When you have a great idea, there is no reason to wait.
That’s the motto at Lehigh University‘s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation—the home of its master’s degree in technical entrepreneurship program, which launched last spring. Though Lehigh has had roots in innovation before — social video hosting site Viddler.com and its founder Rob Sandie spun out there and became active in the Philly scene in 2009 before leaving the role — this program is far more inter-disciplinary, recognizing trends nationwide.
Along with the fresh feel of the program is something that distinguishes itself from most others—it accepts students with a bachelor’s degree of any kind.
“We’re a cross between engineering, business and arts and science,” said John Ochs, the director of the program and professor of mechanical engineering at the university based in Bethlehem, Pa. Less than 90 minutes from Center City, a growing Lehigh Valley technology community can help pipe talent to Philadelphia and create a broader ecosystem of innovation in the mega-region.
It’s all the more reason to follow what is happening near the Lehigh River.
“By design, we want to bring in the art history, the psychology, the anthropology, the sociology into this program because they bring a completely different skill set,” he said.
“We have people from psychology, journalism, political science, design, engineering, supply-chain management, marketing and so on as members of the cohort,” he said. “It’s important to have a lot of different points of view coming in to help.”
The one-year program features a curriculum of three semesters, starting in the summer. Each semester consists of 10 credits for 30 total credits. During the first semester, students learn skills such as intellectual property, visual thinking, communication, creativity methods and productivity, Ochs said.
Utilizing the skills learned throughout the summer, students then design their products and business models in the fall while identifying customers.
The third semester is where the real tests begin as students launch their companies and complete the required tasks of forming a corporation such as licensing and insuring. Lastly is the sale of the student’s first product—a requirement for graduation.
“Innovation is not an elective,” Ochs said. “You must innovate.”
Ochs said the program spawned from the growing interests among students in the university’s undergraduate Integrated Product Development program, which Ochs, 64, has directed for the last 28 years.
With the program’s perk of industry sponsorship, more students wanted to create their own products, Oaks said and it soon became clear the university needed a “more focused and open program.”
Over the last five years, past university programs have churned out an average of five to 10 companies a year, but Ochs said the future goal is between 20 and 30 annually. This year, the master’s program has 15 students and plans to launch 14 companies, Ochs said. The program is aiming to enroll 30 students the second time around, which would be the maximum as the current lab and incubator space is restricted to a 17,000- square-foot floor, he said.
The program is looking into expansion — there has been talk of it occupying space in a large 600,000-square-foot space the university could purchase near its Mountaintop campus, one of the university’s three connected campuses, which is planned to become the university’s innovation hub, Ochs said.
Ochs said the students far exceeded his expectation in the program’s first-ever run through, admitting the program was somewhat of a gamble.
One of Och’s students, Bryan Postelnek, 23, of Middletown, N.J., said he has had great experiences with Lehigh’s master’s program since his enrollment last May.
“I’ve learned a lot about the entrepreneurial world and all the networking and skills they have taught us has been beneficial,” Postelnek said. “It’s pushed me outside my comfort zone and has helped me pursue my goals.”
Lehigh Valley’s growing tech community has provided the program’s students with endless resources to build and succeed with its ventures.
- The Fab Lab at North Hampton Community College has cultivated a maker culture.
- The Ben Franklin TechVentures workspace, the northeastern Pennsylvania answer to BenFranklin Technology Partners in Southeastern Pa, provide excellent resources for students working on ventures and building prototypes.
- The Lehigh Valley Tech Meetup, organzed by Tim Lytle, Mark Koberlein, Anthony Durante and others, has continued to grow.
- Last fall, Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend was held for the first time, bringing together Philly, North Jersey and other startup leaders.
- The Lehigh Valley local tech community’s growth as a whole provides incentives for students to launch products and continue entrepreneurial business within the area.
The program is very hands on, and while there is a structured curriculum for students to follow, they have ultimate creative freedom when it comes to designing, developing and launching a product.
Matt Fuchs, 24, a graduate assistant in the program, has been working on multiple ventures. The creative freedom within the program has allowed him to design and develop products that he is passionate about. Das Bier Macher is a home brewing beer kit that took second place in the Levin Advanced Technology Competition, a part of the EUREKA! Ventures Competition series. This craft beer kit is only one of the many projects Fuchs has been working on.
While students can enjoy prototyping and building products that they are passionate about, Fuchs explained why this type of program would benefit entrepreneurship and technology in the future.
“Technical entrepreneurship is important because we lack manufacturing in this country and we don’t push the sciences anymore,” Fuchs said. “We lack good STEM education—a lot of people are moving away from that and engineering is becoming outsourced.
“We need to move back to this kind of manufacturing and development,” he said. “This program helps fill the gap for graduates.”
Fuchs said he believes that for the tech scene to grow again, this kind of program must migrate down into undergraduate programs and younger students.
The university is accepting applications for the term beginning in May, with open houses on March 28 and April 16. Visit here or call 610-758-5626 for more information.
This report was done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods program, the capstone class for the Temple’s Department of Journalism.
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