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Focus on Entrepreneurship:
Preparing the Next Generation of Engineering Leaders

By Rachael Bishop


U.Va.’s Engineering School has always been highly regarded for providing future engineers with both a rigorous program in analytics and problem-solving skills and — unlike most universities — the broader education that prepares graduates to become leaders in their chosen profession.

In this economic climate, engineering’s leaders will be those innovators who can translate their ideas to commercial success, according to Professor W. Bernard Carlson of the Department of Science, Technology, and Society. “What we’re hearing from alumni and students is that there needs to be an emphasis on entrepreneurship — by which we mean those students willing to become agents of change,” says Carlson, “people who can look at ideas and really understand how and where new technology is going to be useful. In 1903, no one needed an airplane; in the 1980s, no one needed the Internet. Entrepreneurs deliberately make connections between people and technology and between technology and markets.”

To help engineers understand market potential, the Engineering School has instituted multiple initiatives. A minor in engineering business, offered through the Department of Science, Technology, and Society beginning in 2004 and which Carlson coordinates, is now bigger than any undergraduate major in the School. At 350 students, it is wildly popular; 20 to 25 percent of engineering students pursue the six-course program, which covers business essentials such as “return on investment” and “value proposition.”

In the meantime, the School’s faculty, administrators, the Office of the Vice President for Research and members of the SEAS Trustees, including Gene Lockhart (ME ’72, Darden ’74), have begun discussing the enhancement of entrepreneurship and commercialization curriculum offerings. Lockhart is the former CEO of MasterCard and an active venture capitalist.

“Indeed, a key concept for this era is ’intrapreneurship’ — the practice of advancing innovative ideas within an organization rather than launching a startup company,” says Carlson. While the history of innovation and business in the United States is often thought of in terms of heroic individual efforts, that’s not the whole story. In fact, many of this country’s major engineering feats, such as the development of television, occurred thanks to the resources and ability of large, effective organizations to take a discovery and make and market a product. Carlson, who researches technological history, says the United States is poised for intrapreneurship.

“As they face competition in the global economy, American firms have come to realize they need to develop a degree of agility. They have decided to take advantage of new knowledge and to convert it as rapidly as possible into major new products. And there are any number of firms that still have considerable assets in terms of intellectual property and proprietary knowledge. What we need now are entrepreneurs committed to long-term business survival to help corporations take advantage of new technologies.”