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“It’s not critical that everyone needs to become an entrepreneur, but they should know how to think like one,” Chernow says. “The skills embodied in entrepreneurship are really life skills — some would say survivor skills — required in today’s global, hypercompetitive world.”

Today’s entrepreneurs at Rensselaer are building on the Institute’s tradition of innovating businesses across the disciplines. For Mark Cafaro ’06, multidisciplinary programs such as the Product Design and Innovation (PDI) courses, offered jointly by the School of Engineering and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, gave him and his partner, Benjamin Smith ’06, the boost they needed in jumpstarting their new company, Weardian. Both PDI majors graduated this year with their bachelor’s degrees.

In fact, their company was born while the pair was completing the Inventor’s Studio, a PDI class that focuses on problem solving, concept generation, and business strategy. A third partner, Meredith Blumenstock, also a PDI major, recently joined the team as she completes her undergraduate degree.

“It was through this course that we identified the need for a chemical-free artisanal gold mining device,” Cafaro says.

Small-scale — or artisanal — gold-mining operations depend on the use of mercury, a well-known neurotoxin, to extract gold from sediment. In the process, dangerous amounts of mercury escape into the air as well as leach into the water and ground, polluting the local food and drinking supply. While the use of mercury for mineral extraction processes has been virtually eliminated in developed countries, its use for gold mining in the developing world has increased exponentially.

“Weardian is utilizing an age-old process of gold extraction through centrifugal force to capitalize on gold’s high density for extraction instead of its chemical properties,” Cafaro says. “While this operation has been traditionally used in large-scale mining operations, we have invested in the idea that it can be used to fit the needs of artisanal miners.”

The company, which has filed for a provisional patent, recently secured a $17,500 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance to further develop their product while they search out additional mentors and venture capitalists with firsthand knowledge relating specifically to the targeted Brazilian commercial market.

Today, the Incubator is hopping with new activity. Weardian is one of eight new technology companies that set up headquarters at the facility this year, and six more have joined as virtual members. The new tenants have specialties in areas that range from advanced speech recognition to terahertz technologies.

“Weardian is a perfect example of what can happen when coursework, research, and commercialization all merge in the same direction,” says Michael Tentnowski, director of the Incubator Program.

To help fledging companies succeed, Tentnowski pulls from academic, research, and administrative resources across campus as well as connecting tenants to the greater business community of intellectual property attorneys, accountants, angels, and venture capitalists.

The incubator, established in 1980 and one of the oldest university-based business incubators in the country, has a long track record of success, from MapInfo and Albany Molecular Research to the hundreds of smaller companies and entrepreneurs it has served. More than 60 percent of the companies housed in the incubator have evolved from research at Rensselaer or have been started by alumni.

“As all of these companies succeed, they serve as examples and models to the university, stimulating additional research with a renewed focus on commercial application,” Tentnowski says.

Being an entrepreneur today compared with 10 years ago has changed “dramatically,” with a climate of competitiveness more fierce than ever before, Severino says. Corporate scandals have brought an onslaught of new governmental oversight that has made the stakes higher for any company entering the market. But, perhaps the biggest challenge, says Severino, is the new high-performing competition from China and India.

“They have got the bug for entrepreneurship. They’re starting companies, and they’re doing very well,” he says.

When Severino started his companies three decades ago, there was no competition from those countries and very limited competition from Europe and even Japan.

“If you look at all the entrepreneurial activity through the ’70s and ’80s, and even in the ’90s, around computer networking and information technology, it was a totally American phenomenon,” he says. “Now, there’s a tremendous amount of competition coming from places overseas where there is a lot of talent, engineers, and scientists. There is even growing competition for American venture capital.”

Michael Tentnowski

Michael Tentnowski, director of the Incubator Center.

With this in mind, the Lally School is enhancing and creating new courses and collaborations focused on technological entrepreneurship with an international component at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“To be a competitive business leader today, you have to think globally,” Gautschi says.

As part of that mission, the school has identified four areas of the world with which to pursue collaboration. These include China and India, the world’s two most rapidly expanding major economies, and Ukraine, the R&D center of the former Soviet Union. The fourth focal point, the Maghreb region, includes Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, three countries in northern Africa that, because they are geographically close to Europe, have accelerated their technological progress.

In pursuing connections in Ukraine, the Lally School has begun collaborating with a company, Archimedes Group, geared toward commercializing Ukrainian technologies. The company, which recently moved into the incubator, was founded by George Markowsky, a visiting professor of management and technology. “Our plan is to help build new companies around specific technologies,” Markowsky says.

Three interns, one from the Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye and two from Rensselaer, will be working for Archimedes beginning this fall. Yuzhnoye (pronounced Yush-noi), which once built all the intercontinental ballistic missiles for the Soviet Union, now specializes in civilian spacecraft technologies. Through internships and other opportunities, Archimedes will work with Yuzhnoye and other Ukrainian corporations to commercialize many of the spin-off technologies that were developed for specific uses within these companies but can be expanded for a host of other purposes.

“This is the model we would like to build off of to give our students opportunities for experiential learning in an international atmosphere,” Gautschi says.

The concept of entrepreneurship is often narrowly defined to only relate to starting a business. Although entrepreneurship is the fastest growing sector, in fact, not everyone will start a for-profit business. The hope is that entrepreneurship education will enable all students to add significant value to any working environment.

Chernow believes those with an entrepreneurial mindset tend to be more productive in whatever they pursue. They run nonprofit organizations more smoothly, are more proficient educators, and become better writers and artists.

“It’s not critical that everyone needs to become an entrepreneur, but they should know how to think like one. I can’t think of a single discipline that cannot benefit from an entrepreneurial outlook,” Chernow says. “The skills embodied in entrepreneurship are really life skills — some would say survivor skills — required in today’s global, hypercompetitive world.”

“Social entrepreneur” also has become a popular term to describe those who are focused on helping developing countries become more sustainable in solving their own problems.

“The challenges facing the world are, unfortunately, often left to politicians and other liberal arts majors to solve,” says Sean O’Sullivan ’85, who founded JumpStart International, a non-governmental organization created to focus on reconstruction in war-torn Iraq and in the Gaza Strip. “In fact, many problems in today’s world are quite simple but require good engineering solutions to improve a situation. I know Americans in general want to help improve the condition of life on the planet, but since the status quo isn’t sufficient, entrepreneurship is the way forward,” O’Sullivan says.

Support for Entrepreneurship Education

Rensselaer alumni, foundations and support programs, and industry have played significant roles in building new Institute entrepreneurship programs and opportunities over the last several years.

In 2001, Rensselaer Trustee Mike Herman ’62 and his wife, Karen, gave $1 million in start-up funds to make the Institute one of the first technological universities where students in all fields learn the principals of entrepreneurship. As a result, the topic has been embedded into the First-Year Experience program. It also has become a critical component of the capstone experiences that require students to solve a significant, open-ended design problem, and show competency in assessing market opportunities and executing business plans.

“Our family is very excited with the hiring of Rob Chernow as vice provost to enhance Rensselaer’s commitment to entrepreneurship across the curriculum,” says Herman, past president of the Kauffman Foundation. “The Board of Trustees strongly backs Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s vision, in The Rensselaer Plan, that the Institute will be a force in the arena of entrepreneurship.”

Last year, Sean O’Sullivan ’85 donated $1 million to create the “Change the World Challenge.” Designed to stimulate creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, the competition is open to all undergraduate and graduate students at Rensselaer.

“I hope this contest will inspire a stream of innovation,” says O’Sullivan, a founder of MapInfo, the world’s leading producer of desktop mapping software.

For the competition, students select a topic from a list of challenges and offer a new, long-term, sustainable solution. In addition to the idea competition, in which a group of winners each receive $1,000, additional support is given in recognition of the “best of the best” ideas to assist students in pursuing patents.

Earlier this year, with significant support from the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rensselaer established the $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize to reward student inventiveness. The competition, offered to undergraduate seniors and graduate students beginning next year, will be awarded annually to a student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system, or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways.

“Inventiveness — generating ideas and solutions to problems — is a critical component in entrepreneurship,” Chernow says. He plans to establish programs to narrow the gap between the real world and the classroom by connecting the stories, wisdom, and resources of entrepreneurial alumni with the spirit, drive, and creativity of entrepreneurial students, faculty, and staff.


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