Last week I was in Houston and took advantage of the opportunity to spend some time at OwlSpark. OwlSpark is Rice University’s tech startup accelerator, providing funding, space, connections, and mentorship to budding Rice entrepreneurs. It actually began as a project in the lean startup course I taught during my tenure as EIR and I’m thrilled to see it taking off so well. This is its second year of operation and it was inspiring to meet this cohort’s eight teams.
I gave two talks (one on lessons learned from my own entrepreneurial journey, one on oral presentation skills) which I will post soon and also sat in on their first pitch practice. The OwlSpark team also posted a brief interview with me, the text of which follows below:
OwlSpark: You were an Entrepreneur in Residence at Rice and taught a project-based startup course. How would you describe Rice’s entrepreneurial environment today compared to before, and where do you see it in the coming years?
Bryan: When I was a student at Rice, there simply was no entrepreneurial environment. Even though it was the peak of the dot com boom, the number of students and faculty starting up companies was exceedingly small.
Today there is much more energy and visibility around entrepreneurship, which is a great trend. Organizations like OwlSpark, Rice Launch, and on-campus business competitions are creating several “entry points” into an entire stream of Rice entrepreneurship offerings. The next step is for Rice to become less insular, engaging not only the local Houston ecosystem but also entrepreneurial alumni around the world. Most people don’t realize that Silicon Valley was built on the backs of several Rice alumni (known in the Bay area as the “Rice Mafia”) and there are many other incredibly successful entrepreneurs, VCs, and corporate leaders elsewhere. We need to establish Rice as THE epicenter of entrepreneurship to draw those people back to campus and entice them to be resources for our next generation of entrepreneurs.
OwlSpark: In your blog “The Green Knight,” you wrote about preparing engineers “to be job makers, not job takers.” Similar perspectives have been gaining popularity lately. Why do you think this is such an important paradigm shift for engineers, and why do you think this is just starting to take hold now?
Bryan: A large percentage of job titles today simply didn’t exist 15 years ago and an even larger percentage won’t exist 15 years from now. We have a responsibility to prepare students not just for historically stable roles but also for a highly uncertain future in which those same roles might be performed by robots or even obsolete. Entrepreneurship is the art of capitalizing on – and even driving – the uncertain future so entrepreneurial skillsets are highly relevant for addressing this challenge. Entrepreneurship is empowerment. Rice students should not be at the fatalistic mercy of the job market; they should be creating the job market.
OwlSpark: In what ways do you think an engineering education really prepares you for major entrepreneurial and leadership roles?
Bryan: In many ways the traditional engineering education does NOT prepare students for major entrepreneurial and leadership roles. Traditional engineering coursework features endless problem sets all leading individual students toward a single, provably correct, known answer. Entrepreneurship is exactly the opposite: entrepreneurs operate in an environment so complex that the “answer” is not only unknown, but also unknowable. Entrepreneurs *create* answers, test them quickly and cheaply for fit, and rapidly iterate to create better answers – and almost always in teams.
Rice’s George R. Brown’s School of Engineering has introduced a strong focus on collaborative design projects instead of individual problem sets in recent years. This type of multidisciplinary design is much more applicable to both entrepreneurship and leadership. Starting a company is essentially a design problem, but one with commercial and organizational design constraints instead of just functional and technical. The GRBSOE also recognizes that engineers rarely work in environments comprising exclusively engineers so it is attempting to create more opportunities that transcend academic boundaries. For example, in the entrepreneurship course I taught only 1/3 of students were engineers. This made for startup teams that much more closely modeled real entrepreneurial ventures.
OwlSpark: You focus on the clean tech and energy space. What does being an entrepreneur in that area entail that may be unique as compared to other industries?
Bryan: Both “cleantech” and “energy” are such broad terms encompassing so many different industries and market segments that it is hard to generalize about them. Still, one of the aspects I enjoy about this space is how incredibly impactful working in the energy industry is. Energy affects literally everything we see and touch and do. As Rice Nobel Laureate Dick Smalley was fond of saying, if we solve the energy challenge, we solve the next nine greatest challenges facing the world for free. As an entrepreneur working hard to have a positive impact on energy use, I find that that sense of making a meaningful impact helps me get through tough times.
OwlSpark: From a business perspective, if present-you could give one piece of advice to past-Bryan, what would it be?
Bryan: “Dear past-Bryan, work smarter, not harder.” When the going gets tough, my natural instinct is to put my head down and power through by working longer hours. However, I’ve now found that I’m most effective when I pull my head up and ask why the going is tough and – and whether there might be smarter ways to address the current challenge. Looking back at my career, there are probably several instances in which I would have been more successful (and better rested!) if I had taken this approach.