APS News

Spotlight on the Physics Profession

By Alaina G. Levine

Alaina G. Levine
Alaina G. Levine
What are the chances that the next millionaire entrepreneur will be a physicist? With more physics departments offering graduate curriculum in entrepreneurship and business, the chances are getting better and better.

"An understanding of basic business skills has become increasingly useful to many physicists, not the least of those who, not long ago, seldom ventured outside of academic research," says Daniel Stein, professor and Head of the University of Arizona (UA) Department of Physics. "Courses in entrepreneurship and new opportunities to develop skills in related areas can only help physicists who wish to contribute by creating products and companies that may benefit all of us."

With funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the UA launched a Professional Science Master's Program (PSM) in Applied and Industrial Physics, Mathematical Sciences, and Applied Biosciences in 2000. While its curriculum always included business and project management courses, only recently did the physics department launch a new course, Topics in Entrepreneurship for Scientists , designed "to give students understanding of the elements of the entrepreneurship process in scientific ventures to prepare them for scientific careers in industry, and to pursue the development of new scientific ventures."

The significance of this course, says Stein, is that it is housed in the physics department, as opposed to having a home department in the business college. However, it is cross-listed in the UA's McGuire Entrepreneurship Program (as well as departments of biology and math), which not coincidently awarded the grant that ignited the course's development and teaching.

The class is just another step in the right direction, says Raymond E. Goldstein, UA professor of physics. "With more and more students going into industry, or expressing an interest in starting their own company, it is common sense to provide coursework that will help physicists succeed in these occupations."

Other Sloan-funded PSMs offer electives in entrepreneurship, although the classes are not housed in the physics department. The University of South Carolina's PSM in Modeling for Corporate Applications requires students to take a business elective, which can be in entrepreneurship. Participants are also encouraged to attend an annual workshop on science entrepreneurship.

Rice University's PSM in Nanoscale Physics also requires business classes, taught through the business college, and again gives students the option of delving more deeply into entrepreneurship through electives and exposure to regional entrepreneurial development and business investment communities via the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Georgetown University and the University of Arkansas also provide opportunities at the graduate level to learn and practice foundations of entrepreneurship and business.

One distinctive approach to graduate education combining the two disciplines is the award-winning Physics and Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). PEP is a two-year master's program that seeks to "empower physicists as entrepreneurs by providing training and real-world experience to students with a background in physics and a vision for new and growing ventures," said Cyrus Taylor, Program Director and Armington Professor of Physics.

The program integrates graduate-level physics coursework (specifically focusing on innovation in physics) with classes in entrepreneurship, and includes a seminar series and a physics master's thesis involving an entrepreneurial-based project. The thesis typically arises from an internship at a start-up, or from a student-designed research project that can be the foundation for launching a new venture.

Now in its fourth year, PEP has graduated 14 students, who have gone on to start their own com-panies, work for new ventures, or even Fortune 500 companies, in roles that range from technical to business- focused.

"Physicists can do anything," said Taylor, "but starting a new company is an enormously painful process. We want to produce graduates who are experts in the various subtasks of the entrepreneurial environment so they have the skills to transform their advancements in physics into viable, successful ventures."

One PEP alumnus started a company the first year he was in the program. The firm, Neomed Technologies, developed a nuclear medicine technique for screening coronary artery disease, and it has just secured funding for the last round of clinical trials before FDA approval. Another alumnus has a position with a Fortune 500 corporation in which he "bridges the gap between the science and business sides of the company," said Taylor.

According to faculty in the UA Karl Eller Center, the home of the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program, future physicists can greatly benefit from entrepreneurship education because at its very heart, scientific entrepreneurship is about bringing together a technical vision, a business sense, and an entrepreneurial spirit. These elements can only serve to help students advance in both technical and business-based careers, and give them more insight into the scientific process itself.

Tony Nottke, a student in the UA PSM in Applied and Industrial Physics and founder of a company based in photonics and spectroscopy, concurs: "I took the entrepreneurship class because I wanted to learn skills that would help my business grow and help me be a better physicist. Entrepreneurship education has helped me to better translate my technical prowess into business success and has given me a greater appreciation for doing research outside academia. Our entire society is based on technology, and it is essential for technically-trained professionals to have business skills so they can better contribute to society's issues. A physicist with a good education and research work, and experience in entrepreneurship can do anything. The world is your oyster."

Alaina G. Levine directs the Professional Master's Program in the UA College of Science and is the founder of Quantum Success Solutions. She can be reached at Alaina@u.arizona.edu.

For more information:

Case Western Reserve University Physics and Entrepreneurship Program: http://pep.cwru.edu/

The University of Arizona PSM in Applied and Industrial Physics: http://psm.arizona.edu

The University of South Carolina PSM in Modeling for Corporate Applications: http://www.cosm.sc.edu/professional/

Rice University PSM in Nanoscale Physics: http://www.profms.rice.edu

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette