Tom Byers, a Stanford professor who spoke at TEDxFargo this year, knows that words like “entrepreneurship” and “startup” are buzzwords. They’ve become trendy as “startup fever” sweeps the globe, college students are dropping out to start companies, and a typical work outfit is a logo t-shirt and a hoodie.

But they are not words he took lightly when he started building Epicenter, a web of programming directed by Stanford and VentureWell and funded by the National Science Foundation. There are whole host of programs under Epicenter; all are focused on giving students, faculty, researchers and academic leaders an easy way to support entrepreneurship on their campus. North Dakota State University and University of North Dakota are two out of over 143 schools that offer the programming on their campus.

The programming avoids pushing entrepreneurship as something everyone should do, Byers said. Instead, it’s designed to provide resources to students, to show them that if they want to build on an idea, it’s possible.

“It’s not like, ‘You’re going to start a company right now!’,” Byers said. “It’s more about skills…about making sure every college kid has a chance to think about it.”

Tom Byers

Tom Byers and his student Deanna Badizadegan speak at TEDxFargo 2016 about entrepreneurship.

Here in North Dakota, the programming had a direct impact on NDSU alumnus Andrew Dalman, a mechanical engineering major. He was the first NDSU student to join one of the programs offered through Epicenter, the University Innovation Fellows program, about three years ago.

The University Innovation Fellows program involves six weeks of training via online courses, and communicating with staff and other Fellows from across the nation through chat platforms. The goal is to connect and encourage students to be advocates of entrepreneurial education in their universities, equipping them with the skills necessary to lead change from the ground up.

“Our 607 Fellows at 143 schools are founding clubs, hosting events and workshops, collaborating with faculty on new classes, creating student makerspaces, and providing opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration,” it states on the website. “They serve as advocates for change with academic leaders and represent their schools at national events.”

Engineering + Entrepreneurship

When NDSU professor Dr. Wells brought up the program, Dalman instantly recognized the need for this type of programming. In fact it was something he had already been looking for.

“I think…everyone has awesome ideas, but not everybody thinks they can actually create them or have enough time and money to do so,” he said. “I wanted a system where people could turn more ideas into a reality. The Innovation Fellows program is doing that on campuses.”

It’s what he calls, “Democratizing the ability of people to do cool stuff individually,” he said.

This is all part of Epicenter’s vision. In an article titled, “Entrepreneurship: It’s role in engineering education” by Tom Byers, Tina Seelig, Sheri Sheppard, and Phil Weilerstein, they argue that for engineering students in particular, there is a need to bridge the distance between a new invention and bringing that to market. They write:

“In recent decades, the engineering workforce has helped the United States make substantial advances in communications, health, defense, infrastructure, and manufacturing (Blue et al. 2005)… Opportunities and challenges continue to require engineers to literally invent the future by developing breakthrough technologies that solve global problems and enhance the quality of life.”

They continue, to write that, “It is no longer enough to come out of school with a purely technical education; engineers need to be entrepreneurial in order to understand and contribute in the context of market and business pressures.”

As an engineer, Dalman agreed that making the jump from idea to reality is a struggle in the engineering field.

“Many of us [engineers] can make a prototype of some kind,” he said. “But even though the entrepreneurial mindset is actually quite compatible with an analytical mindset — it’s a connection that sometimes has to be manually made. It did for me.”

Dalman is now the founder of a startup called Advanced Bone Technology, which emerged from his research in designing 3D printed bone material. By printing exact replicas of bones, medical students can train using an artificial bone rather than actual bone.

Advanced Bone Technology

But at the time he was a University Innovation Fellow, starting a company wasn’t even a twinkle in Dalman’s eye. At that point he said, studying engineering meant being taught “how to make something and a little bit about why you’re making it.” The program, he said, taught him practical next steps; validating that what you’re making is solving a real problem, for instance, and setting up a way that people can buy that product.

“Things that might be obvious to a liberal arts major,” he said, but were not obvious to him. Or other engineering students.

The program also helped him shift his mentality from one of pessimism, which he said is prevalent in engineering culture, to one of optimism.

“We [engineers] are really good at shooting ourselves and shooting each other down,” he said. “Entrepreneurial education kind of kicks that out and helps you say, ‘Hey this is something I can actually execute on.’”

Today, Dalman and his two person team at Advanced Bone Technology are perfecting their designs and are in the process of raising their first round of investments. Dalman was named in Forbes’ 30 under 30 for his work, presented his product to an audience of high profile investors at the VentureWell conference in Portland, and his company was named in Pioneer’s top 500 startups.

“I can definitely say that being exposed to the whole entrepreneurial positive culture, like tech entrepreneurship that exists at the Epicenter and here in Fargo, has made things a lot more …real. Like it can actually be something,” Dalman said. “There’s a definite chance that I would’ve just gotten a job somewhere had I not been around these support systems.”

Students can get involved with Epicenter’s programming at their local universities by learning more here.

Byers also encourages students to ask these questions: Where does entrepreneurship fit into the educational picture at your school? What opportunities already exist for you? How can you help build more opportunities?

Photos courtesy of University Innovation Fellows, Emerging Prairie and Advanced Bone Technology.

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Marisa Jackels