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Successful Entrepreneurs Share Their Secrets

Entrepreneurs Share Their Secrets from Engineering Michigan on Vimeo. Approx. time: 1 hour 24 minutes

Generations of Discovery

Generations of Discovery Campaign Kickoff
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Michigan Technological University recently launched it's Generations of Discovery campaign during our 2010 Homecoming weekend. Check out scenes from the kickoff events and learn more about how you can help us reach our goal!

Campaign for Michigan Tech: A Video Presentation

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Michigan Tech Undergraduate Expo

by Marcia Goodrich, senior writer

Dave House '65 opened Thursday's Entrepreneurship and Technology Symposium with a parable drawn from real life.

About 50 years after Leland Stanford built a small, coeducational college in the Valley of Heart's Delight, there were a couple of young graduates who wanted to stay in the community, but unfortunately, all the good jobs were elsewhere. Their professor encouraged them to start their own company nearby and capitalize on the resources of the school. So William Hewlett and David Packard started a little electronics business in their garage, beginning the transformation of the agrarian Valley of Heart's Delight into Silicon Valley, with Stanford University at its core.

Universities are reclaiming their status as incubators of innovation, House said. Thirty percent of the 2010 Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award winners are universities. He and seven other panelists then told the crowd what they might do to add their names to that list and make the Copper Country, if not the next Silicon Valley, at least a thriving nursery for technology transfer.

Finding "the next hot thing" is the key to entrepreneurial success, said House, chair of Brocade Communication Systems of San Jose, Calif. "But how to do that?"

To spot those gotta-have things, John Soyring '76, IBM's vice president of global solutions and software, identifies pending "disruptions" to markets and then develops solutions. "We literally bring in Nobel Prize winners" to make predictions, he said. For example: gazillions of baby boomers are getting older and need more health care. The boomer doctors and nurses will soon be retiring, with fewer youngsters ready to take their place. The solution? Electronic medical record keeping to make those health-care personnel more productive.

Any technology that cuts cost and improves efficiency is important, said Alan West, the founding CEO of the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation (MTEC) Smartzone and now CEO and president of Carmell Therapeutics Corp., in Pittsburgh, Pa. Personalized medicine is a promising field. He referenced a company that is growing cancer cells in petri dishes and applying different chemotherapy drugs to them, with the aim of identifying the best drugs for patients before their treatment begins.

John Rockwell, managing director of DFJ Element in Menlo Park, Calif., also suggested investing "in areas with unmet needs, unsolved problems." Demand for consumer goods in China and India is ratcheting up, putting a huge strain on resources, particularly water and oil. So, he said, look at technology to make clean, fresh water available and to replace oil, both as an energy source and as a raw material in manufactured products.

Kanwal Rekhi '69, founder of The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE) and managing partner of Inventus Capital Partners in Monte Sereno, Calif., finds opportunities in consumer companies that straddle markets in the US and India.

Holly Hillberg '83 '92, chief technology officer and vice president of Carestream Health Inc. in Rochester, N.Y., seeks innovations that improve global access to health care. "We look for breakthrough ideas that do something completely different." Processes are another area that's ripe for innovation. "We really need to look at efficiencies in work flow, managing data more efficiently," she said.

Ron Van Dell '79, president and CEO of SolarBridge Technologies in Austin, Texas, noted that sometimes companies are blind to hot things. "AT&T invented the technology for mobile communications and decided there was no market for cell phones," he said. The touch screen was initially rejected because "everybody wants buttons," at least until the debut of the iPhone.

Mistakes, House said, are part and parcel of the tech-transfer process. "You have to make lots of mistakes," he said. "Of 10 investments, nine will fail, and one will pay you back 100 times."

Among the mistakes entrepreneurs should avoid is underestimating the effort it will take to succeed, said Shankar Mukherjee '86, president and CEO of Dhaani Systems Inc. of Cupertino, Calif. A bright idea is not enough. "Make sure your core team can work together 24-7 for years," he said, through all kinds of stressful scenarios.

Stay flexible, advised West. "I've never met a business plan that hasn't changed," he said. Successful entrepreneurs know they need to surround themselves with people who are experts in fields they aren't familiar with, including a good CEO. "As soon as you think you know it all, you're doomed," he said.

Building a great product does not happen in a vacuum, Rekhi said. "My approach is to get out early," let customers use a product, and learn from their feedback. "Also, pick one thing," he said. Avoid the engineer's pitfall of piling yet another operation onto a device. "Everyday, ask, 'Am I still on the right track?'"

Don't worry too much about "your" innovation, Hillberg advised. Too often, a product languishes while the principals dispute who gets what. "Don't get hung up on the size of your slice of the pie," she said. Van Dell agreed. "The way to look at is is, 'How do we make the pie bigger?'"

House asked the group to comment on when fledgling entrepreneurs should start looking for capital. For Rekhi, the answer was ASAP. "It's easier to sell a dream than reality," he said.

"We start with the dream, too," said Soyring. But the entrepreneur should also have studied the market and be able to make a case for the product's viability over the long haul. "We are looking for a first of a kind, not a one of a kind."

Be clear about how much funding you need and engage with venture capitalists early in the process, Mukherjee advised. "Ask what they are looking for." Also, solicit investments from early adopters of your technology.

A Tech alumnus asked how to reach decision makers when seeking venture capital. If you can, find someone who knows a firm and get a referral, Mukherjee said. Access can be difficult, Van Dell added. "There's no shortage of filters" at venture capital firms.

An audience member asked the group to address the challenges of luring investment capital to a rural community like Houghton.

"To attract Silicon Valley investors is not easy," West said. He suggested drawing on alumni contacts, both to build an effective team and for advice.

It is easier to raise money in Silicon Valley, Rockwell said. "But things are changing," he added. House agreed. Technology is bringing people together, he said, and corporations are putting together teams with members from all over the world. And the Copper Country has some major advantages, Rekhi noted: clean air and clean water.

As for Houghton's winters, "Look at MIT," Van Dell shrugged. "The question is how to be more marketable, as opposed to saying, 'We're not Las Vegas, we can't do it.'"

An Indian student asked whether they'd recommend staying in the US or returning to India. Mukherjee said that Indian venture capitalists tend to want an immediate return on investment. From that point of view, he said, "I'd stay here." However, it's also critical to know your market and be close to your customer.

Opportunities do exist in India, Rekhi said. Indian entrepreneurs are good at developing products with plenty of features at a lower price and are thus opening markets that haven't been addressed by US entrepreneurs.

When is a new product good enough to release into the market? an audience member asked. "If you are bringing out something new, it will never be perfect," House stated. "Engineers are always adding things," but at some point, you have to draw a line and let all the new ideas go to the next iteration.

A brand new product will never really be great until after it's released and your customers tell you what they really want, the group agreed. "You're not selling a product, you're selling a road map," said Van Dell. "You'll be amazed at the mundane issues that will totally change your outlook."

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Related Story: Michigan Tech Entrepreneurial Support Corporation Will Help Inventors Commercialize Technologies

The overarching purpose of this event was to promote technology transfer/commercialization at Michigan Tech by:

  • Exposing key campus leaders and faculty to trends in technology
  • Highlighting the elements of successful technology entrepreneurship
  • Promoting the growth of an infrastructure and an internal culture of innovation that fosters technology transfer

Questions to be addressed:

  1. Where is technology headed and how best can Michigan Tech position itself to capitalize?
  2. What does it take to be a successful technology entrepreneur?
  3. How best can Michigan Tech move early-stage technologies forward?  What are the critical success factors in technology transfer?
  4. What advice do you have for building an effective technology transfer infrastructure and fostering a climate of innovation?

Entrepreneurs Symposium Panelists


Alumni Share Insights at Entrepreneurship and Technology Symposium Thursday

Former Intel executive Dave House '65 will moderate the Entrepreneurship and Technology Symposium, set for 4 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 30, in the M&M U115. All members of the University community are invited to ask questions and listen to the insights of a stellar panel made up largely of Michigan Tech alumni.

The panelists include eight entrepreneurs and technology leaders from health care, software, clean technology and solar energy. They will share their thoughts on the direction of technology and how Michigan Tech can leverage its talent and capabilities to capitalize on those trends.

David L. House, ‘65 Electrical Engineering
Honorary Doctorate of Electrical Engineering, Michigan Technological University, 1998
Chair of the Board, Brocade Communications, advisor to Elina Networks, and
President & Co-owner of Chateau Masson LLC (dba The Mountain Winery) in Saratoga CA

House, who chairs the Generations of Discovery capital campaign, is the retired president of Nortel Networks and former CEO of Bay Networks, as well as a longtime Intel executive. He is chairman of Brocade Communication Systems of San Jose, Calif.; an angel investor in and board member of STI (Soils and Topography Information), a soils technology company; and an advisor to Elina Networks. He also has a winery, The Mountain Winery, in Saratoga, Calif.

Holly M. Hillberg, ‘83 Chemical Engineering
Chief Technology Officer & Vice President, Carestream Health Inc, Rochester NY

Holly Hillberg '83 '92 is the chief technology officer and vice president of Carestream Health Inc. in Rochester, N.Y. The company provides medical and dental imaging systems and information technology solutions. Hillberg develops technology and intellectual property strategies, sets direction for research and innovation, and drives commercialization efforts. She also has responsibilities relating to regulatory affairs; health, safety and the environment; and product design and usability.

Shankar Mukherjee, ‘86 Electrical Engineering
President and CEO, Dhaani Systems Inc, Cupertino CA

Shankar Mukherjee '86 is president and CEO of Dhaani Systems Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., which he founded in 2008 to produce energy-saving technologies for electronic systems. In 2000, he founded TeraBlaze, a company that provided switch fabric subsystems, and sold it four years later to Agere Systems. Previously, Mukherjee was an engineer and project leader with National Semiconductor and the vice president for engineering of LAN at Enable Semiconductor, a company that was acquired by Lucent.

Kanwal S. Rekhi ‘69 Electrical Engineering
Honorary Doctorate of Business & Engineering, Michigan Technological University, 1994
Founder, The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE),
Managing Partner, Inventus Capital Partners, Monte Sereno CA

Kanwal Rekhi '69 is founder of The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE) and managing partner of Inventus Capital Partners in Monte Sereno, Calif. Started by Rekhi in 2006, Inventus Capital Partners is a venture capital fund investing in early-stage technology. In 1992, Rekhi cofounded TiE to promote entrepreneurship among Indians and Indo-Americans around the world. He has been involved in more than 50 start-ups in Silicon Valley and has created many entrepreneurs, both as an angel investor and through his mentorship. Prior to his venture career, he cofounded and served as CEO of Excelan, a high-tech company that pioneered Ethernet networking technology and was later sold to Novell.

John J. Rockwell, ‘79 Business Administration
Managing Director, DFJ Element, Menlo Park CA

John Rockwell '79 is managing director of DFJ Element in Menlo Park, Calif., a venture capital firm investing in clean technologies. The firm has affiliates in over 30 cities around the world. Previously, Rockwell was a partner at Advent International Corp., where he focused on advanced materials, energy storage, renewable energy and supply chain management. Prior to that, he was at Materia Ventures Associates, where he focused on early-stage companies that were commercializing advanced material technologies.

John A Soyring, ‘76 Electrical Engineering
Honorary Doctorate of Engineering, Michigan Technological University, 2006
Vice President – Global Solutions & Software, IBM Corporation, Austin TX

John Soyring '76 is vice president--global solutions and software for IBM, in Austin, Tex. He provides global business leadership for a multi-billion-dollar annual revenue portion of the IBM software business. This includes functional leadership for strategy, research and development, marketing and sales, business development, product support and service. Previously, Soyring was vice president and senior executive for IBM's Software Services and Support business unit.

Ron Van Dell, ‘79 Electrical Engineering
President & CEO, SolarBridge Technologies Inc, Austin TX

Ron Van Dell '79 is president and CEO of SolarBridge Technologies in Austin, a company developing a micro-inverter for solar panels with the goal of reducing the cost of energy for solar installations. He previously served as president and CEO at Primarion, a mixed signal semiconductor company, which became a leader in digital power management and was acquired by Infineon Technologies in April 2008. Before joining Primarion, Van Dell was president and CEO at Legerity and in senior management positions at Dell, Harris Semiconductor, Groupe Schneider, Square D Company and General Electric. At Dell, he headed the Dimension line, a product that was instrumental in Dell's global expansion.

Alan West
CEO & President, Carmell Therapeutics Corporation, Pittsburgh PA

Alan West, the founding CEO of the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation (MTEC) Smartzone, is now CEO and president of Carmell Therapeutics Corp., in Pittsburgh. He has 25 years of experience managing medical start-up companies. He was formerly the executive in residence at the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, where he worked with more than 40 entrepreneurs and start-up companies in the Life Sciences. In his career, he has raised more than $50 million through private and public offerings. He currently serves on the SmartZone Board of Directors.

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Modified: January 3, 2010