Program hones skills of budding entrepreneurs

Engineering students and business majors paired at College Park

April 21, 2002|By Susan Ferrechio | Susan Ferrechio,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sometime in the near future, you may be able to buy a watch that can measure the amount of ultraviolet light penetrating your skin, perhaps helping you protect yourself from potentially harmful rays that could someday cause skin cancer.

You'd get the device for about $15, plus the price of the watch, says Ryan Ockuly, a business major at the University of Maryland, College Park who is working with a researcher who developed the semiconductor device and has developed a business plan to market it.

"You can have a really good product, but the business end is what is going to make it succeed," said Ockuly, 22, who will graduate next month.

That's the sentiment that prompted university officials to launch an unusual program two years ago that aims to sharpen the skills of business students by pairing them with engineering students in a "living-learning" community.

The Hinman CEOs program is a partnership between the University's A. James Clark School of Engineering and the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Its goal: fostering entrepreneurship among students.

The program, which enrolls about 100 students, is being studied by other universities and colleges across the country that hope to replicate it, school officials said.

"It's the first of a kind," said engineering Professor David F. Barbe, co-director of the program with business Professor J. Robert Baum. "We're trying to produce the business leaders of the next generation. This gives them the knowledge so they are able to hit the ground running."

Business immersion

To gain that knowledge, students literally live in the world of business.

Their residence is an exclusive campus dormitory equipped with everything a successful business would have. There are state-of-the-art computers loaded with the latest business software. The dorms have meeting rooms and a "board room" with teleconferencing equipment. The building is equipped with wireless technology that allows students to work on laptops without having to plug them in.

Students can hear weekly presentations from guest speakers, including venture capitalists, legal experts and specialists in other fields. Those working on business plans have access to mentors from the university as well as industry experts.

And last month, the Hinman program sponsored a business plan competition judged by local business leaders.

The program is the result of one university student's entrepreneurial dream.

Brian Hinman, a Wheaton native, graduated from the university with an electrical engineering degree in 1982. A successful businessman who initially struggled to get his ideas on the market, Hinman wanted to help students launch their own businesses in the Washington, D.C., area with greater ease.

Hinman, who runs 2Wire, a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, has pledged $2.5 million over 10 years to support the program. The university provides the housing and general overhead costs. Students pay nothing above the regular university tuition.

The size of the program makes admission fairly competitive. Most of those enrolled have about a 3.5 grade point average, school officials said. At least a 3.0 is required to apply. And university officials choose the best.

"Our standards are very high," Barbe said, adding that there are no plans to increase enrollment. "We want students to leave a legacy."

The program has helped dozens of students develop marketing strategy plans for products and services or given them the knowledge to work successfully in their fields even before graduating.

Steven Tom, a senior, has worked two years as an intern at RWD Technologies in Columbia, managing and implementing two companywide Internet portals. Tom, along with senior Gary El-Gamil, has begun VeraSolutions LLC, a Web site design start-up company.

Senior and computer engineering major Tia Gao worked as a program manager at Microsoft. She has been accepted into graduate school at Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology next year.

Gao's efforts have been helped by the Hinman program's attempts to address challenges facing female entrepreneurs, including a forum last month featuring five top women entrepreneurs.

Close supervision

Karen Thornton, associate director of the Hinman program, works closely with the students, acting as a "CEO" of the group of young entrepreneurs. Her office is in the dorm, so when students have questions, she's there to lend a hand or give advice.

The businesslike atmosphere in the dorm helps students get more serious attention for their ideas.

"You can't have credibility operating out of your dorm room," Thornton said. "But you can have credibility operating as a Hinman CEO."

Ockuly, the student who is marketing the ultraviolet sensor, said the program has helped him move the product, developed by scientist R.D. Vispute, onto the market. During the first Business Plan Competition, held last year, Ockuly and Vispute won a certificate of merit for promising technology and a $10,000 prize.

"I love it," Ockuly said. "It makes things a lot easier. You don't have to go running around looking for these resources."

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