Business and engineering students rove around on Curiosity project
When the Mars Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet’s surface, an invention by a USC Viterbi School of Engineering alumnus clicked into gear, taking measurements of the air around the rover. Meanwhile, back on Earth, a group of USC Marshall School of Business MBA students found a viable commercial application for the invention in just 12 weeks.
David Scott PhD ’93, a senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had developed a laser-based spectrometer that could identify and analyze large and complex molecules lurking in the Martian atmosphere (most laser-based instruments can only work with much smaller chemicals, which limits their effectiveness). Intrigued by the innovation, Jennifer Chang MBA ’12 and her team thought it could serve a business purpose.
To design and test a business model for a start-up and prepare a pitch to an investor in only three months may sound like an incredible feat, but graduate students do it every year in a technology feasibility course taught in USC Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
“None of these were just class projects,” said Kathleen Allen, professor of clinical entrepreneurship, who teaches the class. “We told the students, ‘We don’t want you to do an academic exercise. This has to be real.’ ”
Offered as an elective but required for the Certificate in Technology Commercialization, the business course attracts USC Marshall MBA students, as well as graduate students in engineering and science.
Allen, an entrepreneur and author of more than 15 books on entrepreneurship and technology commercialization, is teaching the course again this fall along with venture capitalist Scott Lenet (co-founder and managing director of DFJ Frontier) and entrepreneur/investor Jon Bassett (an associate at DFJ Frontier).
Each week, lectures will cover everything from value propositions and distribution channels to partnerships and financials. Students — who provide updates on their progress while getting expert advice and even fielding the occasional curveball from the teaching team — have called the course one of the most valuable and intense offerings in the MBA program. There is one significant difference from most business courses: Students do not write up a business plan. Instead they identify a problem that could be a business opportunity, identify potential customers for the business and — if it looks workable — start up the business.
But, as Chang learned, finding the right business model can be a challenge, even when working with experienced colleagues. Her team, which included Brian Cronin MBA ’12 and two engineering students — Susan Schober MS ’07 and Yinyi Wang MS ’12 — worked with Scott to find a business purpose for his device.
Scott had miniaturized the laser into a handheld device and imagined 20 or more uses for the product, many in the medical field. Chang and her team then talked with potential customers and found that nearly all the ideas were too expensive or something the customers were not interested in pursuing. The team eventually discovered the ideal target market was the one it least expected: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Through Erroll Southers, associate director for research transition at USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), Chang’s team met with members of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Because the laser spectrometer can identify large molecules, DHS officials saw its potential for detecting agents of biological or chemical warfare. In addition, the handheld size of the device made it a perfect solution for the TSA, which needed help speeding up security checks but didn’t have room for bulky equipment.
“That was a good lesson for entrepreneurs because they can get hung up on a specific concept for their product,” said Chang, who has a background in marketing and previously developed a start-up. “That was the first lesson in the class: You have to find the customer that is willing to invest in new technology.
“It’s a lot like being in an incubator,” she said. “In addition to the support from Professor Allen, listening to a venture capitalist all semester, we really were able to understand what [the customer is] looking for and where entrepreneurs make a lot of mistakes. How often do you get to do that?”