Diversity & Inclusion

How Jeffrey Babin teaches Penn students to ‘look at the fish’ [Q&A]

Babin, a former entrepreneur and musician who teaches the Engineering Entrepreneurship program at Penn, talks with us about teaching, the principles of entrepreneurship, and why Facebook is really, really over.

See full graphic below. Graphic by Frida Garza.
This is the first installment of our Office Space series, where we'll interview movers and shakers in the tech scene and show you where they work.
Jeffrey Babin used to be a musician. It was the first work he did after he finished his undergraduate degree at Penn.

The important thing about his music, Babin will tell you, is that it got him interested in computers. As a drummer, his instrument was replaced with sequencers and drum machines. That’s when he made the switch.

“It was a ‘join rather than fight’ thing,” said Babin, who teaches Engineering Entrepreneurship at Penn. More than 3,000 students have gone through the Engineering Entrepreneurship program, which aims to teach engineers about the real-life applications of their work.

After trying to make a career in music work, Babin returned to Penn for his MBA and in 1993, he started a consulting practice called Corporate Technology Ventures. Eventually the company morphed into a software company selling technologies to medical and pharmaceutical companies.

“We did different things to allow people to deliver medical education or reference content in electronic form,” he said. “It was basically the electronic delivery of stuff.”

They sold the company in 2001, and shortly after, Babin signed on to teach Engineering Entrepreneurship at Penn.

jeffrey babin

In the classroom, he brings in his experience pursuing different ventures and helps students “look at the fish”—or observe and analyze something a little more than you’d think is necessary, in order to get all the juicy details.

Here he talks with Technical.ly Philly about teaching, the principles of entrepreneurship, and why Facebook is really, really over.

Edited for length and clarity.

How does teaching compare to your music and to starting your own business?

To me, it’s all connected. It’s all about innovation, not just in terms of products or industries, but also in terms of business models and markets. All along, I’ve been fascinated by how things get created and how things change in industries and how a company can be a hero today and a goat tomorrow. Living that is one side—and sharing my experiences and mistakes is another part of it.

You do that in your Engineering Entrepreneurship class?

Yep. The program was actually started in 1999 by my colleague Tom Cassel. He set the whole thing up. And it’s just continued to grow. The technologies change, the students change, everything changes—but the same core principles of entrepreneurship don’t. That’s the value that we try to impart on the students. These principles of understanding how things are created in the lab and get commercialized and embraced in the market—that’s what it’s all about.

So essentially the course hasn’t changed very much since you started.

Well, we keep adding stuff. We never take stuff away.

We have two core courses: the first one is a survey course, and we look at all aspects of high-tech entrepreneurship from intellectual property, product development, market strategy, operations, venture finance, leadership and management. The second course is actually creating a business plan. It’s an in-depth analysis and study of a venture concept.

But I think this is really important: our program is designed really to be an academic pursuit. We don’t actively promote that students start businesses based on what their concepts are. Our philosophy is that an overwhelming majority of students are going to take jobs right after school and so we’re just trying to show them what’s possible. We do have students who do it right out of school.

I’ve been fascinated by how a company can be a hero today and a goat tomorrow.

Anyone who stands out?

Mark Palatucci. He was actually in Cassel’s first class of Engineering Entrepreneurship. His [San Francisco-based] company Anki is an artificial intelligence robotics company but their first product is the new version of slot-car racing, which is basically having cars that are going around on a track but you’re controlling them with your iPhone. You take a lot of the principles of video gaming and bring them into an offline world. So they have weapons, they have defenses, they can drop bombs for cars chase one another around the track.

What was your first day of teaching like? Do you remember?

Oh, it was nightmare. [laughs] I was not ready to teach. But I was not going to let it end on a failure note. So, if nothing else, I was going to do a couple more times. But I just connected with it.

I love being around really smart people, and the students and faculty here are really smart. The other thing is that because technology changes so fast, I watch how it works in the students’ marketplace. What’s hot for them was unthinkable even a few years ago. I’ve got a 15- and an 18-year-old. I tell [my students]: you guys are all on Facebook. Facebook is dead.

Is that right?

I mean, Facebook is really dead. And that only took six years. Facebook is certainly a great company, but my kids won’t touch Facebook. It’s not because their parents or grandparents are on it—it doesn’t fit with what they do. SnapChat fits. WhatsApp fits. It’s shorter, quicker, without thinking whatsoever. Even on Facebook, you have to think a little bit. So I’m not sure if this is good or bad.

But it’s happening.

And it just marches on. So every time I get a new class, there are new things going on. And for me, it’s the never-ending pursuit of learning new stuff. Teaching affords that for me.

Companies: University of Pennsylvania
People: University of Pennsylvania / Jeffrey Babin / Tom Cassel
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