Features

PRIME tailors business education to science graduates

The fifth-year master's program aims to equip science students with entrepreneurial skills

By
City & State Staff Writer
Monday, September 30, 2013

Laurence Wattrus SCMIM ’13 co-founded Hammerhead, a bike navigation software start-up, after graduating from the PRIME program.

Sayles Hall and Barus and Holley may be mere blocks from one another, but the buildings’ departments — business and engineering, respectively — can seem worlds apart.

The Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship, a fifth-year master’s degree program on campus  is intended to bridging the gap between the two.

 

In the PRIME time

The program is meant to provide students with “a hands-on experience in developing a technology-based business,” Professor of Engineering Eric Suuberg wrote in an email to The Herald.

It began in 2005 when Professor of Engineering Greg Crawford created a graduate student course — ENGN 1930: “Entrepreneurship” — that mirrored a similar undergraduate course in the Department of Business, Entrepreneurship and Organization, Suuberg wrote. The demand for the class made it clear that expansion was necessary, he wrote, and an entirely new graduate program was created.

A focus on new technologies and companies influenced PRIME from the beginning, Suuberg wrote. “There was a significant change in career path followed by many students, and we felt that there was a need for a new program for those pursuing opportunities with small startup firms.”

PRIME is composed of eight core classes, an international component and a final project. The program’s courses cover technological commercialization, international business, engineering and management, according to the program’s website.

Students also have the opportunity to learn outside the classroom, visiting international startups and technological companies on mandatory, two-week-long trips during winter break. PRIME puts “strong emphasis on globalization of startup businesses,” Suuberg wrote. In this setting, “students can compare what they learn in the classroom to what is practiced outside the (United States).”

Students have visited nine countries so far, including the Netherlands, India and Spain.

This international experience lets PRIME students apply knowledge they have gained at Brown to real-world business environments, Suuberg wrote.

An Son Leong ’09 SCMIM ’10 opted to visit Estonia and Latvia with a group of classmates to see what differences exist between business in the United States and in other countries.

During the trip, “we met with two or three companies a day,” he said. Before meeting company leaders, the group would “do some research on them, then ask them questions,” he added.

In addition to visiting other countries, the program’s participants often hail from far-flung regions, students said.

“I had never been immersed in a more diverse group of people and probably never will again,” said Laurence Wattrus SCMIM ’13, who is from South Africa.

One of the most valuable lessons was learning “how to manage a very diverse group of people,” wrote Sarah Huebscher ’10 SCMIM ’11 in an email to The Herald.

“PRIME is unique in many ways,” Suuberg wrote, adding that the curriculum is specially tailored to serve those with science backgrounds, something many business programs do not take into account. He wrote that students are, upon graduation, “exceptionally well prepared” to enter the world of technological business as entrepreneurs, consultants or investors.

 

Bringing in the business

PRIME graduates have gone on to participate in the business end of companies as well as launch their own.

Huebscher wrote that the PRIME program helped her navigate the business and management end of a technologically focused company. She currently works as the senior design engineer for a diesel engine design and manufacturing company and wrote that her education helped her transition more easily into a business role than did many of her peers’ purely engineering or technological schoolings.

“The lessons I learned from my graduate work have helped me understand the finance, marketing, sales and management areas of my company,” she wrote.

Others have embraced the more entrepreneurial components of the program.

Wattrus said the curriculum helped him “understand the challenges of launching a company,” something his undergraduate experience in engineering had not covered. After graduating from the University of Cape Town, Wattrus said he wanted to gain business knowledge and applied to PRIME because it was a “business-focused program for engineers and scientists,” he said.

Wattrus was drawn to the small class sizes and unique program design that Brown offers as opposed to more traditional master’s degree programs at other schools, he said. After graduating from Brown, he helped found Hammerhead, a bike navigation software startup, with his friends Pieter Morgan and Raveen Beemsingh last year.

The navigation system’s design eliminates text, small icons and auditory signals, according to the Hammerhead website. To help bikers avoid using their mobile phones, the Hammerhead system uses rows of LED lights to inform the rider of upcoming turns, distance traveled, distance to destination and speed.

Wattrus said he and his team took “a very good look at the market” to “figure out what markets want and who your clients are,” a tactic PRIME emphasized.

PRIME gave him the skills to connect with backers and interested markets, Wattrus said.

 

Triumphs and tribulations

For other students, PRIME is a launching point for further learning in the outside world.

Leong chose to supplement his undergraduate engineering degree from Brown with PRIME because he knew he “didn’t want to go into an engineering-focused job, but was too stubborn to switch,” he said. PRIME focused on preparing those with a science background for the business world by teaching skills like presenting to a group effectively and running interviews and meetings, he said.

But Leong said that his most valuable learning experience came after he left the classroom.

“I learned a lot more in the years after PRIME” when he and four of his fellow PRIME classmates started a company, Leong said. Launched after Leong’s graduation, Axena Technologies, Inc., marketed an antibacterial coating made of nanoscale selenium, used to treat medical and scientific equipment. But after winning a National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance grant, negotiating with potential partners and further developing their product, the Axena team started to lose funding.

Though “we came close to raising enough money,” a combination of poor timing and lack of finances was their undoing, Leong said.

Leong, who now works in the marketing department of pharmaceutical giant EMD Millipore, credits the experience of founding and running a company for helping him get the job he has now.

His experience at PRIME “turned out to be far more useful than I thought it would,” he said.

Lifelong lessons

Graduates said the PRIME program, in addition to teaching business skills and literacy, provided them with the confidence and resources to pursue their own goals.

Though a “young program,” PRIME provided students with assistance like business contacts once they graduated, Leong said.

“Everyone was always super available to us,” he added.

Wattrus said he didn’t expect “the ability and confidence to approach people and put yourself out there” to be as important to his startup as it was and credited PRIME for building those skills.

But one of the unifying lessons of the PRIME program has been its emphasis on creating something new.

Many of Wattrus’ colleagues graduated with “similar aspirations” to start their own company, he said. Because of their experiences at PRIME, “they want to go out there and find their own things,” he added.