In the summer of 2016, the University of Delaware launched a 12-week workshop for engineering students interested in starting a business. The program prepares undergraduates steeped in complicated math and lab work to bring their ideas to market.
“Just because you have a good product doesn’t mean you have a good company,” said Dustyn Roberts, director of the College of Engineering (CoE) Summer Founders program and assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Roberts said the program teaches what she calls the “entrepreneurial mindset,” a mix of traits such as resilience, risk-taking and adaptiveness. Participants also learn the practical side of business, such as customer and competitor research.
The summer workshop is part of an ongoing effort at Delaware’s largest university to encourage entrepreneurship across campus, according to school officials. Even in more technical and research-intensive fields, such as engineering, the college is positioning itself as a welcoming place for students interested in starting a business.
“The ties between the University of Delaware entrepreneurship program and the engineering department are growing stronger,” said Erica Comber, who graduated in 2017 with a degree in biomedical engineering. “I have been seeing more and more engineers hanging out in the entrepreneurship spaces.”
In addition, the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship — the school’s celebrated hub for entrepreneurial workshops, classes and support services — has officially moved out of the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.
“They’ve always been an umbrella organization that deals with all of the colleges, but now it will be explicit in the way that it’s structured,” Roberts said.
The growth of entrepreneurship on campus has pushed the university to refine what kind of financial relationship it has with students — specifically when it comes to intellectual
“The approach to intellectual property has shifted quite a bit in the last few years,” said David S. Weir, director of the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships, which facilitates third-party partnerships and commercialization at the school.
The Horn Program has set the model, taking a hands-off approach to student intellectual property.
“It’s really built in favor of the students,” said Jason Bamford, co-founder of GeoSwap, a recent winner of the Hen Hatch startup funding competition. “They are just there to help.”
But students in more research-intensive fields face different questions as they consider whether or not to start a business while in school.
“It’s different in the lab because you’re working on a project that’s already being developed and you’re getting support from the school,” said Bamford, a graduate of the engineering program.
Mainly this applies to graduate students, who are treated like faculty. But there are conditions for undergraduates as well.
The current policy states that the university owns all inventions and discoveries developed by faculty, staff or students that “result from work directly related to professional or employment responsibilities at the University, or from work carried out on University time, or at University expense, or with the substantial use
of University resources.”
That last part, “substantial use,” is where mobile apps developed in dorm rooms can sometimes differ from complicated, research-intensive inventions.
“By default undergraduates own their own IP, unless they’re using significant university resources,” Roberts said. “Typically the way anyone would define significant recourses is not just using the wood shop, which is open to every student.”
She added that working with a faculty member who is doing federally funded research, for example, would potentially qualify as significant use. That’s due to the federal Bayh Dole Act, which permits small businesses, universities and nonprofits to claim intellectual property rights on inventions made with federal funding.
For comparison, Delaware State University has a similar policy.
“If the IP is from research done in collaboration with or employment by a faculty member, say in a faculty member’s research lab or for research for a graduate degree with a faculty advisor, the IP policy applies to students,” wrote Melissa A. Harrington, interim associate vice president of research at DSU, in an email.
“It would be trickier for IP that a student generates independently — not part of a class or participation in a faculty-led research project, and not part of research for a graduate degree,” she added.
Making these distinctions can be difficult, Weir admitted, for students just getting their feet wet in both entrepreneurship and the intricacies of school policy.
“Everybody has to very aware of the policy, and in a university that’s not always the case. Sometimes we have to come behind and clean it up,” Weir said.