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By Robert Brown
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Particle physics à la "The Big Bang Theory"
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Publications have impact on investors.
Starting a business occupies your mind 24/7, but a faculty position is very much a full-time job, too. Nonetheless, there is a path to getting the satisfaction of doing both. It requires a team effort but maintains individual pride. As a Case Western Reserve University professor spearheading both an entrepreneurial master’s program and an applied physics PhD program, I have mentored four-dozen master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral students in industrial work, been closely involved with a number of successful start-up manufacturing companies, and spent three decades collaborating with industry. Based on this experience, I believe faculty can have viable entrepreneurial careers without leaving the university and without an initial invention. The path is facilitated by our teaching, and the two most important words are “former students.”
The entrepreneurship pathway follows a tenure track. The professor begins her career in some specialty — it doesn’t matter which — and establishes credentials. She builds a network of former students, particularly in the business world, enhanced by media. This network offers opportunities pertaining to underserved markets, innovations, and companies’ outsourcing needs. Importantly, business partners are identified. Today’s university, increasingly encouraging entrepreneurship, is a source of advice for business and technology, as well as programs to teach creativity and, what is often distinguished from it, innovation.
Whatever Your Background
We tell students they can have successful careers — if they follow their passion and work hard. This advice can help us to be entrepreneurs, and not only in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) but in art, too. (Full STEAM ahead!) Author Malcolm Gladwell says that mastery of a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. We can put that time into disciplines that include social sciences and humanities. My background began with a “big bang,” where a particle physics PhD enabled me to understand Sheldon’s whiteboard formulas and build computational muscles. A network of students and collaborators included researchers at Fermilab and CERN carrying out experiments connected to our work. Such basic research seemed impractical, but ended up connecting well with industry.
An early connection came from former students employed in industry who recruited me for product modeling. New students were trained as the modeling opportunities grew, and we created an imaging course and an industrial PhD track. With a healthy thirty-year run serving engineering and science departments as well as industry, two-dozen industrial physics PhD’s have graduated, many with entrepreneurial bents. Together with burgeoning business collaborations, groundwork was laid for our start-ups.
In support of collaborations, we pioneered an award-winning professional master’s Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP) serving physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry departments, and now in its fifteenth year with dozens of alumni. (Think of an MBA on high-tech steroids.) Program students have capstones involving a start-up company or an internship in industry.
How We Define Stay-Put Entrepreneurship
While dictionary definitions refer to starting a business at some risk, a Harvard quotation  called “the best answer ever,” says “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.” Frankly, you can finance yourself and remain entrepreneurial, but outside help is usually needed. Tethered to the university, our partnered definition requires the small but critical change: A full-time-faculty entrepreneur is one who collaboratively pursues opportunity beyond the resources controlled. We need a full-time business partner.
ESTEAM: Creativity and Innovation
Are entrepreneurs made, not born? In the proposal  that incorporates entrepreneurship in an “ESTEAM” K-16 education (or K-18 with a STEP step), we suggest including professors as students. As noted, universities comprise mentors, advisors, partners, funding sources, and accounting help; programs like STEP study the “valley of death” (running out of money between incubation and commercialization), valuation (product/service pricing), marketing, salesmanship, and the creativity behind the inventions.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Thinking outside the box?
Creativity has been defined as “inside the box” in an approach  called “Systematic Inventive Thinking” (SIT). Consider system components, like in a computer. To improve it, the SIT rule is to avoid considering any outside, unconnected components; it is not creative to go “outside the box,” which is to combine unrelated systems.
Consider a square of nine dots and the familiar puzzle of connecting all dots with only four straight lines along one path. Needing external intersections is usually regarded as a metaphor for thinking outside the box. Yet when students are told to consider outside intersections, most still fail to solve it. SIT suggests it is not thinking outside the box but rather the original straight-line components applied in a novel way. The famous outside-the-box example is actually an inside job.
To use SIT, make a list of the system parts and perform one or more of the following operations: SUBTRACT one of the parts, REARRANGE them, COPY one but with a new role for it, make a NEW TASK for one, and/or find NEW RELATIONSHIPS among them. Afterwards, assess the benefits of the new system, and ask, “Is it possible?” Many examples of all five techniques can be found. Although we have not been conscious of SIT, we can find connections to our work, and, besides, “staying inside the box” resonates as a metaphor for an entrepreneur staying at the university.
STEP focuses on “innovation,” which includes inventiveness and commercialization. It emphasizes combining the acronym  NABC — the Needs (the problems), Approach (to show feasibility), Benefits per costs, Competition — with the “Champion,” an outsider who benefits from or rhapsodizes over your endeavor. As satisfied customers, OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) have been champions for us. With this background, we turn next to the results.The Rest of the Story: Six Key Points
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Adapted from a keynote speech, Third Lubar-CEAS Joint Workshop on Entrepreneurship & Technology Management, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2014.
Robert W. Brown is Institute Professor and Distinguished University Professor in the physics department of Case Western Reserve University. He partners with a dozen manufacturing companies in a long career of industrial design, applied research, and entrepreneurial physics education.REFERENCES
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