From a big idea and a single course, an entrepreneurial culture grows
After 16 years of teaching in the engineering school at Princeton, Ed Zschau bowed out with a song.
Zschau, who offered his High Tech Entrepreneurship course for the final time last spring, traditionally wrapped up his last class with his version of "My Way." The song, "Just do it...your way," is a call for his students to pursue their own paths after Princeton. It also reflects the change that Zschau and his colleagues helped bring to the engineering school itself.
When in 1997 then-Dean James Wei first asked Zschau to offer the course on a trial basis, the school had no classes designed to assist student engineers with starting their own businesses. Now, the engineering school's Keller Center offers a number of courses dedicated to entrepreneurship as well as sponsoring competitions, internships, and the eLab startup accelerator. These offerings are not just open to engineering students. Students from all across the campus regularly take the courses and participate in the events.
"Jim's original vision and the work of colleagues like Ed and Stu Schwartz, have made all this possible," said H. Vincent Poor, the dean of the engineering school. "What began as a single course has grown into an entire program that introduces students, and faculty, to entrepreneurship both as a possible career and as a way to approach their professional goals."
When Wei originally decided to expand the engineering school's curriculum to include more business oriented classes, he viewed it as a practical means of achieving a broader mission.
"It's not just about starting companies," said Zschau, a visiting lecturer with the rank of professor in electrical engineering. "It's about innovation, about economic growth, and about doing something significant for the first time. It's about changing the world for the better."
It started with a meeting during the class of 1997 reunion weekend. Zschau, a member of the class of 1961, sat down with Wei and several faculty members to talk about ideas for expanding the school's curriculum. Then a professor of management at Harvard Business School, Zschau offered a unique perspective with a resume including several business startups, two terms in Congress, heading a division of IBM, and academic positions at Stanford and Harvard.
The meeting went well. "It was a confluence of ideas and events," Zschau recalled. Wei, now the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor in Engineering Emeritus, had been working to increase the school's focus on the practical applications for engineering innovations. He had recently appointed Norman Augustine, the former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp., as a visiting professor to teach students about engineering in the corporate world.
"I thought we ought to broaden the education of students to include how science leads to applications that help people to have better lives," Wei said recently.
Wei said that visiting professors, such as Augustine and Zschau, offer a way of introducing new ideas into the school. Stuart Schwartz, then-chairman of the electrical engineering department was eager to have Zschau join his department.
"You have great people that you want to have an influence on the faculty and the students," Wei said. "Sometimes they are temporary; sometimes they will stay for a long time. The thing is to get started."
Wei recalled that Zschau wanted to start teaching immediately even though the academic calendar had already been set for the fall semester, and it was too late to add his course to the official listings. They decided to send out an email to engineering students announcing the class and invite anyone interested to report for the first session.
"Eighty five students showed up for the first class, and we only had 45 chairs in the classroom" Zschau said. "I conducted a lottery to determine which students would occupy those chairs. "
Since then, students are selected for the course based on their written applications. It has remained popular - the most recent offering was limited to 60 students but it has 68 enrolled. Zschau keeps in touch with many of his students after graduation, and he estimates that of the more than 1,700 students who have taken the course about 300 of them have been engaged in entrepreneurial enterprises over the years.
"The most profound impact Ed and the class had was to make success in a startup company actually seem possible in a way that no other experience at Princeton could," said Darren Hammell, a 2001 Princeton graduate and a co-founder of Princeton Power Systems, a manufacturer of advanced power electronic systems. "Ed describes entrepreneurs as people who seek to change the world using resources that they don't control."
Hammell credits Zschau with helping Princeton Power develop into a successful firm. Hammell frequently returns to Zschau's class as a guest lecturer.
"Ed made the less obvious career paths seem fun, and made sure that by the end of the semester we would at least consider a more entrepreneurial direction," he said.
Coming full circle, Zschau and a group of alumni endowed the James Wei Visiting Professor in Entrepreneurship at the Keller Center. Since Julian Lange '65 first filled the post in 2008, the professorship has seen a number of popular appointees including John Danner from University of California and Derek Lidow '73.
"Visitors add a great deal to what the school has to offer," said Sanjeev Kulkarni, director of the Keller Center and professor of electrical engineering. "They teach things that are outside the traditional departmental and curricular silos."
Kulkarni said the goal is to "educate students to have a significant and positive impact on the world."
"Entrepreneurship is one area in which we feel that students can have a significant impact," he said.
Besides the visiting professorship, the Keller Center also sponsors the Princeton Entrepreneurial Internship Program, placing students at startup companies which don't typically employ summer interns as many large corporations do.) The center also hosts the eLab accelerator, a 10 week summer program which offers office space, stipends, living quarters on campus, and mentorship to selected teams of student entrepreneurs.
The Keller Center collaborates with the student-led Entrepreneurship Club to sponsor numerous talks and panel discussions that bring active entrepreneurs and venture investors to campus. The Center's annual Innovation Forum extends the entrepreneurial focus to faculty members and graduate students who receive coaching from business leaders to help them compete for funds to apply their research in startup companies.
"These are things that they can't learn in a classroom and probably can't learn at a traditional internship," Kulkarni said. He said that the engineering school has broadened its curriculum to offer a large range of opportunities to students. "Some of the most defining experiences cut across the line that defines inside the classroom and outside the classroom."
"The most exciting part of this whole experience for me over these past sixteen years has been what I have learned from the students who have graduated and gone on to create great things," Zschau said. "They have had the ability not just to see the future but to seize it for the benefit of the world."