Business Schools Experience Technology Commercialization Boom

M.B.A. students are learning how to propel innovations from the lab to the market.

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Once upon a time, graduate students from the schools of business, law, medicine, and engineering rarely crossed paths on campus except in the cafeteria or gym. That silo mentality has all but vanished as universities—and companies—embrace the idea that a successful innovation economy now requires cross-disciplinary thinking. To really get ahead, entrepreneurs need more than strong business acumen; they also must be able to understand, develop, and promote new technologies. To that end, numerous top business schools have introduced courses and established centers focusing on technology commercialization in an effort to help students identify and develop the "Next Big Thing."

At the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, graduate students in a Technology Feasibility course taught in the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies must design and test a business model for a start-up and prepare an investor pitch—all in just three months. Recently, one student group worked on evaluating commercial applications for laser technologies that NASA originally developed at its Jet Propulsion Lab for its latest Mars mission. Another team created an online platform to build reputability ratings that could help weed out potential shady dealers lurking behind peer-to-peer transactions on sites such as Craigslist.

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Unlike many courses on the subject, which place greater emphasis on learning how to identify and evaluate a good technology commercialization opportunity, the Marshall class gives students a chance to come up with real-world projects that they could launch as companies upon graduating. In this profile of the course, Kathleen Allen, who directs the Marshall Center for Technology Commercialization, says, "None of these were just class projects. We told the students, 'We don't want you to do an academic exercise. This has to be real.'"

Marshall also offers a Certificate in Technology Commercialization, a program geared toward those in the science, engineering, and business schools, but also open to nonmatriculated individuals with graduate degrees. According to the center's website, students experience the entire spectrum of the commercialization process: invention, product development, technical and market feasibility analysis, intellectual property acquisition, business planning, and venture funding while potentially becoming stakeholders in a new technology venture.

Meanwhile, at Columbia Business School, second-year students with entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for technology commercialization can vie for a spot in the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program, a class offered each spring through the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center. In the class, students readying their ventures for investment receive support and guidance, limited funding for approved start-up expenses, access to experts in key fields, and opportunities to present business concepts to professional investors.

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To be considered, applicants must prepare a formal presentation to members of the greenhouse selection committee, which evaluates their proposal based on feasibility, profitability, competitiveness, risk management, and personal passion. The 25 greenhouse ventures selected this term span the technology, healthcare, and food and beverage industries. Clifford Schorer, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Columbia who developed the program nearly a decade ago, says, "It is always exciting to see how far these ventures develop over the semester. This class has amazing potential."

In partnership with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office, Schorer taught a project-driven master class last fall called NYC: Innovative and Entrepreneurial Solutions to the City's Complex Challenges. As part of the course, student teams developed plans and recommended technologies designed to reduce costs and improve the lives of New Yorkers. One such project, profiled in the Wall Street Journal, tackled the inefficiencies of taxi cabs deployed at the city's airports by tapping into the power of social media, among other solutions. At the end of the course, students presented the mayor's office with a comprehensive plan for implementing the projects, and gave formal presentations at City Hall.

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These are just two examples of business schools that are helping students hone their focus on all levels of innovation management. As they discover the process of moving ideas from the laboratory to the market, student entrepreneurs are becoming well-equipped for the challenges and rewards of the global economy.

Jennifer Chang, who helped develop a commercial application for the laser technology mentioned above, calls the tech feasibility course at Marshall one of the most valuable, and most intense, in the M.B.A. program. "It's a lot like being in an incubator," she says. "In addition to the support from Professor Allen, listening to a venture capitalist all semester, we really were able to get into the mind of a VC and understand what he's looking for and where entrepreneurs make a lot of mistakes. How often do you get to do that?"