February 7, 2009 — Just about the time the current economic nosedive was picking up steam, a group of University of Virginia students launched an organization with the potential to help lift the economy back on its feet.
The Virginia Entrepreneurial Society, or E*Society, kicked off Sept. 24 at Newcomb Hall with a meeting of more than 200 students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Darden School of Business, the McIntire School of Commerce, the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Law School.
Self-billed as "a student-centric entrepreneurial ecosystem at U.Va.," the group has also reached out to alumni, faculty, local business groups, venture capitalists and others with an entrepreneurial mindset.
Of the attendees at the first meeting, "between 30 and 40 percent" hailed from the Engineering School, said Mark Hanson, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and a director and co-founder of E*Society.
The society's president, Ian Ayers, is an engineering alumnus and current Darden student. In the months since its launch, Hanson said, "E*Society has enjoyed a huge groundswell of support and enthusiasm."
Not that this surprises him. While chairing the Graduate Engineering Student Council last year, Hanson met many peers who wanted to learn about "how to translate their own discoveries into business opportunities," he said.
Likewise, he discovered that many non-engineers understood business but not the technical aspects of their ideas.
One such student, Sarah Crews of the Darden School of Business, consulted with Hanson. "He was able to provide context about the problem I was trying to solve and could tell me if there were other research teams pursuing it already," she said.
After their meeting, Hanson started attending the entrepreneur lunches that Crews hosted at Darden, and later he became "the Engineering School's backbone of support in the E*Society," she said. "We have found again and again that this diversity yields an unmatchable level of energy and creativity."
Scott Kasen, a graduate student in materials science, has found value in E*Society. Not only has the organization enabled him to challenge himself outside the "comfort zone of the engineering sciences," he said, but it also provided him with collaboration and networking opportunities.
These opportunities, in turn, led him and two collaborators – Adam Malcolm, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, and Michael Iger, an alumnus of the MIT Sloan School of Management – to take third place in the 2008 Darden-U.Va. Business Concept Competition for "Blade Energetics," a business focused on developing leading-edge composite blades for large-scale wind turbines.
"I think we competed well because we presented, among other things, a very strong value proposition – essentially, what our technology can provide that others can't," Kasen said. "After some time at the E-School, you develop strong analytical skills which are as applicable to the engineering field as they are to business, and this served us well."
E*Society is the right organization for the times, according to Hanson. Historically, "engineering students have looked at problem-solving without the context of commercialization, business or money in mind," he said. "We haven't thought about the implications of building our ideas into businesses."
W. Bernard Carlson, a professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society and coordinator of the engineering business minor, is doing his best to change that historical viewpoint. An expert on the role of technology and innovation in American history, Carlson has seen that ideas alone don't lead to successful businesses — a point he drives home to his students.
"During one class, I asked students for solutions to a problem I'd read about in The New York Times. ... When they tossed me their ideas, I tossed back the question, 'Good idea, but how are you going to make money at it?' The 'a-ha moment' occurred when they finally understood that there's a big difference between an idea and a marketable idea."
Carlson believes that entrepreneurial engineers will play a key role in restoring the U.S. economy, because "they are the ones who will develop new technologies that create entirely new industries and new markets and consumer demands."
"The members of E*Society are really encouraged by the fact that small business plays such an integral part in the growth of the economy," Hanson said. "We recognize not only the need for new businesses, but the fact that there is no better time to start a new business than now."