January 27, 2020
When launching a company or developing a product, timing is everything. And it’s often serendipitous and hard to control.
What happens when the inventor of a new product is still in college, and has to choose between holding off on their idea in favor of continuing through to graduation, or leaving school and pursuing a new idea that may or may not work?
Senior Max Schommer didn’t have to make that choice this year as a participant in Olin’s Entrepreneurial Engineering Capstone experience. This capstone is designed to be an option for Oliners who might otherwise be faced with a very difficult decision; they were able to pursue both their degrees and their startup dreams at Olin. “I was looking for something like the E! capstone and thought that it really helped me navigate the whole start-up space in a lot saner way,” says Max.
Scott Harris, Distinguished Visiting Engineer, and Jason Woodard, Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Engineering and Entrepreneurship, have worked to make this outcome a reality for students like Max. Now in its first year as, naturally, an Olin experiment, Woodard and Harris are working with Olin colleagues to integrate this capstone experience more fully into Olin’s entrepreneurship curriculum and forge connections with the two existing capstone programs, SCOPE and ADE.
“If you are an Olin student who wants to start a new venture, Olin should be the best place in the world for you to do that,” says Woodard. “We have amazing resources. We want our students to graduate. And we think we can support them better than anyone else on the planet.”
The criteria, explains Harris, are comprehensive and a little self-selecting. “Are students passionate about solving a problem? Do they have a problem they want to solve? Are they good at building a team? Are they passionate about doing it?” he asks. From a pool of 6-8 students in 2018, only two were chosen for the capstone last year. He’s hoping those numbers will grow as the capstone progresses.
An advantage for entrepreneurial Olin students is the capstone’s grounding in engineering. Olin students use their hard skills to solve a problem, but also go a step further and work to understand the problems they’re trying to solve and the value of the solution, as well as learn about finding a market. Harris teaches students to “look for the problems before the product—before you even think about starting a company.”
Harris knows quite a bit about startups. He is the co-founder of two leading design automation software companies, SolidWorks Corporation and Onshape Inc. Both companies have been acquired. A 1982 WPI graduate, Harris was inducted into the WPI Hall of Luminaries in 2019. During the ceremony, he was described as a thought leader and computer-aided design visionary.
For the past ten years, Harris has been a regular presence on Olin’s campus. Harris first learned about Olin College from an Olin student in 2007. He was so intrigued by the school that he reached out to Olin faculty and began teaching classes and mentoring SCOPE teams. His current focus is Olin’s E! capstone.
This experience allows seniors to “get a feel for what it’s like to get a product up,” explains Harris. “What are production principles? Are you building it so it can be reliable, safe, sourced, can it be manufactured, tested? How will you show that it works?”
Max is working on a venture called Organizm, a computer vision-based inventory management system. “This means that if you have a drawer or cabinet or shelf with a lot of items in boxes, we can figure out how many items are in the boxes,” he explains. “With this information we can do things like automatically re-purchase items which are running low, or help streamline a company’s inventory system. We have built several prototypes and are currently working on our first product and working on getting it alpha tested!”
“It's been amazing,” says Max. “I personally really like the freedom to work on what I was interested in, while at the same time getting really good feedback on my work by Scott and Jason. We were given complete responsibility to make sure that our projects succeeded.”
“I've used the prototyping resources at Olin significantly, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, library resources, research spaces, etc.,” says Max. “I think that Olin's resources definitely made it a lot more efficient for me to rapidly prototype things, especially since the resources are all so well maintained.”
The future of the Entrepreneurial Engineering Capstone looks bright. In this Olin experiment, as in many others that have come before it, and true to the college’s roots in innovation and experimentation, Olin will continue to develop the resources and framework students need to experiment, explore and innovate.