New Graduate Accelerator Program Cultivates Entrepreneurial Spirit

By Sue McMurray

The word “entrepreneur” may for some elicit images of the popular ABC reality show Shark Tank, or perhaps of tech moguls Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates. But the truth is, entrepreneurship doesn’t require an impressive business portfolio or academic pedigree. It’s a way of thinking, and anyone can be an entrepreneur as long as they have a passion for solving problems. Corralling that passion into a viable product that can be commercialized is often where people need the advice and support of established entrepreneurs.

Recently, the Carson College of Business provided such an opportunity for WSU entrepreneurial-minded graduate students.

In June the college launched the inaugural WSU Entrepreneurship Skills and Knowledge Accelerator (WESKA), a boot camp designed for graduate students from scientific, non-business disciplines. A variety of tools including readings, discussions, role-playing, guest presentations, software applications and simulations, among others, aimed to help students grow their knowledge of core entrepreneurial concepts. Carson College and other WSU faculty shared their expertise by serving on panels and teaching seminars throughout the week.

“The array of talented individuals and the practical overviews, and advice surrounding entrepreneurship and the basics of running a business was helpful,” said Andrew Raub, a doctoral student in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering. “In a sense, the WESKA program helped to ‘de-risk’ starting a business by building connections and alerting us to available resources.”

A safe environment for idea generation

Over 30 students from across WSU and a group from the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology attended. Their entrepreneurial ideas ranged from the natural resources field, such as improving water quality, making hydrocarbon from natural gas, and saving honeybees from pesticides, to smart home technology for the elderly and building a virtual environment for learning language. Others shared ideas about business ventures in the medical field, including cancer and cardiac muscle mutation research, and using botanical compounds as pain relievers, among others.

“WESKA is a safe environment for non-business students to try out their ideas and discover how entrepreneurship works,” says Chip Hunter, Carson College dean. “The goal is for students to develop new ways of thinking. They also build networks across the University, and some may find this is a springboard for getting their ideas out into the world.”

Established entrepreneurs share testimonies and tips

Scott Maloney presenting a case study to illustrate entrepreneurial practices

WESKA featured a number of successful WSU-affiliated entrepreneurs and instructors including Amit Dhingra, Katrina Mealey, Marie Mayes (’04, ’87), Arvin Sahaym, Glenn Prestwich, and Joe Harding, as well as industry leaders Scott Maloney (’02) and Dan Wadkins.

Their personal stories and tips gave real life perspective to the entrepreneurial way of life. Dhingra, for example, grew up in India during a time of food shortages. The experience inspired him to devote his life to researching how to grow food more efficiently.

“Innovation comes from pain, failure, and tension,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to fail. If you have an open mind and disposition, it will help. At the end of the day, take diverse opinions and synthesize them. Use your skills to direct your research and solve problems.”

Mealey, a veterinary pharmacology expert, describes herself as an accidental entrepreneur. She discovered a gene mutation called MDR1 in certain dog breeds. Dogs that carry it may react violently to a deworming medication. She invented an easy, affordable cheek swab test to determine whether a dog carries the altered DNA. Her laboratory also discovered a different mutation in the MDR1 gene of cats and now offers genetic testing for cat owners.

“Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to do with owning a start-up company,” said Mealey. “If you have something people want, start selling in a small way. The key is involving the best people, ideally, someone who’s better or more knowledgeable than you.”

Mayes, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, helps faculty, staff, and students of all majors navigate the entrepreneurship ecosystem. In addition to participating in a panel discussion, she gave an in depth presentation on the business model canvas, a lean startup tool for developing or refining business models.

Dean Chip Hunter engaging WESKA participants

“You don’t have to be a big idea person to be an entrepreneur. Look for problems to solve and build an interdisciplinary team,” said Mayes. “Investors look at a team’s different disciplines and the ability to move from idea to implementation.”

Growing WSU’s entrepreneurial spirit

Helping faculty and student commercialize their research is a key part of the University’s land-grant mission and supports its Drive to 25 goals, but the University must move beyond traditional teaching, Hunter said. “WSU needs a multifaceted strategy, and we need more talented faculty who can help develop innovative solutions to global business problems.”

“From WESKA we hope to create a sustainable, vibrant network of people committed to helping WSU grow. We would love to see some of these researchers launch and grow startups in the next two years and come back to the University in five years as teachers and researchers who support students at different stages of development. And, we expect those who continue to focus on basic and applied science will also benefit from a deeper understanding of entrepreneurship,” said Hunter.

The Dean’s Catalyst Fund supports the WESKA program. Dean Hunter established the fund to provide an opportunity for donors to invest in start-up projects that have potential to become sustainable programs consistent with the college mission and strategy. Catalyst donors work closely with the dean to advise on the fit between fund investments and objectives, and to review the progress of initiatives chosen for investment.

For more information, contact Jeff Pilcher, director of development, or call 509-335-8906.

To learn more about WESKA, contact Arvin Sahaym, associate professor of management, information systems, and entrepreneurship.