As the Mines Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation expands academic programs and entrepreneurial practices across campus, faculty engagement and training are critical for success.
The Thomas R. Nickoloff Entrepreneurship & Innovation Faculty Fellowship program welcomed its first fellows this summer, hosting an intensive three-week entrepreneurship boot camp that provided three Mines faculty with hands-on experience in developing business ideas and pitching fully realized startup plans.
Each fellow received $10,000 in professional development funds to participate in the boot camp and to serve as entrepreneurial catalysts throughout the academic year. As they return to the classroom, they will also incorporate at least one module within their academic curriculum that demonstrates key entrepreneurial principles, in consultation with the Center for E&I and the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN).
Tom Nickoloff donated the funds to help launch the faculty fellowship program, designed to inform and expand entrepreneurial thinking among faculty, students and departments across campus. With an inaugural group of six faculty fellows, three participating in the summer and three later this year, the program provides focused and strategic involvement from key faculty, allowing Mines to establish an active, collaborative network of colleagues who are informed and enthusiastic about integrating an entrepreneurial mindset into their teaching and research.
Nickoloff graduated from Mines in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in geophysical engineering. As the founder and co-founder of several oil and gas operating entities and geophysical service companies, he is a proven technology innovator - successfully recognizing and developing emerging technologies for commercial application. He is also managing director of BlueStone Venture Partners LLC, a venture investment fund focused on life science innovation and technology companies headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona, and managing principal of Camino Real Capital Partners LLC, his family venture investment office.
"Mines has always been recognized as producing some of the best engineers, but as an entrepreneur and alumnus, I wanted to support a program to ignite innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit at Mines, among both faculty and students," said Nickoloff. "Faculty play a critical role in influencing a cultural shift on campus, so by supporting this program and increasing understanding of how to incorporate innovation into the classroom our expectation is that an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurialism will grow at Mines and become an essential part of the learning experience that all students can access and thrive in."
The first three fellows were:
- Joel Bach, associate professor of mechanical engineering
- Salman Mohagheghi, associate professor of electrical engineering
- Hua Wang, associate professor of computer science
Led by the Center for E&I Director Werner Kuhr and Associate Director Sid Saleh, the summer boot camp included workshops and seminars with entrepreneurs from both large companies and small startups. The boot camp employed a hands-on approach, with faculty learning about teaming and leadership, strategy and management, market and market research, intellectual property, finance, production, oral presentations and funding while creating their own startup.
Each faculty member came up with their own business idea, developed a lean canvas business plan, engaged potential customers and developed their concept throughout the course of the boot camp. At the end, the fellows made elevator pitches and laid out potential business plans.
Bach proposed a smart climbing wall where each hold would be equipped with an LED and a speaker to challenge climbers of all ability levels, including those who are blind. Mohagheghi pitched an intelligent sustainable sprinkler system for golf courses that can measure the soil's moisture content in real time without needing a battery or solar panel. Wang's business idea was a note-taking system for surgeons powered by artificial intelligence, able to convert audio to text at nearly 100 percent accuracy as well as summarize the information.
All three fellows agreed they learned a lot from the experience.
"My business idea didn't change that much over the course, but realizing more concisely who my customer was and the benefits I was offering to the customer really helped me refine my elevator pitch and the business model pitch," Bach said. "I came in without any real sense of a business plan - I knew who I wanted to serve but I didn't think about who would be buying this and who their customers are."
Mohagheghi said the process of developing a business model helped him better understand risk and put it within a manageable framework.
"This idea that I came up with is two years old. It's something that was there but every time I wanted to approach it as a serious business idea, a lot of things pushed me back. What's going to happen to this? What's going to happen to that?" Mohagheghi said.
Wang said he's already planning how to incorporate what he learned during the boot camp into his classes.
"It helped me change the way to think," Wang said. "From the very beginning, I only had a very vague idea - machine learning is useful - however, how to make it a real product was difficult for me. After three weeks of discussion, I know what a product would look like."
Kuhr was very happy with the progress that each faculty member made during the course of the boot camp.
"It was very gratifying to see them develop their ideas and adjust to feedback from potential customers," Kuhr said. "We made them get out of their comfort zone, create 'pretotypes' or pre-prototypes, and pitch their ideas to potential customers without have a fully developed system. They learned how to modify and adjust their pitches on the fly as they received feedback, leading to more customer-centric business models."