Pipelines to Innovation

October 30, 2008

Dr. Tom Miller is the vice provost for distance education and learning technology at NC State and director of the Engineering Entrepreneur Program.
Dr. Tom Miller is the vice provost for distance education and learning technology at NC State and director of the Engineering Entrepreneur Program.

How do you grow entrepreneurship at NC State?

To Dr. Tom Miller, the man tasked with doing just that, it's all about creating pipelines.

Miller, the brainchild behind NC State's successful Engineering Entrepreneurs Program, believes nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit in the business creators of tomorrow starts with outreach to students in middle school and high school today.

Nurturing means getting these pre-college students interested in attending college and majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, he said.

Once these types of students enroll at NC State, Miller's vision is to provide introductory classes in entrepreneurship, maybe even one that satisfies a general education requirement.

Then, in Miller's vision, the pipeline would feed students into an entrepreneurship program similar to those that already exist in the colleges of Engineering and Management.

In the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, for example, multidisciplinary teams of undergraduates run their own virtual companies launching a new product or business. Led by seniors fulfilling their capstone design project requirements, the teams function like start-up companies, divvying up tasks like design, testing, market research, manufacturing and sales.

"Innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines," Miller said. "Multidisciplinary collaboration is the key, because you get minds together that think differently. That leads to innovation.

"Programs like the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program and the College of Management's Entrepreneurship Education Initiative provide the foundation for a successful university-wide entrepreneurship program; now we need to build bridges to other colleges and disciplines."

Further down the pipeline, graduate students in business or technology disciplines can work with NC State's Technology Entrepreneurship Commercialization program (in the College of Management) to learn more about what is needed to turn ideas into businesses.

From there, recently minted NC State alumni could take their ideas into the university's technology incubator, where ideas hatch into start-up companies. The incubator has hosted more than two dozen start-up clients.

But that doesn't complete the pipeline, Miller said. Many successful NC State entrepreneurs give something back to the university by providing his or her expertise and savvy to the next generation of entrepreneurs through internship or co-op offerings, or by returning to NC State as a speaker in the university's Entrepreneurship Lecture Series.

The Nov. 3 Entrepreneur Lecture Series stars Joseph Forbes Jr., president and chief operating officer of Cleartricity, a company formed to leverage wireless and wire-line telecom infrastructure towards reducing peak power in the utility power grid. An NC State alumnus with a degree in electrical engineering, Forbes holds three patents and was named to the Triangle Business Journal's list of "40 under 40" area business executives.

Besides Forbes' lecture, Miller and Chancellor James Oblinger will lay out NC State's new Entrepreneurship Initiative during the Entrepreneur Lecture Series event.

The 7 p.m. event at the McKimmon Center is free and open to the public, but registration is requested.

Miller will spend most of his foreseeable career at NC State providing the leadership to bring out the entrepreneur in NC State students and do the other things necessary to complete the pipeline.

"You can't teach a person to be an entrepreneur, but you can impact his or her chances for success," he said.


By Mick Kulikowski, NC State News Services