Educating Undergraduates for Entrepreneurship at Rice University

30 June 2017

Millennials won’t follow the career paths of baby boomers and boomers’ parents. No profession guarantees job security, which was once defined as 35 years working for one company, with a goal of a corner office and financial freedom. This generation of college students and young workers sees older relatives and friends Credit: Rice UniversityCredit: Rice Universitylosing jobs in traditional businesses. Instead, in a 2014 survey, up to two-thirds of millennials expressed interest in entrepreneurship.

Rice University is among several colleges and universities that is building entrepreneurial skills development into undergraduate education. In 2015, the university established a cross-disciplinary initiative in entrepreneurship aimed at undergraduate and graduate students. The initiative encompasses a comprehensive approach to stimulating and supporting budding entrepreneurs, including coursework, an Idea Lab, the OwlSpark business accelerator, and partnerships with multiple businesses in the Houston area. Rice’s graduate entrepreneurship program nabbed third place in the Princeton Review/Entrepreneur magazine’s 2016 poll.

Undergraduate engineering students benefit from the university’s emphasis on growing entrepreneurs. The Brown School of Engineering’s Three Ships approach to education--leadership, internship, and entrepreneurship—strives to graduate well-rounded engineers. To support the last of these three ships, the university offers research opportunities and project-based courses that give students hands-on, practical experience in forming projects into start-up companies. Incoming freshmen can apply for one of two $10,000 Lilie New Entrepreneurs Grants, which provides funding to launch an idea or innovation and close support from faculty and other mentors.

Successful projects showcase the diversity and imagination of Rice’s engineering students. Engineering 300, “Engineering Design Workshop,” is a fertile source of ideas that turn into start-ups. Each project solves a real-world need. Following are a few recent examples.

Ziel Solutions, now called Ziel Sensory, was founded by Senthil Natarajan and Alex Dzeda, who met as sophomores in Engineering 300. Natarajan, a baseball pitcher in high school, suffered serious arm injuries that cut his pitching career short. Dzeda had been working on a wearable device that measures stress and muscle fatigue in a player’s pitching arm. The two paired up and produced the Ziel sensory sleeve. While a pitcher wears the sleeve, it tracks motion and measures muscle contractions, sending the information via Bluetooth to a smartphone. Natarajan and Dzeda were only 20 when they won the Recess Field Trip’s 2016 Pitch competition. Their company will launch soon.\

ParkIT promises to solve one of the more vexing problems of urban living: finding a parking spot. Jennifer Ding launched the idea behind ParkIT as a sophomore electrical and computer engineering student; she now has two full-time employees. ParkIT technology collects parking data with cameras, transmits it to a secure server and uses a computer-vision algorithm to detect available spaces. This is a boon not just for drivers; parking lot owners can also understand and manage their traffic flow. ParkIT used the Rice incubator to grow before taking up a six-month residence at the Jaguar Land Rover Incubator in 2016. Ding, who graduated from Rice in 2015, won $10,000 from the OPEN Houston conference’s business plan competition to continue business development.

A design project born in the Engineering 120 class has turned a group of undergraduates into business owners. Life Made Easy manufactures the Longboard Holster, an adjustable cross-body carrying strap that clips to a longboard. The team-- Materials Science and Nanoengineering major Renee Li and Mechanical Engineering majors Harrison Lin, Griffin Palmer and Juan Pablo Luna—formed their team in class in 2015. They improved their design and sold their first batch in 2016, running out of stock after two hours. The team has a provisional patent on their product. Having access to Rice’s entrepreneurship support services helps streamline the process of setting up the business. “Being in this environment has been great,” said Li. “We had students who were so helpful as beta testers, and our professors were supportive.”

The university provides substantial practical support for these student-run businesses. Nothing guarantees eventual success, however. Does this possibility discourage the founders? Not according to Fred Tuffile of Bentley University. “Millennials are realizing that starting a company, even if it crashes and burns, teaches them more in two years than sitting in a cubicle for 20 years,” Tuffile says.

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