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An Entrepreneurial Education

Science and engineering students suit up for the high tech business world through UCSB’s Technology Management Program

by Sonia Fernandez

When optoelectronics graduate student Jared Hulme attended a Technology Management Program lecture about UC Santa Barbara technologies that were available to license, he left inspired to explore how solid state lighting research could be commercialized.

Kristin Denault, UCSB Materials graduate student

“After seeing last year’s New Venture Competition finals, I decided I wanted to be a part of the program,” commented Hulme. TMP’s New Venture Competition is an annual business competition for student teams to try their hand at commercializing new or existing technology, much of it stemming from campus research efforts in science and engineering.

Hulme connected with materials graduate student Kristin Denault, who was researching high efficiency laser diode lighting in the solid state lighting lab of Professor Ram Seshadri, co-director of the Materials Research Laboratory. Like Humle, Denault was interested in taking the technology to market.

 “My graduate research work with Professors Ram Seshadri, Steve DenBaars, and Shuji Nakamura led us to combine phosphor materials with laser excitation,” explained Denault. This highly promising research formed “the basis of our motivation,” she added, to enter the competition with a company called Fluency Lighting Technologies. 

“I have found inspiration in this research because of the far reaching impacts that lighting has on the world, and the associated global energy reduction that can be made possible through this type of research,” said Denault.

Denault and Hulme joined forces with economics major Daniel Moncayo, and their team went on to place second in the competition, taking home seed money for a newly established technology venture.

“We expect our technology to be well received in a market estimated to be worth $3 billion,” commented Moncayo.

TMP has been the birthplace for many student-run startups, several of which they can now showcase as multi-million dollar success stories in a spectrum of technology industries. Fueled by students fired up about their innovations, and guided by mentors with experience in the marketplace, TMP has helped spawn dozens of successful UCSB-founded businesses in its 14 years on campus.

Before considering the techpreneur world, the three co-founders of Fluency Lighting Technologies took advantage of TMP’s course offerings and lectures available to students. Denault completed TMP’s Graduate Program in Management Practice concurrently with her graduate education in materials.

Laura Johnson, graduate student at the UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, presents her team’s start-up, Salty Girl Seafood, at the 2014 New Venture Competition Finals.

“The three of us have also attended several of the TMP Executive-At-the-Table round table discussions and seminars,” Denault said. “We have really found TMP to be a great source of help and guidance through this whole process.”

TMP’s academic offerings and student business competition are led by UCSB professors and lecturers with business acumen and experience under their belts who impart knowledge to students over six months of courses and seminars. The curriculum covers everything a “techpreneur” could dream of: business ideas and models, intellectual property and patents, marketing, finance, operations, and how to find start-up investors. The results for participants are a broader network, concrete business plans, working prototypes, and polished presentations. 

Though not exclusive to tech majors, students in science and engineering are drawn to the program, which aims to prepare them to perform as business leaders in global technology teams. Their curricula encourage cross-disciplinary teamwork between the hard sciences, economics, marketing, and other disciplines to bring balanced perspectives and talents. 

Advice from seasoned pros

For mentors, TMP is sometimes a way to watch the evolution of technology, as students tackle old problems with new insights. 

Morgan Pattison, whose consulting firm specializes in high-efficiency lighting, mentored a team of engineering seniors, Taylor Umphreys, Siddhant Bhargava, Arshad Haider, and Ben Chang. Their team, Brightblu, proposed a Bluetooth-based home automation system that could be controlled with a smartphone.

“I encouraged them to make it something cost-effective and easy to use,” said Pattison. The problem with current automated lighting systems, he said, is that they tend to be complicated and unwieldy, affordable only to large buildings. Compatibility with legacy circuitry, such as in a home, was a problem.

“The idea for me was to see where the concept would go and I wanted these guys to spend time on the technical issues,” he said. His job was to guide their creative power as someone who was familiar with the practical realities of the market.

They ran with the concept and refined the technology, but they didn’t stop with lighting solutions. In the process they demonstrated that the device — a smartplug — could not only control lights, but could also work with other appliances. In essence, they designed a smartplug that turns any power outlet into an intelligent outlet that users can control from a smartphone.

After taking home People’s Choice at the New Venture Competition, the team landed a top spot at the 2012 Plug and Play Expo, scoring major networking opportunities in the Silicon Valley. Today, their original prototype has evolved into a product called Zuli. They used Kickstarter to successfully fund their expansion. 

To test themselves against the reality of a startup experience, students can take courses like “Creating a Market-Tested Start-up Business Model,” taught by Steve Zahm, president of Santa Barbara-based Procore Technologies, Inc., a cloud-based construction management software firm.

“Tech entrepreneurs often confuse a technology with a product, and a product or service with a business,” said Zahm. “Conducting a thorough and detailed market validation process — in other words, getting out and talking to potential customers and partners before launching the product and company — is the one key step for designing a successful business model. Once that business model has been validated by actual market and customer feedback, then you can move forward.”

As the venture matures, like any company, there will be growing pains. If the business is successful, roles change and goals evolve. 

“Start-ups have fewer formal rules, are nimble, flexible and more organic in their organizational structure – there are roles rather than formalized jobs – people tend to do more than one thing,” said Kathryn McKee, human resources expert and TMP lecturer. 

As the venture grows, so does the need for the company’s leaders to keep the focus more on long-term productivity and less on short-term survival. For this eventual need, McKee co-teaches “The Entrepreneurial Leadership of Teams and Talent” with Deb Horne, who is also in human resources.

“Experience has shown that entrepreneurs are typically focused on the technology, product or service and give little thought to the legal side of a start-up, including hiring and compensating employees,” said Horne. “The class is designed to provide an awareness of the legal compliance issues they face when starting up and running a business.”

Entrepreneurship with a purpose

Team Shadowmaps won over 2014 NVC judges with urban geolocation improvement technology that combines GPS data with algorithms that correct for building satellite shadows. Pictured: Andrew Irish, Danny Iland, Dayton Horvath, and Jason Isaacs.

In the world of new technology ventures, the waters can be a little choppier, the navigation a little more uncertain. Not only are startups inventing new things, they have to convince investors to believe in them, and then persuade the public to trust their products.

Which is why a strong purpose plays an important role in the life of a tech entrepreneur. 

For James Rogers, creator of aPEEL Technologies, Inc., there were two purposes. He wanted to own his own business and he wanted to create something that could have a positive impact on peoples’ lives. He found a way to fulfill both purposes in the world’s first organic preservative, a spray-on post-harvest coating that preserves the freshness — and thus extends the shelf life — of produce.

“In the U.S. we throw out up to 20 percent of the produce that we harvest. And we use 80 percent of our fresh water in the United States to irrigate,” said Rogers, who earned his PhD in Materials at UCSB.

Through the development of a thin film composed of molecules extracted from plants, strawberries that go fuzzy the next day will be good for several more, and in the future leafy greens could stay leafy and green for far longer. From growers to grocers, it means better sales and less waste overall.

Much of this support he received from TMP, starting with the first entrepreneurship classes led by John Greathouse. 

“I think TMP is like a series of lighthouses that warn you where you’re going to crash. They don’t tell you where to go; they tell you where not to go,” he said. There might be ideas that take too much time and energy, or it might be the wrong time to take money from a certain investor, he said. 

aPEEL Technology and its organic edible spray coating took home the top spot at the 2012 New Venture Competition.

Not satisfied with helping the agriculture industry on the home soil, Rogers is actively researching ways to bring the technology to developing countries, where not only are shrinkage and spoilage major issues in places with hot weather and lack of refrigeration, but also biotic stressors — infestations and infections by bacteria, fungi and parasites. For this work Rogers was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under its Grand Challenges Explorations Initiative, for a proposal that paved the way for a coating that would not only prevent shrinkage but also act as a camouflage, keeping the fruit or vegetable’s surface from being recognized as a food source. 

For the next crop of young innovators considering entrepreneurship, Rogers offers this advice: Get started. Do anything.

Learning to innovate

Not all students who enter TMP are looking to be the next big startup. A common thread between the program curricula is encouraging students to keep their minds in innovation mode. 

“Innovation-related skills are vital because we’re frequently working with game-changing research that requires new thought and practices concerning industry and market applications,” said Dave Seibold, UCSB professor and director of the TMP Graduate Program in Management Practice. “For example, technological or component innovations that disrupt traditional models to increase efficiency and production or open new markets.” 

A $5,000 Elings Prize was awarded to a team by method of random drawing at the 2014 New Venture Competition, prefaced by words of experience from Virgil Elings that "success in business is fifty percent hard work and fifty percent dumb luck."

Seminars such as “Thinking Out of the Box” and “How Do Things Work?” are taught by TMP lecturer Virgil Elings, a UCSB physics professor turned wildly successful techpreneur, even before tech entrepreneurship became the vogue. Elings co-founded Santa Barbara-based Digital Instruments in 1987, which brought the first commercially-available scanning probe microscopes to market — including the Atomic Force Microscope and the Scanning Tunneling Microscope.

“Virgil has a passion for helping students,” said Rod Alferness, dean of the College of Engineering. “His workshops are effective because they’re hands-on, very cross-disciplinary, and the student-teacher model is wide open.” Elings, a renowned entrepreneur and lifelong advocate of learning by doing, is known for eschewing traditional learning models for the head-first approach.

This approach, and the deceptively simple questions Elings asks his students, engages both student and teacher, giving participants the kind of mental calisthenics needed to train for the fast pace and often unpredictable environment of a technology-based business career.

“TMP gave me a chance to teach a course where the subject matter is just a medium for thinking about things,” Elings said. “The material was not constrained and could cover everyday things and very technical things. Two of my favorite simple problems for the students to think about were ‘How does a playground swing work?’ and ‘How does an ice skater gain speed?’ We went from swings to relativity in one course and I learned as much as the students.”

“The class was much more focused on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ as opposed to the ‘whats’ that we could be studying,” said Benji, a former TMP student. “I learned not only a lot about how the things we covered really work, but also some better questions to ask when trying to learn more about anything.”

Despite (or perhaps, because of) their unconventionality, his seminars are a tremendous hit with both engineering and College of Creative Studies students at UCSB. Students often cited Elings’ seminars as the best classes they ever had.

Next-gen technology, next-gen leadership

Expanding their current offerings, TMP will launch a new Master of Technology Management program in 2015. This intensive master’s degree program will be the first of its kind at UCSB and is intended for exceptional students in science, engineering, or quantitative social science backgrounds with a “demonstrated potential for leadership,” explained Bob York, professor of electrical and computer engineering and Chair of TMP.

“This program will propel students with advanced technical qualifications to successful careers as business leaders and entrepreneurs.” said York. “We’re empowering UCSB scientists and engineers to become leaders and innovators. I think that’s a big step, and important one.”

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