From Launchpad to Liftoff
Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute Fellows candidates help to turn ideas into startups.
Why not add DHA Omega-3 fatty acids
to the organic granola bar, she thought, so that it could boost the
mental energy of students studying for exams?
After arriving at Cornell last fall as a freshman engineering major, Diesch presented her proposal for her Brainstorm bar to Rhett Weiss, executive director of Johnson’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute (EII). Impressed with her idea, Weiss engaged two MBA students from the newly created EII Fellows Program to help turn Diesch’s product into a viable business.
Working with Diesch via videoconferences, e-mail, and occasional campus meetings, Pallavi Nambiar, MBA ’14 (E), and Carlos Wang, MBA ’13 (A), contacted industry analysts, manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors to learn how to move the energy bar to market. In February, their team, Solar Flare, won the Johnson Shark Tank Competition, designed to showcase products designed by Cornell students. Their next goal: a debut of the nutrition bars in Cornell coffee shops in time for finals week.
“This program has been a fantastic experience,” says Nambiar, a vice president with Nomura Securities International in Manhattan, who attends classes in the Executive MBA program in Palisades, N.Y. “It’s given me the opportunity to work with students from Ithaca that I never would have met. It’s really breaking down barriers and exposing me to things I may never have had the chance to do before.”
Bringing together students from Johnson’s four MBA programs to work on entrepreneurship projects was just what Weiss, an entrepreneur himself, had in mind when he created the EII Fellows Program in 2011. Although Johnson offers several other fellows programs, Weiss noticed that none of them engage students from all of its MBA tracks.
“I saw this as a great opportunity for MBA students to collaborate across the four MBA programs and to engage students in our Executive MBA programs, because they didn’t have classes on Cornell’s campus,” Weiss says. “Many were yearning to be more connected in Ithaca.”
After 14 students joined the program in its first year, more than 60 students signed up for the second cohort of fellows candidates last fall. The majority — 35 of them — came from the Executive MBA and the Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA programs, a response that did not surprise Weiss. “They are busy people with full-time careers,” he says, “but as the cliché goes, busy people get things done.”
Coming from Silicon Valley, where he had been a senior team leader in strategic development at Google Inc., Weiss believed a fellows program would expose Johnson students to hands-on experiences creating their own companies and working with other startups. Weiss, who founded Dealtek Ltd., a consulting and business software company, also saw the EII Fellows program as a way to offer students a glimpse of the growing high-tech economy.
“When it comes to meshing business and technology with what can be gleaned from academic pursuits — I saw how that all came together in Silicon Valley,” he says. “This is the way the world has been for a long time and it’s what our students want — more education and classroom experience with exposure to entrepreneurship.”
Many of the EII Fellows candidates arrive at Johnson with a startup or two already under their belts. As an undergraduate at Tufts University, Shigeki Abe, MBA ’13, for example, helped a friend launch WineBuzz, a company that enabled consumers to buy, trade, and sell vintage wines on a social platform similar to eBay.
After closing the business and working as an analyst at Alliance Bernstein for three years, Abe decided to return to the entrepreneurial world when he started his MBA. Since joining the fellows program, Abe has developed a pilot program between EII and General Assembly, a New York City-based powerhouse that provides incubator space and technology and business workshops to entrepreneurs throughout the world.
For his capstone project, Abe arranged for four videos produced by General Assembly, on topics such as monetizing mobile applications and effectively using advertising, to be shown at Sage Hall, which drew students interested in entrepreneurship from across campus. “The videos really gave [aspiring] entrepreneurs the knowhow on how to execute some of these things,” Abe says.
Besides the capstone project, which can involve launching a startup or working with another company, fellows candidates must take 12 credit hours of courses and work on EII projects that promote or raise money for the institute, or that expand its outreach. For her EII project, Nora Hansanugrum, MBA ’13, created an e-newsletter for the institute, while Balaji “Bala” Jayaraman, MBA ‘14 (E), is working on further expanding the Mentors in Virtual Residence, a database of business professionals who have volunteered to share their expertise with Cornell students, faculty, and alumni.
While the students earn a certificate at the end of the program, what may be more useful is the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other classmates, faculty, alumni, and business owners involved in entrepreneurship, says Zach Shulman ’87, JD ’90, EII’s associate director. “One of the most valuable parts of their education is the network of people that they develop,” Shulman says. “We want them forming tight bonds with each other, and this is a great way to do that.”
With a wealth of scientists and engineers rolling out new inventions in laboratories across campus, the EII Fellows candidates have a ready-made opportunity to work with potential startups right at Cornell. After taking the helm at EII, Weiss decided to build on the existing connections between Johnson and the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization (CCTEC) by launching a formal collaboration between the institute and CCTEC to provide business expertise to commercialize technology invented by the faculty. Weiss then turned the project, BR Tech-Transfer, into a student-led initiative.
Juan Diego Alonso Succar, JD/MBA ’14, who majored in biomedical science at the University of Oklahoma, began working with the portfolio managers at CCTEC last fall, with the goal of trying to speed up the process of commercializing technology created at Cornell. At CCTEC, Alonso met Stephane Corgié, a Cornell research associate in biological and environmental engineering, who had created a technology to remove contaminants from water used in the process of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique of extracting natural gas from underground shale deposits.
Reviewing his invention, Alonso suggested that its applications could extend beyond environmental cleanup to a wide range of industrial enzyme processes. After helping Corgié incorporate the company, Zymtronix Catalytic Systems, Alonso was named its chief business officer and hopes to continue working with the startup after he graduates. “I want to push Zymtronix as far as it will go,” he says, “and in the process learn how to create value and run a business.”
Like Alonso, other EII Fellows candidates now see themselves as being a step closer to becoming entrepreneurs, since the program has reinforced their interest and confidence in launching their own startups. Hansanugrum, who earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts after graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, plans to form a company that would provide incubator space for chefs to test out recipes and menus before taking the plunge in opening their own restaurants.
Hansanugrum credits the EII Fellows program with giving her the confidence and skills to imagine that she could start her own business. “It really forced me to look at myself as an entrepreneur and classify myself as an entrepreneur,” she says. “That probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been part of this program.”
Nambiar, who has been collaborating on the Brainstorm project, also hopes to become involved in a startup after graduating, although she has held executive positions at two financial services companies in the past eight years. “What I’ve learned is there is nothing to fear if you’re ready to jump in and roll up your sleeves,” she says. “If you’re passionate about an idea, you can make it happen.”
In EII’s evolution as a hub of entrepreneurship at Cornell, the institute is looking to practice more of the skills it teaches fellows candidates as the institute itself becomes a self-sustaining enterprise over the next five years. The fellows candidates would play a major role in achieving that goal by using their capstone projects to generate revenue, according to Weiss. “I see the fellows program as having the potential to help solve that problem,” he says. “We could charge companies and organizations for our services if we can create value for them. We’ve already started to do this, to help cover EII’s program costs.”
Weiss believes the fellows candidates will step up to the task, given their experience, energy, and love of entrepreneurship. “There’s a certain edginess or a little bit of an unorthodox streak to the group as a whole,” he says. “We look at the world’s opportunities not as, ‘That can’t be done,’ but as, ‘Let’s get it done.’ I’m just very intrigued by the prospects this combination of people presents not only for their own education but for the advancement of entrepreneurship and innovation at Cornell.”