The Business Development Experience, which finished its pilot year in spring 2011, unites business and engineering students in a collaborative, hands-on atmosphere to work toward a common goal: bringing a product from an idea to market.
With this new program, the School of Business and Economics is integrating the development of new technologies and new businesses into the undergraduate curriculum.
Created by a team of faculty with entrepreneurship experience and industry expertise, the Business Development Experience goes beyond traditional business education. This capstone two-course sequence provides students with the opportunity not only to learn business but also experience it by developing the business side of a new technology over the course of their senior year.
“Innovation is the fusion of proper business implementation with a creative idea,” said Darrell Radson, dean of the School of Business and Economics. “Michigan Tech’s engineering students specialize in developing creative ideas or creative solutions to problems, but much of the research never makes it out of the lab or the classroom. Our business students add value by developing business plans to move the creative ideas or solutions forward to create potential, viable businesses. The Business Development Experience gives meaning to the Michigan Tech tag line, ‘Create the Future,’ for our business students.”
Beginning with the class of 2010, students have three tracks to complete the Business Development Experience capstone project. Two of those tracks require spending a full year with a Senior Design or Enterprise team, acting as consultants and writing a business plan. The experience mimics an industry situation: students are required to seek out information, come up to speed on technical specifications, communicate with the team, identify potential markets, find funding sources, and make profitable business recommendations to suit the current market needs. At the end of the year, teams present their written plan in a format that is similar to those used by start-up businesses to secure funding.
The third track involves completing the Applied Portfolio Management Program, featured in the previous Impact.
Jonathan Leinonen, an instructor for the Business Development Experience, believes that the real-world involvement offered by the program is crucial for graduates entering a tough job market. “Job applicants who have never worked within realistic limitations are at a disadvantage,” he said. “Michigan Tech is known for sending out graduates who have the practical knowledge to hit the ground running—the same should be true for business students.”
Leinonen, who is the program director for the local MTEC Smart Zone Business Accelerator, lent his entrepreneurial expertise to the curriculum development and project identification.
In addition to giving students the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge and improve the application of their newly attained skills, the Business Development Experience also promotes cross-disciplinary partnership. Michigan Tech is uniquely suited to prepare graduates for the reality of a collaborative professional environment, with its strong technological tradition and a student body that is more than 50 percent engineering and science students.
“It’s an eye-opening experience for students on both sides,” said the late Bob Mark, who coordinated projects and handled communication with participating departments. “Each group sees a problem from a different perspective, so there is a process of learning how to work together effectively to get the job done. When students have the chance to see the complexities and limitations on the other half of the equation, everyone comes away with more respect for the process,” Mark said.
Students in the pilot program learned firsthand about the challenges of working with subject experts. For business professionals who work in a technological environment, it will come as no surprise that the most commonly cited challenge among participants was communication with the engineering team.
Dan Raisanen, whose team developed an advanced braking system, learned early on how to successfully navigate conversations with different stakeholders. “One of the most valuable skills I am taking away from the experience is the ability to communicate effectively with varied audiences. We figured out pretty quickly how to get the necessary information from each group.” Raisanen expects that this capacity for agile communication will serve him well in industry.
Once students learned how to adapt their communication styles, they encountered another challenge that is common for industry professionals: learning how to find the information that is required to move forward. “Often, students know what data they need but not how to get it,” said instructor Roger Woods. “The program teaches the art of being inquisitive. It encourages students to make the intuitive leap to more creative research, to look for unexpected indicators when published data is not available—like the number of portable toilets at a construction site, for example, or the number of pizzas delivered to the Pentagon.”
The instructional staff believes that this process of learning how to learn will serve participants well in their professional lives. Leanna VanSlooten, whose group worked to bring educational microscope kits to market, agrees. “We had to get up to speed on the technology, find the right people to talk to, and figure out where to find the information we needed. It really required initiative to get things done, which is tough when you have a full load of classes,” she said.
The Business Development Experience heads into its second year with new, emerging technologies from across campus. Participants will get involved with the engineering teams earlier in the semester to gain ground-level knowledge of the technology as it is developed. To encourage regular, gradual progress throughout the year, program instructors are developing a new set of intermediate deliverables. “By setting specific expectations, we can help students understand what is expected of them in a professional environment, giving them a basic framework of steps they will be able to use after graduation,” said Woods.
The Business Development Experience, mandatory for all students enrolling now, will make graduates more competitive for jobs. “With the advanced communication, research, and negotiation skills paired with portfolio pieces that demonstrate their ability to sell and the ability to develop a business plan, our students will stand out,” said Leinonen. “Companies that recruit here tend to have an engineering focus, and we now are able to give them business applicants with a strong technical background.”
The program will also make the School of Business and Economics more attractive to prospective students who are interested in engineering but prefer to handle the business side of the equation. “We have a unique engineering resource here at Michigan Tech and great business students,” said Dean Radson. “The Business Development Experience gives our business students a real competitive advantage that will help them to create the future.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.