Photo: Jonathan Bjerg Moller

Zone to launch for engineering and entrepreneurship

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By Sameera Raja

Engineering students now have the opportunity to combine technical skills with entrepreneurialism to create startup companies.

The Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CEIE) will be launching a customer-centric incubator for students, in all eight engineering streams, to meet with prospective clientele and discuss business strategies, in June.

“We are going to create the Open Innovation Zone where engineering students and faculty will create teams in order to solve customer problems, starting in the summer 2015,” says Rafik Loutfy, director of the CEIE. “It’s open because we are getting customers, investors and external resources. ”

The blueprint for the Zone comes after the expansion of CEIE and the need for physical space for students to commercialize business ventures, while building social skills in customer relations.

“Engineers are trained to solve problems, and develop very elegant solutions. Entrepreneurship is about finding societal problems, and developing solutions for it. So by linking engineering training and finding real customer problems, is natural,” says Loutfy, who’s also a chemical engineering professor at McMaster University. “Instead of a theoretical problem, they’re doing something impactful, and we [faculty] are giving them the opportunity to try and find the right solutions. If they do successfully solve those problems and the customers are happy with it, they can start marketing and selling the idea and create a business around it.”

The Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (FEAS) created the centre last July, to provide entrepreneurial training and facilitate business ventures by undergraduate and graduate students; through the minor program, Optional Specialization in Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OSEIE), and managing the Norman Esch Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship Awards.

“Entrepreneurial education is only learned experientially, it cannot just be learned in class. So we send students outside the class to speak to clients and work out problems,” says Loutfy. “We feel there is a need for many students, who not only want to get an education, but also want to create their own jobs and jobs for others by starting a company.”

Third-year mechanical engineering student, Farbod Mansorian, was one of the first students to enroll into the program. “The centre held an information session last summer, about how a person can present their innovation, and Dr. Loutfy was hosting it and that’s when I thought I’d give it a chance,” says Mansorian. “ The way I look at the program is that getting a degree is like being given a toolbox, and in engineering all the tools are tech-oriented, but CEIE you’re mentored by someone who has experience in engineering and entrepreneurial who can help you implement both those skills. The program gives a practical way of looking at business ideas, a different perspective and how to get the interest of the public and investors.”

For some engineering students, the transition to client-based entrepreneurship and marketing discipline can be difficult, but Mansorian says the program works with a heavy course load and makes it interesting to learn by hosting networking events and workshops.

More than 200 engineering students had applied for the Esch Awards last year, which provides funding for business ideas in three stages. Of those, nine students were granted $25,000 for the third stage, market readiness and 72 won $5,000 for interaction. Mansorian was also a recipient of the Esch Award for co-founding the startup, PawCharge Incorporation, an on-the-go cellphone charging service that can fully charge devices in less than a minute.

Loutfy says CEIE has a cross partnership for resources between the Digital Media Zone, Ryerson’s Design Fabrication Zone, Fashion Zone and Transmedia Zone.  “There’s incredible entrepreneurial ecosystem in existence, and we collaborate with all the zones. We’re also working with the Ted Rogers School of Management entrepreneurship programs there.

In addition to the Zone, CEIE has also proposed a master’s program that will begin in Fall 2015.  “It will consist of eight courses and two semesters of project that’s related to technology marketing. It has been approved by the faculty, and in the process of getting approval by Yeates School of Graduate Studies and audited by the Ontario Council of Graduate Studies,” says Loutfy.

The Zone is currently in the initial stages of acquiring space at Ryerson.

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