Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Record Update Exclusive

Students visit Silicon Valley to rejuvenate innovation at home

Turn down an internship offer from a major corporation. That, says student Jason Townsend, was the best advice he got from Silicon Valley venture capitalists during the Center for Entrepreneurship’s recent trip to California.

Students Jason Townsend and Rich Wood stand outside the Computer History Museum while Center for Entrepreneurship Associate Director Amy Klinke and student Tanvi Singh work during a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area. (Photo by Susan Hill)

Instead of spending summer at an established semiconductor company, the master of business administration student will stay in Ann Arbor to chisel out a future for his own clean energy start-up, Ikanos Power. It’s a flexible-fuel power generator company that Townsend is working on with four other graduate students in business and engineering. It’s based on technology developed by Johannes Schwank, the James and Judith Street Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Townsend is one of more than 50 students from across the university who recently went to the San Francisco Bay Area with the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship. This is the third year the center has organized the trip as a way to connect current students with the start-up community on the other side of the country.

Students had to compete for a spot. Dozens of teams with innovative business ideas made the cut, and had the chance to get advice from around 30 alumni and other venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs. They met the first investor in Yahoo. They toured Google.

“We’re trying to build stronger links between the entrepreneurial efforts in Ann Arbor and the Bay Area,” says David Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, who went with the students and several faculty members on the trip.

“The Bay Area is where a large fraction of the entrepreneurial money in the nation is spent each year. We’ve got thousands of Michigan alumni there who have helped build that. We’re now asking for their help in creating something similar on a smaller scale in Southeast Michigan.”

Munson described the trip as “a phenomenal educational experience for the students.” The students agree.

“The best advice I got, was ‘do it!’ Townsend says. “People told me to concentrate on Ikanos Power. They said, ‘I don’t know how you could do anything but that!’ and it clicked. So that’s what I’ll be doing over the summer.”

Ikanos has a plan to make energy-efficient, portable and fuel-flexible electric generators for vehicles such as military tanks and tractor-trailers. Today, such vehicles must idle their engines to power auxiliary systems such as heat, lighting, and navigation equipment when they’re not moving. Idling wastes fuel.

Bobby Littrell, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, says he got some good advice and encouragement from engineers who had turned their ideas into successful businesses. Littrell is working with professor Karl Grosh to develop better microphones to reduce distortion in cell phones and hearing aids. Grosh is a professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering.

“Hearing from other engineers who have met with success has made my own goals seem more tangible,” Littrell says.

“Many people emphasized the importance of focusing on the needs of the customer as opposed to the ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. As a researcher, I focus mostly on the basics of how my particular device performs. But in a company setting I learned I will need to focus on details that aren't that interesting from a research perspective but are critical to customer satisfaction.”

Steve Carnevale is a venture capitalist who graduated from U-M in 1978 with a bachelor’s in naval architecture and marine engineering and a minor in marketing. He was impressed with the students he met during the trip.

“They were as entrepreneurial in spirit as any student group out here in California,” Carnevale says. “I asked for a show of hands to see who is going to graduate and work for a big company versus a small entrepreneurial venture. I expected it to be split. I was surprised to see that almost everyone was planning to start or join a small company. That tells me the Center for Entrepreneurship is working, and our efforts to impart the Silicon Valley attitude to Michigan students has been very successful.”

Eventually, some of these good ideas will stick, Carnevale says, and Michigan once again will have great companies that change industries.

“It’s not as if entrepreneurial activities in Southeast Michigan are new,” says Munson, dean of the CoE. “Perhaps the greatest entrepreneur of all time was Henry Ford. There’s a long tradition here of doing brand new things and I think we need to rejuvenate that spirit.”

This trip was organized by Thomas Zurbuchen, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and a professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences and Department of Aerospace Engineering.