Category Archives: Academia

Value of Engineering to the Entrepreneur

This post originally appeared on Badger Engineers.

My company Spinback was recently acquired by Buddy Media, the largest Facebook Management Company in the world. It’s clear that my four years studying in the Wisconsin College of Engineering has played a role in that acquisition.

At the core, I’d argue that an engineering, math, or science related degree is the single best degree or use of four years in an undergraduate program, especially a program at UW – Madison. In my years in the COE, I obtained a certain skill set that has helped me succeed during and after school, and in the various businesses I was involved with including Spinback. I’m not talking about skills like designing a circuit or solving for a system of equations. I’m talking about the cliché skills we always hear about but disregard as obvious and too abstract for our own benefit.

The skills I’m talking about are teamwork, problem solving, hard work and creativity. In every single class and project that I worked on while at school, each one of these skills was required.  I remember spending many hours with my friends like Steve Weisman (ECE ’08) and David Nosbusch (ECE ’08) poring over class notes and textbooks (and also starting two businesses together while at school). No matter what the content and material, the routine was the same. We studied together, relentlessly discussed the problems together, and used creativity to help solve a solution when we couldn’t find one. In the COE, this is what we were all taught to do. In the real world, these are the skills that have helped me succeed and they are also the same skills that have given me confidence to venture out as an entrepreneur.

Before we were acquired, we were the typical startup. We had raised very little money and had a billion and one things to do. We had to build a product, sell the product to clients, create marketing materials, manage finances, create processes and business workflows, deal with attorneys, and on and on. The reality is I never learned about any one particular topic in school that was applicable to our business. Its not like I took a class called “how to prioritize features” or “how to get a terms sheet from a VC.” I did however learn how to think in a certain way. An analytical thought process that allowed me to break down each component of our business and understand how each component affected the other.  And this is what engineering is all about. It’s about understanding how things work, in order to identify a problem and ultimately solve for that problem.

At Spinback, the problem we were solving was how to help online retailers leverage social media to drive and track new sales. In a short period of time, our solutions called EasyShare and EasyTrack helped us secure over 15 clients in less than two months. We were able to sign up some of the largest online retailers in the world, convince investors to give us money to scale our business, and secure our position as a thought leader in the social commerce space. As a result, we were lucky and fortunate enough to be acquired by one of the fastest growing technology companies of all time.

Looking back, I can recall one very late night in our Union Square office. As we were trying to solidify a sales and marketing strategy one of my partners said, “this is one giant equation that we are solving.”  In that moment I thought about the four years at UW-Engineering and said, “Yes, yes it is.”

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Start a Business in School

GDR "village teacher" (a teacher tea...
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If you are in college you should start your own business because there is no better time to do so.

When I was in college working on thecampusatlas.com I remember thinking how great it was to have the flexibility of a student and to have the resources of a college university in order to get things done. I was surrounded by exceptionally bright people from all different backgrounds and areas of expertise who were willing to provide guidance.

A friend of mine recently had success with his college endeavor and conveys a similar thought in a recent article called Deconstructing Invite Media’s success story :

“There is no better time to start a company than when you’re in school,” he said.

After all, college students don’t require a lot of money, their housing often is paid for, and their peers often are willing to hustle at all hours to meet deadlines. “You can’t beat that when you need to have your attention focused on the company,” he wrote in an e-mailed response to a question.

Furthermore, academic institutions have the resources to educate entrepreneurs on any single area of a business or topic and by leveraging the various academic resources to build your business, you actually obtain a wider knowledge base of information then originally intended.

As a student, you have the ability to build your own business in a safe, low-cost, resource-rich environment and if it doesn’t work out you still hedged your bet because you’ll most likely graduate with a degree.

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Educating youth with subject matter that matters

A while back I wrote about the relevance (or lack their of) of the systematic approaches taken by the public school systems and large universities. I would argue that practical and relevant hands-on approaches need to be implemented to better educate the youth in such a competitive global economy. In many instances, parents recognize the need for specific types of education. In fact, one of my relatives has a tutor come to his house once a week to teach his son conversational Japanese, as his business realizes economic growth with Japanese based companies. Fred Wilson also recognizes the importance of practical education and so, in his post today he writes:

“But this year we went one step further. We got our son Josh a young teacher who came over in the evening once a week and taught him how to write code and make a rudimentary computer game. We didn’t know of anywhere in the city to send Josh for this kind of class, so we contacted a local company, Blue Tomato, that provides supplemental tutoring and test preparation.”

Imagine a classroom that prepares students for TODAY’s world, for TODAY’s challenges.

I was fortunate enough to have a high school teacher that also recognized the extreme importance of technology in the classroom (I thank him for his role in influencing me to pursue Electrical Engineering). His name is David Peins and his company is Robodyssey. In his high school Robotics class, we were taught math, physics, electronics, and computer programming all while building robots (my robot can be seen below), and this all happened between the 9th and 12th grade. I learned about semiconductor devices, NPN, PNP transistors, tutebot circuits, and more, 3 years before they were even introduced to me in my Semiconductor Devices classes, (my junior year of college).

If America is going to keep up with the ever changing, fast paced global economy, we need these types of teaching mediums. One that provide relevance to today’s technological and societal challenges, while extracting the most value out of a classroom setting.

“I believe in engaged education and I believe in pushing the envelope and trying new things. Things like this.

Our kids are growing up in a different world than we did. We have to teach them using these new tools. Not just the ones that were used on us.

Fred W. could not be more right.

My Robot (and Chris Murphy) from HIGH SCHOOL: (The robot was a self-navigating, automated fire fighting robot. It autonomously navigated a maze using ultrasound and infrared sensors, found a lit candle in one of the rooms, and blew out the candle)

 

Full photo gallery here.

Academia: Badger Bike

Academia Series: Post 2

My freshman year of college, I was required to take a class called Engineering Professional Design (EPD 160). I was among a group of 35 other undergraduate engineering students (whose majors were undeclared at the time), and we were required to design and construct something for a real client.

Our client was the Department of Agriculture of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and we were to design and fabricate something that could carry at least 300 lbs of material and soil all over the campus.

Of the 35 students, we all broke up into teams to design a potential solution. My small group came up with a hybrid model of a tandem bicycle with an extended bay and motor. This design was chosen, and I was elected project manager to supervise the construction.

Early into construction, our client decided to give us additional funds that surpassed the required minimum. We had a budget of around $3,000.

In the end, we developed the “Badger Bike”, under our budget, and provided a unique and environmentally friendly device, to some environmentally friendly people.

Pictures and our final presentation below:

Academia: Radiation in the THz range

With my college career coming to an end, I decided to start a series of posts entitled “Academia”. In each post, I will discuss a project or research I have been involved in.

In this first post of the series, I will briefly discuss my research in terahertz generation. In the spring of 2007, I had the distinct honor of working under Professor Leon McCaughan, a professor in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Under his supervision, I studied the properties of:

  • Guided wave photonic devices and circuits
  • Quantum optics
  • Far infrared (terahertz) generation and spectrocopy
  • Waveguide and photonic crystal theory

More importantly, I had the opportunity to take part in one of his research projects and work along side of other extremely talented students and researchers . A description of the project:

“Terahertz (THz) radiation is of great current interest for imaging science and technology. Applications include time-domain spectroscopy (e.g., the dielectric response of molecules in the far infrared), medical imaging in a new radiation band, detection and imaging for homeland security and defense applications, as well as communications.”

Within the project, I spent many hours in the Wisconsin Center for Applied Microelectronic Devices developing photolithography and reactive ion etching techniques to produce a THz photonic crystal in Silicon. By creating this photonic cystal, we were attempting to create a control in order to provide tunablity to the light source. Prior to the fabrication of the 2D crystal, we also undertook some computer-based model calculations.

Pictures from the research here:

Picture of 2D photonic crystals.

2-D photonic crystal integrated ‘superstate’

Myself and two of my colleagues in the lithography bay.

Description of the project (can be found on www.nsf.gov)

Thank you to Professor Leon McCaughan for a truley invaluable experience!