A few weeks ago, Professor Sriram Vishwanath asked Cam Houser, Professor Bob Metcalfe, Isaac Barchas from ATI, and me to mentor fifty honors students in disciplines ranging from electrical engineering to computer science to electrical and computer engineering.  Ok, so he basically asked us to spend 3 hours working with some of the sharpest engineering undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin.   What followed was an engaging and exciting exercise in exposing technically brilliant students to entrepreneurial opportunity.

The Huddle

As the students munched on Pizza Patron, we, the mentors,  had a quick huddle. Professor Sriram told us that this event was an experiment designed to help these future engineers make progress on ideas for their senior honors projects while also giving them some exposure to the world of entrepreneurship.

As Professor Sriram told us, “the focus is really on helping them come up with a technically challenging program that they can solve.”  “What about commercial viability?” I asked.  “After all, if the session is about giving them a short exposure to entrepreneurship, shouldn’t we have them focus on commercial viability?”  Professor Sriram’s eyes lit up and he said “yes, senior design is about creating novel technical solutions but I agree, commercial viability is part of the solution.”

Flashbacks to the Westin San Antonio

In slow motion, Professor Sriram’s acknowledgement of the “technical novelty vs. commercial viability” thought process gave me flashbacks to the Westin San Antonio. Specifically, it made me feel like I was running on the treadmill at the Westin San Antonio and listening to Reid Hoffman’s fantastic podcast on “choosing the entrepreneurial path.”   (Anybody else like to run and listen to entrepreneurship podcasts?)

As I stood there, I remembered Reid Hoffman’s admonition about the differences between academia and the business world.  As we all know, academia rewards those who tackle the toughest problems.  The praise and the publishing credentials go to those who spend entire careers tackling the one unsolvable equation or resolving the one scientific contradiction.  Marginal improvement is not what great academic careers are made of.

But the business world can be different.  In the business world, you can and are rewarded for creating a better solution for a problem that has in theory already been solved.  We constantly reward entrepreneurs that create better user experiences or that make marginal improvements.  We do so because a 10% improvement in the business world can be worth billions of dollars.  A lot of times these 10% improvements are massive technical challenges, like the Netflix prize, but many times they are a business process improvements whose underlying technology is easily replicable.

Great Engineers and Great Ideas

As soon as Professor Sriram told the group of fifty that the purpose of a senior design project is “technical novelty,” but can also be “commercial viability,” the emphasis in the room turned.  These great engineers with their great ideas began to immediately think about the potential market needs and applications of their technology.

The shift in mindset was as impressive as it was swift.  One student with a software solution for autonomous vehicles immediately asked me, “so what you’re telling me is that I go to potential customers, ask them what they want, and then I build prototypes based on what the customers say they will use my technology to accomplish?”  Exactly.

If you attend or teach at a school outside of Silicon Valley, you know that even your most brilliant engineering students don’t come to class muttering about “market validation,” or strategizing about “minimum viable products.”  But if you introduce them to a different analytical framework, you will notice that these words and ideas infect the design process.

To be continued in Part Two…