Lehigh University Program Connecting Students with Businesses is Evolving

By Colin McEvoy on February 9, 2016

Patrick Clasen of EcoTech Marine talking to Lehigh University students about projects in what is now called the Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone Projects program. (photo courtesy Lehigh University's Baker Institute)

Patrick Clasen of EcoTech Marine talking to Lehigh University students about projects in what is now called the Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone Projects program. (photo courtesy Lehigh University’s Baker Institute)

For the last 20 years, a Lehigh University program has given students the chance to work with Lehigh Valley companies and industrial sponsors to design, fabricate, and produce new products.

The name of that program is changing, but the overall mission remains the same: to give Lehigh students in engineering, business, and the design arts the opportunity to work in interdisciplinary teams with industrial sponsors to design, fabricate, and produce new products.

“We are committed to providing an environment, a culture, and resources where our students can develop their creative curiosity, make collaborative connections to the real world, and create social, business, and personal value,” said John Ochs, director of Lehigh’s University’s Technical Entrepreneurship Master’s Degree.

Ochs is also director of what had previously been called the Integrated Product Development (IPD) program, which is now being renamed the “Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone Projects” program. This new name better aligns with Lehigh’s master’s of engineering in technical entrepreneurship degree program, which launched in 2010.

Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone Projects allows students to work on a real-world, industry-sponsored project. Each project team has an adviser and industry mentor. The process begins with identifying a problem, and from there formulates it into a business opportunity.

The process encourages innovative ideas to generate creative solutions. It provides the resources to fabricate, build, and test the best solution for technical, social, economic, and personal relevance and value, according to Ochs.

When the program began in 1996, it had three products, three advisers, and nine students, with three on a team. Today, it has more than 200 students in 32 teams of six or seven students. Some Lehigh Valley companies have been sponsors for more than a decade, and the program has also added a growing number of local entrepreneurs and student startups as sponsors in recent years.

“From day one of the IPD program, we have committed ourselves to continuous improvement,” Ochs said. “So I hope everything will change, continuously improving. I know we are doing our jobs when an alum returns to campus having been away for two years and says to me, ‘I wish we had that when I was here.’ If this happens on a regular basis, we are doing our jobs.”

In addition to the newly-changed name, the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) has made it easier than ever before for KIZ companies to sponsor and participate in the program.

There is a $5,000 entry fee for small startup companies to participate as sponsors. (The fee for large companies is $10,000.) The KIZ now allows companies to apply for funding that will cover half of the fee for small startups, according to Asher Schiavone, Bethlehem economic development coordinator. This makes it easier for smaller companies or local startups to participate.

“Students get a better experience working for local startup companies because they get to work directly with the CEO, rather than a large company where they’re working for a middle manager,” Schiavone said. “We wanted to encourage more local companies to take advantage of this, and one way we can do that is by helping reduce their entry fee.”

An example is Harbor Light Software, a provider of real-time marine data collection and reporting software, which is based out of the Bethlehem startup business incubator “Pi: Partnership for Innovation.” The KIZ covered half of the entry fee for the company, which participated in the Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone Projects program in 2014, and is doing so again this year.

During their 2014 project, Harbor Light Software conceived the idea of a new piece of hardware that would quickly measure the length of a fish. The company itself didn’t have the time to research the viability of such a project, so the students in the Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone Projects spent one semester researching it, and another building a prototype.

“It’s a great program for the students who get to experience the environment of trying to define a new product and build it based on the interest and demands of real-world companies,” said Bill Spain, president of Harbor Light Software. “And from a sponsor’s perspective, it really expands our company so we can start to explore ideas that could be important products for us in the future, but that we simply don’t have the resources or bandwidth to research on our own.”

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