Task force aims to better integrate engineering school into local entrepreneurial community

A newly formed Technology Entrepreneurship Task Force in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering aims to connect tech-savvy undergraduates who have entrepreneurial ambitions to local companies and business leaders to better integrate the school into the Nashville community and to help stimulate private-sector innovation and growth in the Middle Tennessee region.

Created by Dean Philippe Fauchet in mid-October, the five-member task force will take a fresh look at activities the school could perform collaboratively with colleagues within the university, as well as with other universities and industries in the region.

“The task force objectives will be to find ways to grow technology companies locally, to enable Vanderbilt students, faculty and staff with entrepreneurial aspirations to start their businesses in middle Tennessee or to become part of the region’s entrepreneurial community,” Fauchet said.

Vanderbilt, in general, and the School of Engineering, in particular, are uniquely positioned to help foster deeper collaborations among local universities and companies, Fauchet said.  “There is already broad consensus on this point from various groups at Vanderbilt and the Nashville technology community, but what is needed are concrete plans—and a systematic planning process—to achieve these ends.”

Doug Schmidt

Doug Schmidt, professor of computer science and associate chair for computer science and engineering, is the task force chair.

“Doug is uniquely qualified to lead our task force,” Fauchet said. “He has helped spinoff multiple successful companies from his open-source ACE and TAO middleware research efforts at the Institute for Software Integrated Systems. He has the skill and perspective needed to accelerate technology entrepreneurship in the school.”

Schmidt has mentored dozens of graduate and undergraduate students who have started companies, joined startup companies, or worked for Nashville technology companies after they graduated. His experience includes serving as a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been an incubator of advanced technologies for more than 50 years.  He was also the chief technology officer at the Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center located at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn.

“Over the past five years I’ve been involved with various Chamber of Commerce efforts to help motivate technology companies to relocate to Nashville. One of the challenges has been the lack of a large talent pool of engineers and technologists in the Nashville region,” Schmidt said.

“All the important American engineering and technology clusters, such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston and Austin, have succeeded by forging strong collaborations among local universities and industries. These synergies help expand scientific and applied knowledge and they spur private-sector growth,” he added.

While the task force’s first priority is to help connect engineering undergraduates more systematically with local industry and business entrepreneurs, the group has several other key areas of focus:

•    Enhance the school’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Tap into an ecosystem of partners, suppliers, customers, technical talent (including Vanderbilt faculty, staff and students) and identify tangible ways to make Vanderbilt an easier, more user-friendly place to do business with.
•    Incentivize integrated student team projects in engineering Capstone design courses. Expose undergraduates to design earlier than the senior year. Organize design projects around the needs of local technology entrepreneurs.
•    Leverage innovation acceleration centers. Connect engineering faculty with innovation acceleration centers such as the Nashville Entrepreneur’s Center. Better leverage the school’s research centers with national labs and companies on cutting-edge applied research projects.
•    Strengthen talented student-run engineering organizations. Vandy Mobile educates students in advanced mobile development, giving Vanderbilt and local industry a ready pool of capable developers who can help advance middle Tennessee’s technological capabilities and advance its mobile, Web, entertainment and social media presence.
•    Tap VUSE alumni chapters. Make better use of strong alumni chapters for recruiting students, offering projects and internships, and perhaps even relocating to Nashville to start a business.
•    Align with key Vanderbilt stakeholders. Ensure entrepreneurial initiatives being pursued are consistent with Vanderbilt University strategic goals and directions.

“Engineering skills are at a premium nationally, so it’s no surprise that successful recruiting and retaining talented engineering professionals in the middle Tennessee region is harder than we’d like,” said Schmidt. “Fortunately, there is strong potential for synergy between Nashville’s academic and scientific community and regional industry, particularly for those with interest in such key growth areas as health information systems, medical devices, information security, cyber-physical systems, entertainment, mobile applications and cloud-based analytics.”

Members for the task force include John Bers, associate professor of the practice engineering management; Matthew Walker III, associate professor of the practice biomedical engineering; Bob Webster, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and assistant professor of otolaryngology; and Scott Guelcher, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Ex Officio members are Associate Dean Cynthia Paschal, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and associate professor of radiology and radiological sciences; and Chris Rowe, associate professor of the practice of engineering management and director of the division of general engineering.