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Virginia Tech Offering Class for Student Entrepreneurs

Jack Lesko (Virginia Tech)

Jack Lesko (Virginia Tech)

Virginia Tech is offering a course on starting a new business for student teams at its campuses in Blacksburg and Arlington to accelerate the business development process. The Startup Class, says the university, offers a way for graduate or undergraduate students with ideas for a new product or service to take those ideas to the point of pitching them to potential financiers.

The course is based on the Lean LaunchPad curriculum developed by entrepreneur Steve Blank and adopted by National Science Foundation in its Innovation Corps (I-Corps) training for scientist-entrepreneurs. Last month, Virginia Tech was awarded a grant from National Science Foundation to establish an I-Corps hub in the National Capital region, with University of Maryland and George Washington University, to teach scientists and engineers how to commercialize their research.

The Startup Class is offered through Virginia Tech’s engineering department, but students in any discipline can enroll. Participants in the class need to have formed ideas for a business before signing up, and are encouraged to create teams crossing two or more disciplines to move the business ideas ahead.

The class offers training in developing a business model from new technologies and deciding on a strategy for executing that model. Class participants learn how to analyze markets for their technologies, then develop their initial ideas into business plans they can pitch in regional or national competitions. Using the I-Corps approach, students are encouraged to talk to customers about their problems and then apply their technology in a form that meets customers’ needs.

Jack Lesko, associate dean for engineering research and graduate studies, and Virginia Tech’s principal investigator on the I-Corps hub, says some students in the class will see their ideas fail, but that’s okay. “Most startups fail not because the technology doesn’t work, but because they are making something for which there is not a market,” says Lesko. This tough-love approach, adds Lesko, is good for their long-term success “because the curriculum encourages them to fail before they bring the wrong product to market.”

Virginia Tech’s main campus is in Blacksburg, in the southwest corner of the state near Roanoke, which aims to use the Startup Class to create more new businesses in that region based on research conducted on campus. The Arlington campus houses several graduate research institutes in the Ballston area of Arlington, also the home of National Science Foundation and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which in January started an entrepreneur center and business plan competition.

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