New Course Teaches Entrepreneurship Skills

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Entrepreneurial spirit is a source of strength and pride at UNC Charlotte. To teach students the skills they need to succeed as entrepreneurs, the Lee College of Engineering has a new course that has already led to multiple successes in winning competitions, licensing technology and starting new businesses.

The course is ECGR4090/5090 Special Topics: Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Electrical and Computer Engineering professors Nan BouSaba and Jim Conrad taught the first section of the class in spring 2013, and the second section in spring 2014.

“We look at aspects of technology innovation, research and development, and overall entrepreneurship,” said Dr. Conrad. “This includes things like writing grants, design for manufacturing, how to leverage existing designs for your own purposes and business strategies. We study everything from the entrepreneurial perspective of commercializing the technology.”

The course is open to graduate and undergraduate students from all disciplines. So far, there have been students from all of the engineering disciplines, computing and informatics, and physics.

“The majority of the students are engineering juniors who are preparing for senior design and have an entrepreneurial idea,” Dr. Conrad said. “This class gives them a chance to formulate their ideas. They work as a team in this class and then continue on together in Senior Design. In some cases they’re even forming a business together after they graduate with the intent of commercializing their design.”

Topics covered in the course include identifying business opportunities, competitive strategies, business models and plans, product prototyping, marketing and sales, intellectual property and grant writing. These subjects are taught through traditional lectures, hands-on projects, and by guest lecturers and through class trips to operating entrepreneurial companies.

Companies the class visited in 2014 included Dot Metrics Technologies, which develops new devices and systems that utilize emerging ultraviolet LED technology; and Poly-Tech Industrial, which has number of products and services including plastics, composites, bearings, custom machining, and inventing and developing entrepreneurial ideas.

Dan Cedrone is president of Poly-Tech Industrial. “Part of our business is to help people who have an idea,” he said. “We start with everything from a sketch on a napkin to detailed drawings. I grew up as an entrepreneur and I like to pass this along. These students are interested and want to learn. If I can inspire them, they can then go on to help the manufacturing future of the United States.”

A student taking the class in 2014 was Wesley Johnson, a senior in electrical engineering. “I didn’t know what to expect, but have really enjoyed the material,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned the groundwork of how to start my own business, how to take the first steps, create the proposal and sell my idea. Our team project is a solar lamp, and we came up with the idea of marketing it to countries without reliable power, or to emergency relief organizations.”

The development of the team projects and the class itself was made possible by a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

“NCIIA is entrepreneur organization and we saw a fit between its mission and UNC Charlotte,” said Ms. BouSaba. “We applied for a grant to support a course in entrepreneurship, and we were awarded $42,000. The money is now used to support the student projects, which each get $2,000 to buy materials.”

A number of the student projects have continued on past the entrepreneur class, and have been successful in business competitions, Senior Design and beyond. “I want them to learn, I want them to shine, so I pushed them to competitions and start-up grant programs,” Ms. BouSaba said.

Project successes include the Solar Traffic Light team winning the undergraduate division of the UNC Charlotte Venture Challenge business plan competition, and placing second in the University of North Carolina system’s Social Entrepreneurship Conference. The Integrated Living Assistant (ILA) project was first at the Senior Design Spring 2014 Expo, second at the Venture Challenge, has formed the company Red Wire Logic (see sidebar story), and is setting up its business in the UNC Charlotte PORTAL building.

“The commitment from the students is what makes the difference,” Ms. BouSaba said. “On these teams you could see the enthusiasm. It was a huge success for the Traffic Light team to place second when competing against the whole UNC state systems. Red Wire winning the Senior Design Expo is also a great achievement. For me, this class has been a very rewarding experience.”