May 3, 2017

Commercialization fellows learn to make ideas sell

Commercialization panel
Jason Koski/University Photography
From left, Bill Bedell, Amanda Bares, Mitchell Ishmael, all graduate students, and Tom Schryver ’93, MBA ’02, executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement, participate in a panel discussion April 28.

A panel of doctoral students reminisced about their experiences as the first class of Commercialization Fellows April 28 at Entrepreneurship at Cornell’s Celebration conference.

Offered by the College of Engineering, the funded six-month fellowship for engineering Ph.D. students bridges technological innovation in engineering with the commercialization process, teaching engineers how to explore the potential industrial applications of university inventions. Introducing students to commercial operations and industry leaders, the fellows work one-on-one with mentors and coaches to identify potential market opportunities for their technologies by developing comprehensive, strategic business plans, and to use these skills repeatedly over the course of their careers.

A fifth-year doctoral student studying chemical and biomolecular engineering, Bill Bedell applied for the fellowship to broaden his experience and explore the relevance of his work beyond theory and academia. Aside from the entrepreneurial skills and network of industry leaders he tapped into, Bedell said: “The way I am going about doing my Ph.D. is completely different after doing the fellowship. … I am much more focused on making sure it is a good problem with a lot of industrial significance before I dive in.”

He said he has learned “the wrong way to go about entrepreneurship is having a technology that you think is really cool, and then going around and trying to tell everybody how cool it is.” Instead, one must overcome the “tunnel vision of academia,” identify a customer’s problems and deliver a specific technology to fix it.

Biomedical engineering doctoral student Amanda Bares joined the Commercialization Fellows program after encouragement from her adviser to start a company based on technology she developed at Cornell. Without any background in business to assess if there was even a market for her invention, Bares “developed the technical and translational skills during this fellowship that are already starting to pay off” as well as the ability to “tailor a technology so people actually care about it.” Considering the fellowship “the most valuable thing I have done during my Ph.D.,” Bares said, “I’m now able to relate in business terms and communicate science in ways business people can understand.”

Mitchell Ishmael, a doctoral student studying materials science and engineering, said he applied for the fellowship out of his passion for entrepreneurship as he started to see commercial value in an energy storage technology he was developing. While devoted to the technical side of engineering, Ishmael learned “pretty quickly when you work in applied engineering you run into the economics and business side of things.” He has learned how to work with people to “call and get feedback … and get value out of a conference … when pushing the boundaries of science.” Ishmael thanked the fellowship for equipping him with “this other set of vocabulary I can use to translate my technical knowledge.”

The panel was moderated by Tom Schryver ’93, MBA ’02, executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement and a visiting lecturer at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Justin Welfeld ’20 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.