UConn Engineers Train for New Business Creation

Vishal Dhagat, a Ph.D. student in engineering, presents an idea during a course designed to support graduate students with potential entrepreneurial ideas. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Vishal Dhagat, a Ph.D. student in engineering, presents an idea during a course designed to support graduate students with potential entrepreneurial ideas. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

UConn graduate students Joseph Mummert and Thuy Pham didn’t give much thought to the business side of biomedical engineering when they started pursuing their bachelor of science degrees years ago.

But the world is a much different place now. So there they were, two topflight young researchers, standing up in a recent class, each presenting detailed business plans for new heart valve products they helped develop to a potential investor.

With only 90 seconds to present an “elevator pitch” to Kathy F. Rocha, managing director of Golden Seeds, a private equity angel investment firm, Mummert and Pham efficiently explained how their products targeted an important need, helped patients avoid costly surgeries, and represented vast improvements over existing devices on the market.

Afterward, Rocha critiqued each student’s presentation, giving them important insider advice about what investors want to hear, what information they must be prepared to provide, and what they can expect when they repeat their pitch to other potential investors in the coming months.

“The fact that UConn has a program that builds out the entrepreneurial side of students is fantastic,” says Rocha, who has judged similar presentations for the Harvard Business School and helped support business startups in the tech-savvy environs of Cambridge, Mass. “The more we can do … the more it will help set UConn apart from other universities.”

A new wave of programs

Professor Kazem Kazerounian, interim dean of UConn’s School of Engineering, says the class – Experiential Technology Entrepreneurship I and II – is part of a new wave of programs and training sessions being offered at the school to promote student and faculty innovation and entrepreneurship. The class also reflects UConn’s larger, university-wide commitment to helping Connecticut’s economy grow through the development of new high-tech businesses and jobs.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s 2013 “Next Generation Connecticut” initiative is expected to further enhance UConn’s core engineering programs by greatly expanding educational opportunities, research, and innovation in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines at UConn. The initiative calls for increasing student enrollment in engineering and other STEM disciplines, improving existing buildings and research labs, and adding more than 200 new faculty researchers in order to drive discovery, produce new patents, and create new businesses.

This class … gives us confidence. While we all have strong engineering backgrounds, this gives us the business knowledge that is key to succeeding in the world today.

The business plans the UConn students presented to Rocha are real and based on real advances in research at the state’s flagship university that have developed to the stage where the student entrepreneurs and their supervising professors are ready to start building prototypes and bringing products to market.

As the spring term begins, the course has already hatched four new businesses, with another six poised to launch later this year. (Read profiles of all 10 companies.)

Pham’s novel heart valve device to correct mitral regurgitation without open heart surgery was designed with UConn associate professor Wei Sun. The durable tissue heart valve at the root of Mummert’s business plan also was developed in conjunction with Sun, an expert in cardiovascular biomaterials.

UConn master of science candidate Alicia Echevarria, working with assistant professor Arash Zaghi, earlier this year launched a consulting firm specializing in state-of-the-art, fiber-reinforced columns for bridges, highways, and other applications. The columns offer superior resistance to seismic shock, blasts, and other hazards.

Ph.D. candidate Vishal Dhagat is developing a cell phone app that allows diabetics to monitor their glucose levels in real time, and materials science and engineering post-doc Yanbing Guo is working on a low-cost, highly efficient catalytic converter that uses nanotechnology to reduce manufacturing costs and improve performance.

Innovative solutions

The class is led by professor of practice Hadi Bozorgmanesh, senior director of engineering and physical science ventures for UConn Ventures, a branch of UConn’s Office of Economic Development that helps faculty and staff create new businesses based on their innovative technologies. Bozorgmanesh is a 30-year veteran of technology development and commercialization who built his career helping companies find innovative solutions to technical problems as corporate vice president for the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). Bozorgmanesh, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear science and engineering, is the co-inventor of a number of nuclear and non-nuclear based instrumentations in the areas of energy, transportation, and national security.

Professor of practice Hadi Borzogmanesh addresses the class. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Professor of practice Hadi Borzogmanesh addresses the class. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

A UConn alum, Bozorgmanesh ’70 (ENG) considers himself a mentor to his students, helping them augment their technical proficiencies with the critical business knowledge and leadership skills they’ll need to find success in a globally-competitive world.

“What we want to do is to build a culture that embraces the monetization of innovative ideas and provides the skills needed to put those ideas into practice,” he says. “This culture will enrich students in diverse degree programs across the entire university, and it will contribute to the state through economic development.”

Bozorgmanesh’s hands-on business training class includes frequent guest lectures by business leaders from the start-up industry who talk to the class about avoiding the common pitfalls of startups; securing intellectual property (IP) protection; identifying and assessing commercial opportunities; developing effective marketing approaches; and finding available avenues for financing and venture capital support.

Later in the year, the student entrepreneurs will “job shadow” CEOs, chief technology officers, human resource personnel, venture capitalists, tax specialists, and other decision makers so they may experience first-hand the myriad tasks and responsibilities entailed in operating a business, whether it be a startup or a large organization.

As the new businesses advance, the challenge to obtain funding will grow more urgent. The students can compete for “Innovation Pathfinder” seed funding from the School of Engineering. The awards are intended to sustain student startup businesses in the vulnerable earliest stages, when the young entrepreneurs are consumed with registering with the state, applying for patent protection, prototype development, and pursuing additional funding, according to Bozorgmanesh. Several newly launched startups from the class received Pathfinder funding in December.

Finding a new comfort zone

The change in the students has been remarkable, Bozorgmanesh says. Many of the students were cautious about stepping out of their engineering comfort zone when the academic year began. Now, they are confident and more prepared.

Ph.D. student Vishal Dhagat speaks during the class. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Ph.D. student Vishal Dhagat speaks during the class. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

“The course has helped me to view myself as a businesswoman in addition to a civil engineer,” says Echevarria. “It is one thing to develop something great in research. It is another thing to see it used in society.”

Bozorgmanesh is quick to point out that innovation and entrepreneurship isn’t limited to new business. He reminds his students about ‘intrapreneurship,’ which is the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization.

“Starting a business isn’t what defines an entrepreneur,” Bozorgmanesh says. “A savvy person might be employed by a large organization and still be innovating and entrepreneurial. Innovation is not just inventing a new widget. It’s doing things differently, taking a different tack and experimenting.”

The students in Bozorgmanesh’s class are the type of talented, resilient, high-achievers UConn – and the state of Connecticut – are counting on to help strengthen Connecticut’s economy into the future. They know what they need to do, and they want to succeed.

“Any kind of experience we can get in the business field is invaluable,” says Jeffrey T. Peterson, a master of science candidate who, according to his business card, is also chief operating officer of Herman and Peterson Engineering, a company Peterson formed with his engineering classmate, Adam Herman.

Peterson and others in the class are aware that Harvard, Stanford, and other top universities are offering similar entrepreneurial training programs to their students. They said they appreciate UConn offering them the opportunity to hone their business skills so they can stay competitive and at the top of their field.

“This class is great,” Mummert says. “It gives us confidence. While we all have strong engineering backgrounds, this gives us the business knowledge that is key to succeeding in the world today.”