Economic optimism has lain low in these difficult times, but it got a rare chance to bask Jan. 5 when the National Academy of Engineering announced that the Bernard M. Gordon Prize, its top award for teaching, would honor two directors of the entrepreneurship program in Stanford's School of Engineering.
"It's commonly accepted that innovation is the key to economic growth and prosperity, which has never been a more important objective given the shocks of 2008," said Tom Byers, faculty co-director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) and a professor of management science and engineering. He shares the award with STVP executive director Tina Seelig. "We are honored to be recognized by the NAE for developing new ways to teach innovation and entrepreneurship," Byers said.
Added Seelig: "We are striving to infuse students with an entrepreneurial mindset which allows them to see problems as opportunities. These skills are powerfully important in solving daunting world challenges, such as the struggling economy."
STVP provides a broad-based curriculum in business and leadership skills to complement the technically focused coursework of engineering and science. Although STVP is elective, more than 1,000 students enroll in classes each year. The program extends well beyond Stanford to universities around the world through four annual Roundtable on Entrepreneurship Education (REE) conferences and the popular Entrepreneurship Corner website (http://ecorner.stanford.edu), which features free videos and podcasts for entrepreneurs and educators.
In announcing the Gordon Prize, the NAE cited Byers and Seelig "for pioneering, continually developing and tirelessly disseminating technology entrepreneurship education resources for engineering students and educators around the world."
The prize awards $250,000 to the School of Engineering, which will use the funds to support STVP operations, and an equal amount to be shared by the individual winners. Byers and Seelig will accept the award at the NAE annual banquet in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 17.
The following day at Stanford, Byers and Seelig will kick off Entrepreneurship Week, a celebration that includes keynote speakers, panel discussions, venture capital speed-dating and workshops on creativity. More information on that event is available at http://eweek.stanford.edu/global2008/about.html.
The event has become a campus favorite, but the idea of teaching entrepreneurship to technical students was novel when Byers came to Stanford from the software industry in 1995 to begin the experiment that became STVP in 1998. Byers' founding philosophy was that whether students sought to establish companies or work within existing organizations, they should have the critical thinking, business analysis and team-building skills required to get technical ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Seelig joined the program in 1999, but had long recognized that technically focused students would benefit from broadening their horizons. While a neuroscience doctoral student in Stanford's School of Medicine, she audited business school classes on the other side of campus.
Over the years, the pair has led a teaching effort that now provides 16 core courses taught by a mix of management science and engineering professors and Silicon Valley venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. In a typical class, teams of students are charged with analyzing and presenting market opportunities for raw technologies. In an advanced class, students learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurial finance. Many classes are directly influenced by the discoveries coming out of STVP's research arm, led by faculty co-director Professor Kathy Eisenhardt.
STVP also provides two intensive fellowship programs, one for students around the world and one for Stanford students. In the global REE Fellows program, for example, teams of students on different continents collaborate for three months on assignments, including investigating market opportunities along a chosen theme such as food or transportation.
In the Mayfield Fellows program, a dozen select students take classes and gain internships with Silicon Valley companies to observe entrepreneurial activity in the real world. Upon completion of the program, students are asked to reflect on their views of entrepreneurship.
"Entrepreneurship is not about making money," wrote one student last year. "It is about using limited resources to create true meaning in the world around us."