Making it in the marketplace

| Written by Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta

In that most technical of colleges in UP Diliman, the College of Engineering, is an advanced course with a different flavor.

The course is a fusion—part technology and innovation class, part crash course in marketing and business, and part personality and motivational workshop. However, unlike a traditional thesis course in Engineering that would result in a technology prototype, or a traditional entrepreneurship course in Business Administration that would produce a business plan, students here have to hurdle a real-life challenge in the world of industry: to successfully pitch a tech-business venture to a panel of Filipino and foreign industry leaders, technopreneurs, and potential capital investors. In short, students would have to prove that they and their venture have what it takes to make it in the marketplace.

The course was designed, improved and facilitated by a UP Electrical and Electronics Engineering professor and the director of the UP Technology Transfer and Business Development Office, Dr. Luis G. Sison based on his MS-level course IE 298. With the course title, “Higher Education Institutional Readiness for Innovation and Technopreneurship” (HIRIT), it aims to help students accelerate technology translation and startup formation by teaching the basic tools and skills for identifying and pursuing market opportunities, and by giving students the chance to network with technopreneurs, investors, and industry partners.

In December 2015, HIRIT won for Sison the UP Gawad Pangulo for Progressive Teaching and Learning. A year later, it won two silver medals for the Asia category and for the Teaching Delivery category in the third Reimagine Education Awards, a global competition for transformative initiatives across the educational sector.

 

Dr. Luis Sison at his technopreneurship class at the UP Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute. (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)
Dr. Luis Sison at his technopreneurship class at the UP Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute. (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)

 

R&D with economic impact

The course had its start in the Engineering Research and Development for Technology (ERDT), a consortium of eight universities that offers masters and doctoral degrees in various engineering fields.

“When the consortium was formed, there were concerns about the government making a lot of investments in R&D, and those investments not being translated into economic impact,” Sison recalls. “So they required all ERDT scholars to take a technopreneurship class.”

In 2009-2010, Visiting Professor Matthew Bristow handled the new course, which first-year ERDT scholars took during the summer term. The next year, Prof. Bristow was joined by Sison and fellow UP Engineering professor, Nestor Rañeses. The year after that, Sison and another UP faculty member took over the course.

 

Growth mindset and deliberate practice

The drive behind the evolution of the course can be seen in its introduction, which you can watch on the UP OVPAA YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HS68IRj3TM&t=261s). In it, Sison lays down the basic principles of the course, which feature some distinctly non-engineering concepts.

Dr. Sison lays down one of the ground rules in the technopreneurship introductory lecture video : “Everyone here in the class has to participate. There is no such thing as an observer in this class. You’re here, you join a team, you pitch a venture, you work on your venture.” Yes, even sit-in students who are not technically enrolled.

 

The first principle is that of the “growth mindset” as opposed to the “fixed mindset.” These terms were coined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. With a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits. They believe that talent alone, without effort, creates success. On the other hand, with a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. According to Dweck, the most successful and motivated people are those who have a growth mindset.

The other principle is that of deliberate practice, referring to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. In his video, Sison breaks down the components of deliberate practice into: 1) setting increasingly harder goals for yourself; 2) recognizing that it takes hard work; and, 3) learning from a coach or mentor and seeking and responding to continuous feedback.

Product-market fit

Students’ performance in the technopreneurship class is measured by how well they perform on the last and most critical day: demo day. That is, how well their pitches are received by the panelists, and how well they are able to respond to the panelists’ questions. The panelists then rate the ventures with a “yes”, “no” or “maybe”, and the teams are awarded points based on that.

The end-goal is for students to get market validation, or what is called product-market fit, for their venture. “Does your product address a solution that the end-users, the customers, are willing to pay for? That is the goal, and students are allowed to iterate both the technology, the business model, and even the target market until they’ve achieved that goal,” explains Sison.

The class is divided into teams, and throughout the semester, the teams go through at least four cycles of this iteration. “One rule is that you’re allowed to pivot as many times as necessary until you find product-market fit,” Sison points out. Students are allowed to change their products and ventures in response to market feedback, as long as they make it to demo day.

In fact, the only thing not allowed is not trying. After all, the world of innovation is one of risk-taking, of testing idea after idea, and of recognizing that every failure is a chance to learn.

 

Practicing what we preach

This same mindset, according to Sison, has powered the evolution of the technopreneurship course over the years. “We have to practice what we preach. That means being open to feedback, reacting on that feedback, and taking it seriously instead of personally.”

This feedback came from the panelists’ responses and how many venture teams scored a “yes” or a “maybe” from the panelists after demo day. “At the beginning, it really sucked,” Sison admits. “We got a lot of nos and just a few maybes. It was a real-world test. It’s hard validation for the course, not just academic evaluation.”

The work the students do pays off not just in a passing grade, but in the form of actual startups and business ventures. As of 2016, notable class ventures have earned a total of over P170 million in public and private funding. These include those funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), namely,Tanglaw, SmartSurface, HeartSmart and Jolt, the latter two co-funded through the UK Newton Fund Leaders in Innovation fellowship. One, HeLe, is funded by the Philippine California Advanced Research Institutes (PCARI) and has the Philippine National Ear Institute as clinical collaborator. Others are in various stages of pilot testing and pilot requests.

 

Dr. Luis G. Sison has compiled his lessons and processes from the technopreneurship course in a workbook, "Tech to Go: A Student's Guide to Bringing Technology to the Market," which will soon hit the shelves.
Dr. Luis G. Sison has compiled his lessons and processes from the technopreneurship course in a workbook, “Tech to Go: A Student’s Guide to Bringing Technology to the Market,” which will soon hit the shelves.

 

Continuous evolution

After its Reimagine Education Awards win, the course has since been adopted by the DOST as a program to support the development of other incubators, with UP supplying the DOST with the training content and processes. The course is also set to expand as part of a project by the Commission on Higher Education involving a core of 10 universities.

“We’re training other faculty in the process, not just in UP but also in other universities,” says Sison. “We were chosen as one of the five of the first batch of innovation hubs around the country, and we’re the lead for the NCR. So our engagement is nationwide.”

Dr. Luis G. Sison has compiled his lessons and processes from the technopreneurship course in a workbook, Tech to Go: A Student’s Guide to Bringing Technology to the Market, which will soon hit the shelves.