STORY: Year-Long Entrepreneurship Course Helps Students Build Sound Startups

January 4, 2024

The Technology Venture Capstone gives business-minded students the benefit of decades of entrepreneurial experience.

As part of their engineering education, Olin students select a year-long capstone experience to apply what they’ve learned to real-world problems. One of the options is the Technology Venture Capstone (TVC), a small, highly personalized course that helps burgeoning entrepreneurs develop their big ideas.

Started in 2018, TVC is taught by Scott Harris, distinguished partner in engineering and entrepreneurship, and a co-teacher, who have included Scott Miller, CEO of Dragon Innovation; Jon Stevenson, long-time technology startup veteran and a visiting academic fellow at Olin; and Abe Feldman ’12, director of product design for PTC’s Atlas platform.

Together, faculty leverage their collective decades of experience in developing, running, and supporting technology ventures to help students think systematically about their entrepreneurship goals.

Tech Venture Capstone class, with co professors (and Pico the dog)

Tech Venture Capstone class, with co-professors Jon Stevenson, Abe Feldman, Scott Harris and the dog Pico.

“When students quit college to try to start a business, very few of them are equipped to get it off the ground,” says Harris, co-founder of SolidWorks Corp and Onshape Inc, as well as an avid advisor and investor in technology startups. “Many of those companies fail, and only some of those students come back to finish their degrees, which is a huge waste of potential.”

This was Harris’s spark for creating TVC, a capstone experience about learning how to create a business with staying power for students who are serious about their startup ideas.

“This is not just about building a prototype, but creating a product based on sound engineering and business principles—all while these students are still in school,” says Harris.

Using faculty expertise and the involvement of industry mentors, TVC methodically walks students through many of the same processes as real-world startups. The course incorporates both engineering and business principles, such as the market segmentation, understanding pain points, and the value of a solution.

TVC is one of the few courses at Olin that students must apply and be admitted to; students also come in with an important problem to solve, either as an individual or as a team. “Every cohort is a little different depending on what ideas students bring to the table. It’s very generative in that way,” says Harris.

Maximilian Schommer ’19 was a member of TVC’s first cohort; while he initially did work on a high-tech optical system to help people become more organized, the knowledge he gained in class has helped him create a new and very different company that is thriving. 

Founded by Schommer and his partner Roya Amini-Naieni in 2021, Trilobio builds fully automated synthetic biology robots that are designed to effectively perform day-to-day tasks for biologists with as little hands-on interaction and programming as possible.

“The seeds for Trilobio were planted when we began thinking about how we could make robots that help overqualified and underserved lab technicians do their jobs more easily,” says Schommer. “I reached out to Scott for advice, and he suggested we pursue venture funding. Within six months, we had our first prototype.” 

Since then, Trilobio has grown to five employees and has multiple robots in customer labs, where they are customized and upgraded as the team learns more about their users’ needs.

“I learned from Olin and TVC how important it is to get user feedback as quickly as possible,” says Schommer. “Getting reactions on our software prototypes allows us to give biologists flexible user interfaces to standard protocols such as pipetting or DNA assembly that can be more universally beneficial.”

Alex Butler ’23, took TVC as a capstone last year and is now auditing the class this year. Butler is working on accelerator chiplets, a form of computer architecture that allows smaller computer engineering development teams to create tiny integrated circuits that can be purchased by and put onto larger company’s chips, such as Intel or AMD. While this industry concept is still developing, Butler is confident that the knowledge gained in TVC will be invaluable as he continues to work on his product.

“TVC gives you direct and honest feedback from mentors and industry professionals on important areas like knowing how to validate your assumptions and how to present yourself and your company,” says Butler. “TVC has taught me how to engage with stakeholders in a project I’m excited about, and now I’ll be able to move through the entrepreneurial process at an accelerated rate while also navigating pitfalls.”

In addition to Butler’s chiplet architecture, other startup ideas from this year’s TVC cohort include carbon capture tracking, data integration for farmers, a new type of music synthesizer, and an ecommerce site for LARPers (people who participate in live-action role-playing games).