Engineers become entrepreneurs in innovative course

Recent computer engineering graduate Laura Coronado dreams of someday opening her own engineering business with her siblings. When Coronado was choosing classes for her last semester as an undergrad, she came across an engineering entrepreneurship course that taught her that consumers are the key to the next big invention.

In 2014, Rafael Soltero Venegas, sales instructor from FIU’s College of Business, had lunch with Herman Watson, lecturer and undergraduate program director from FIU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Watson had been looking for an instructor who would teach and enhance a recently developed entrepreneurship course to attract engineering students and help them understand business concepts.

Soltero, who obtained a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, recalls how he struggled with his first job right out of college.

“I had a difficult time communicating in a business sense,” said Soltero. “Another challenge was talking to customers. In school, I learned equations, methods and theories, but I wasn’t taught how to interact with people. I wish that had been offered.”

Soltero overcame this and got his master’s degree in business administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. His professional experience includes more than 25 years of experience in product development, business-to-business and consumer sales.

Soltero and Watson decided this would be a good bridge between engineering and business and Soltero began teaching the course in 2016. He was given the flexibility to change the way the course had been traditionally taught. Soltero assigns students to teams and has them come up with an innovative idea and develop a business plan. From there, the teams have 10 weeks to interview 100 people – customers, partners and competitors – to obtain feedback on their product and see if people would actually use their product.

Students learn to step out of their comfort zone. As Soltero likes to say, “Get comfortable with the uncomfortable!” The students also discover the chaotic reality of a startup. Based on the customer and market feedback they receive, the teams can alter their product to build something customers would purchase and use; however it is not expected that a final product will be available. Soltero coaches and mentors the students throughout the 16-week course.

In the last class of the semester, teams present their results with a two-minute video discussing their journey, an eight-minute presentation explaining their idea, business plan, consumers’ feedback, next steps and what they learned. Then, there’s a five-minute question and answer session where invited panelists serving as judges evaluate the students and ask questions.

Andrew Medina, CEO of Forthright Technology Partners – a company that specializes in solutions and services to consumers using Citrix, VMware and Microsoft technologies – has judged the presentations for several years now.

“I believe the most important skill the students obtain is the understanding of the importance of ‘value proposition’,” said Medina. “A student who understands that every interaction is an opportunity to bring value to another person or organization will find themselves to be significantly differentiated from the other masses of job seekers.”

When asked what impresses him the most about the students, Medina replied, “I look for the spark of intelligence and drive. I’m impressed by those who can effectively express themselves. The ability to communicate effectively is paramount in any field.”

Medina started an internship program at his company this year and his first intern is a computer engineering student from FIU who has been extremely effective.

As for Coronado, she led the “Nap & Go” team. They developed the concept for a service where frequent travelers could book a small room located within the airport to rest and keep their belongings safe.

“With this class, I came to the realization that we, engineers, fall in love with our new creations and sometimes we do not want to change anything about it because in our eyes it is perfect, but getting your idea validated is extremely essential,” said Coronado.

The College of Engineering & Computing has introduced an entrepreneurship concentration for engineering majors consisting of the engineering entrepreneurship course (EEL 4933), engineering business plan development (EEL 4062), and introduction to business decisions (EEL 4351).

“The class is open to all engineers, which is a great collaboration between the multiple disciplines found in engineering,” said Soltero. “However, I envision for another course to be developed where all majors are accepted. Let’s have a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and an artist all in one room.”

The first engineering entrepreneurship class Soltero taught had a total of 14 students. The following semester it doubled to 30 students. Currently, the course fills up quickly with 42 students and there’s a waiting list to enroll.

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