives when disciplines collide. Many traditional faculty members accept silos, Ochs said.
"Most of these people are differentiators," he said. "They spend their time differentiating between whether you're a mechanical engineer in thermal fluids or a mechanical engineer involved in design."
Ochs seeks out the mavericks who hold no brief for disciplinary boundaries.
"An entrepreneur is an integrator," he said. The entrepreneur "sees how things cut across disciplines. Integration in general is a higher level of performance than differentiation."