Program offers students real-world entrepreneurship skills
By Siddharth Vodnala, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture
PULLMAN, Wash. – Kaitlin Pankratz grew up watching aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors in the reality TV show “Shark Tank.”
The bioengineering senior finally had the opportunity to pitch her own business ideas and explore entrepreneurship through WSU’s Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute. The program helps students learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship and gives them the tools to translate their ideas into real world businesses.
The program includes a class on technology ventures, visits to angel investors and patent lawyers, a summer field trip to Silicon Valley to visit technology companies and a senior design course. Accepted students also receive a $2,500 scholarship.
Juniors in engineering, communications and business are encouraged to apply to the program by Sept. 9. An informational meeting will be held 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, in the Frank Innovation Zone, located on the ground floor of Dana Hall. Refreshments will be served.
The current cohort of Harold Frank scholars took a Technology Ventures class taught by Howard Davis, a clinical assistant professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, in the spring semester after being admitted into the program.
In the class students worked in interdisciplinary teams to prepare business plans for their entrepreneurial ideas.
“I thought I was just going to learn about business in general,” said Pankratz. “I learned a lot more than that. We explored design-thinking, marketing, consumer behavior and combining engineering and entrepreneurship.”
Pankratz, along with her teammates who were computer science and neuroscience majors, decided to create a device that could illuminate veins in the human body, as part of medical rehabilitation. Class discussions and talking to Davis helped them through the stumbling blocks of conceptualizing the business.
Being part of the “Shark Tank” fandom, Pankratz already knew the importance of a good pitch. The class helped her improve her presentation and pitching skills.
“I learned that people identify with what you’re presenting, if you present it well,” she said.
Going through the process of first identifying a problem and then finding a viable and cost-effective solution that can find market acceptance was a great learning experience, said bioengineering student Hannah Zmuda.
“The class was nothing short of a crash course in entrepreneurship,” said senior Lars Neuenschwander. It was a mix of idea building, business creation from scratch, presenting and testing out ideas in front of peers.
The class also taught his team the importance of pivoting from one unviable idea to the next until they found something viable, he said. The team eventually settled on a business focused around generating ambient blue lighting to trigger melatonin production in people who suffer from irregular sleep cycles.
As part of the class, the student teams entered WSU’s Business Plan Competition. Pankratz’s team earned an honorable mention at the competition for their medical rehabilitation business idea.
Silicon Valley trip
The Harold Frank scholars toured Silicon Valley in the third week of May this year, including companies like Intel Sports, Google, Facebook, Lockheed Martin and Proofpoint, an enterprise cybersecurity company.
The trip aims to teach the scholars what it takes to survive in the competitive modern entrepreneurial world.
For instance, at shipping logistics company Navis, the cohort learned the importance of storytelling and building a personal brand as an entrepreneur.
The students saw such business wisdom as crucial to rounding out their college education.
“The future of bioengineering depends not just on making good products but also being able to take them to the public as entrepreneurs,” said bioengineering senior Paige Ford. “It was a life changing trip.”
Visiting Silicon Valley also helped them think about how to bridge the gap between biomedical research and the public, she said.
Biomedical engineers need to take their research and products from the laboratory “bench-side” to the “bedside” — to the patients who need the products, said Zmuda. Talking to entrepreneurs in the Valley made them aware of the importance of entrepreneurial knowledge in bringing useful biomedical products to the market.
“I can now take the skills that I learned and use them to pitch my biomedical product ideas directly to investors,” she said.
Students also learned that there is not one standard type of entrepreneur.
“The typical perception in Silicon Valley is that only people who are workaholic can be entrepreneurs,” said Neuenschwander. But on the trip the scholars learned that people of many different personality types can be successful entrepreneurs.
They not only were able to view cutting-edge technology at startups like Zoox, which is developing self-driving car technology, but also network with the people who create such technology face-to-face.
The scholars met with WSU alumnus Dave McCandless, Vice President of IT at Navis. After listening to McCandless talk about networking, Neuenschwander said he realized that the right connections matter tremendously in the business world.
“There’s nothing more powerful than making connections that you can follow up with later,” he said.
Apart from the contacts, students found that the networking opportunities helped them learn how to approach people better in a professional setting.
“It helped me build my confidence in networking with people,” said Ford.
The scholars not only got to know technology entrepreneurs closely, but also got to bond with their peers in the program.
“It was inspiring to know that I was surrounded by a very smart cohort of people,” said Ford. “I got to appreciate my peers a lot, even the people who I didn’t think I had much in common with at first.”
The cohort met with WSU alumnus and former Harold Frank scholar Danny Navarro at Google. Navarro, who talked to students about his struggles in landing a job at Google. He asked the students to talk about their strengths and defining life experiences .
“It was a raw, vulnerable moment that helped us know each other at a deeper level,” said Pankratz.
Apply by Sept. 9
For more information on the program and to apply, go to the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute website.
“If you’re on the fence, just go for it,” said Neuenschwander. “The amount of benefits you’ll receive and the people you’ll meet will be the highlight of your university experience.”
- Tina Hilding, communications director, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, 509-335-5095, email@example.com