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Power of possibility: Program at Stevens has school engineering next generation of entrepreneurs

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Stevens Institute of Technology freshman Greg McNeil with models of his product Modu-Strip, which he and his team developed at Stevens as part of their Introduction to Entrepreneurship class.  The product went “live” on Kickstarter and has received well over $10,000 in funding.
Stevens Institute of Technology freshman Greg McNeil with models of his product Modu-Strip, which he and his team developed at Stevens as part of their Introduction to Entrepreneurship class. The product went “live” on Kickstarter and has received well over $10,000 in funding. - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Greg McNeil knew exactly why he wanted to go to Stevens Institute of Technology:

Math and science … lectures and research.

So when the freshman from Northvale who has dreams of becoming a chemical engineer found out he was required to enroll in an entrepreneurial management class this spring, he wasn't happy.

“I had no idea we had to take it,” he said. “And no interest in taking it.”

One semester later, that's all changed.

McNeil and three classmates at the Hoboken campus have developed a product — Modu-Strip — that not only landed on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, it received more than $10,000 in funding.

Reaching the threshold will enable McNeil and his team to stay at Stevens this summer to work on their product — a new type of power strip — with the full backing and support of the school.

The goal is to get their product in stores by the end of the year. But whether they reach it or not, they already have done enough to justify a college program that is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country.

The brainchild of Stevens professors Gary Lynn and Peter Koen, it's based on the idea that entrepreneurship can be taught — and needs to be taught — if today's students are going to be truly ready for the business world.

“The class is at the intersection of marketing, technology and entrepreneurship,” Lynn said.

Lynn, who has spent nearly two decades in the classroom and a number of years in venture capital, feels they have created a modern way to teach business development.

“Virtually every university teaches business planning, but we came to the realization that a business plan doesn't survive the first day of being pitched,” he said. “So if it's of questionable value, why are we spending so much time and effort and money to teach students how to do them?

“We wanted to create a course on doing rather than planning.”

That's what McNeil and the roughly 500 freshman engineering students walked into on their first day. They all had to give a pitch for a product — and they quickly learned how easy it is to get shot down.

McNeil certainly was.

“On the first day everyone was required to do a minute elevator pitch,” he said. “I said something stupid.”

He doesn't remember the pitch, but he does remember it starting a competitive movement.

“We were all sitting in the library and it became a competition to come up with the best idea,” he said. “We thought, 'What does a college student need?' ”

A portable washing machine?

Quickly shot down as being impractical.

Polarizing contact lenses that work inside and outside?

Too hard to create.

“Then we said, 'OK, power strips,' ” he said. “Everyone uses them and they haven't been updated in 40 years.”

With that, McNeil and fellow freshmen Yonaida Brito of Elizabeth, Peter Brine of Union and Abdullah Aleid of New York City, developed a prototype — and learned how to be entrepreneurs.

They showed them to the target audience and got two valuable lessons.

“The people who understood it thought it was cool and gave us good suggestions on how to make it better,” he said. “The people who didn't made us realize it was our fault because we weren't doing a good job presenting it.”

These types of lessons are invaluable, Lynn said — and the reason he felt so strongly that the course needed to be taught.

“Why just be theoretical in the classroom?” he said. “It's one thing to define something new; it's another thing to have it be proficient.”

In more than just science.

“We're teaching the concepts of marketing, finance, legal, operations — how to give an effective presentation, how to lead a team ethically,” Lynn said. “These are things that engineers don't know, but they need to know.

“Part of being successful is to be a savvy cross-functional employee.”

Stevens appears to be creating just that.

McNeil's group was one of 23 that was approved to go up by Kickstarter, but the only one that came remotely close to the $10,000 threshold.

Now that they've reached it, they will get all sorts of free help from the school — from housing and meals to the use of its labs to instruction as well as marketing and legal advice.

And that's not counting the aid and assistance some Kickstarter donors have offered.

“The beauty of Kickstarter,” McNeil said, “is even if they don't want to contribute, they'll send you messages. We'll be exploring a bunch of the offers we've received.”

While working toward their goal of having a workable product and maybe some patents.

“To be on the shelf at Walmart or be on Amazon with something that was a side project — I think that would be fantastic.”

McNeil, just 18, doesn't want to grow up too fast.

“I don't want to drop out of college,” he said. But he's certainly looking down the road.

“The skills that I've learned by actually doing stuff, they will carry over if I do want to start a company on my own,” he said. “This will be something I want to pursue in the future.”

All this from a kid who just wanted to go to science class.

E-mail to: tomb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @tombergeron5

Made in Malaysia
The idea for Entrepreneurial Management 103 at Stevens Institute came from halfway around the world. And from royalty. As Stevens professor Gary Lynn tells it, the king of Malaysia, Abdul Halim of Kedah* — sensing his country needed a way to compete economically with China — made a course in entrepreneurship mandatory for all college freshmen in his country.
“Countries in Asia couldn’t wait for companies to come to them,” Lynn said. “China was obliterating the competition with its cheap labor pool. So the king said, ‘We need to teach our people how to create our own companies.’ ”
Lynn and professor Peter Koen, working with Stevens, created the course and taught it at the University of Malaysia on and off for four years. Its success there helped them bring it back to Stevens.

*The King’s full name: Almu’tasimu Billahi Muhibbuddin Tuanku Alhaj sir Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah

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