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Business, engineering students work together in National Science Foundation-funded project to advance entrepreneurship

UT College of Business and Innovation and College of Engineering students are participating in an innovative merging of classes this semester to learn how to take creative product ideas and develop them into profitable businesses.

Students in three classes — Entrepreneurship taught by Dr. Sonny Ariss; Business Law taught by Dr. Brandon Cohen and the Bioengineering Senior Design class taught by Dr. Ronald Fournier — are working together in 12 teams, with mentors available to each.

The University of Toledo is one of only four locations in the United States participating in this program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and developed in conjunction with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

According to the National Science Foundation, Innovation Corps (I-Corps) is a set of activities and programs that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory.

Combining experience and guidance from established entrepreneurs with a targeted curriculum, I-Corps is a public-private partnership program that teaches grantees to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and offers entrepreneurship training to student participants.

“This is an inaugural and very special program at the University,” Cohen, associate lecturer of management, said. “It’s a three-year grant at $100,000 annually to develop, train and coach 30 eTeams per year who will learn the Lean Launch curriculum and integrate the training into customer discovery during the yearlong Senior Design Course. Students bring and share different perspectives from their interdisciplinary classes, and each has to understand the value of what the other brings. They’re here to be critical thinkers.”

With a product idea in place, teams develop business models utilizing the Lean Launch Pad system, which focuses on nine basic building blocks: customer segments, value propositions, channels, customer relationships, revenue streams, key resources, key activities, key partnerships and cost structure.

“Entrepreneurship is launching a new venture, whether it occurs by starting your own company or by starting a new venture within the corporate business structure, known as intrapreneurship,” explained Ariss, professor and chair of management. “This trend is becoming very important today because corporate America is looking for innovative thinking from their employees. Many large corporations such as Google, Intel and 3M have created funds for their employees to support an innovative idea within their corporate structures to help the growth of the company in the long run.”

Ariss added, “Learning the business model canvas of the Lean Launch NSF program will help train our students to make a decision whether to launch their own venture or scrap it with minimal cost.”

Cohen told the students, “90 percent of all businesses fail. The Lean Launch concept, which emphasizes the ‘sell, then build’ philosophy, helps you figure out if your idea has a place in the marketplace. If people are not willing to pay for it, it probably does not solve a large enough problem.”

Each team receives up to $1,000 to develop a prototype of their product.

“If any design/product idea has market viability after going through the business canvassing process in class, that eTeam has a much higher success rate in getting NSF Small Business Innovation Research program funding,” he said. “The over-arching theme here is that technology startups are not like big companies. Entrepreneurs find a market need and then find a solution that the market is willing to pay for. Sometimes you fail during the discovery phase; sometimes you pivot and move in a new direction.

“As long as you follow the process to its conclusion and continue to learn during the process, any result in this class is good because knowledge is a key driver of success and the ultimate reward.”

Fournier, professor of bioengineering, said, “Bringing engineering and business students together on design project teams is unique in academia. It brings a synergistic perspective to the design process, gives the students the opportunity to learn from one another, and see what the real world of business is actually like.”