July 31, 2007

STEP students learn from alumnus Angel investor

Edward Caner

It was more than fireworks on a Fourth of July trip to the Silicon Valley for 10 Case Western Reserve University graduate students in the Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP) in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The trip sizzled and popped with advice on how to launch new businesses from alumnus Hal Nissley (CIT '60; GRS '69, statistics), founder of the International Angel Investors and a partner in the Angel Capital Network. The group also visited ventures and venture capitalists in Los Altos Hills, Palo Alto, San Jose and San Francisco.

The educational road trip for graduate students in biology, chemistry, mathematics and statistics was for those seeking a master's degree in science that melds with business.

The program, with a strong mentoring component, tapped the talents of Nissley, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in math, statistics and operations research from Case Western Reserve. Nissley also has a law degree from Peninsula College. He has been actively involved as an investor, board member or founder of many small firms and companies.

The program is designed to give scientists the kinds of skills they need to take research findings to the market, according to Edward Caner, STEP director and a graduate of the Physics Entrepreneurship Program (PEP)—a program in physics that evolved into STEP.

"The distinction between working in industry and starting a business is vastly different," stated Caner. "It's normal for scientists to go into academia or industry but entrepreneurship has not been touted as viable career path."

STEP has changed that thinking

Approximately half of the graduates of STEP have directly been involved with a startup company within five years of starting the program, said Caner.

The program grew out of PEP that was started by physics Professor Cyrus Taylor, now dean of Arts and Sciences; Robert Hisrich, who headed up the entrepreneurship department at the Weatherhead School of Management; and Lawrence Krauss, former chair of the physics department.

Caner was among PEP's first graduates. While in the program, he came up with a guinea pig detector for anthrax contamination that he stated has had a strong influence on the recent adoption of an animal monitoring system by the national Center for Disease Control. and Prevention He received media attention across the country when he proposed the model shortly after anthrax was sent through the mail in 2001. He also developed plans for a hydrofoil watercraft that never made it to market because the materials have not been invented.

Caner returned to the university last November from Black Hills State University, where he was building an entrepreneurship program.

"What drives me is this whole business of helping people find out what they need to get to the next step—basically it comes down to helping people help themselves," he said.

A $100,000 gift last year from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation to the College of Arts and Sciences allowed STEP to reorganize and jumpstart the program in a new direction.

Caner, who for 10 years was a professional violinist and now plays in an Akron-based zydeco band, said he is taking a music conservatory approach in rebuilding the program. It is based on frequent individualized mentorship, classroom work that emphasizes fundamentals and real-world experience.

"When music students leave their teachers, they are very good at self-analyzing, self-correcting and finding out how to learn what they need to know," added Caner.

Part of advancing the program will be to create a new advisory board that will aid in developing a strong financial base for a self-sustaining program.

Another part of advancing the program is simply getting the word out. One thing that Caner said he keeps hearing while attending entrepreneurship conferences and meetings across the country is "how do we make graduate students aware of entrepreneurship as a possible career path?"

To address this problem at Case, Caner said STEP will begin to leverage the departmental colloquia with required attendance for graduate students and have each department set aside one colloquium a year to devote to a talk related to science and entrepreneurship. He has received funding from Charles Rozek, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Mark Coticchia, vice president for research and technology management, to advance this initiative.

"It’s a tiny effort that might have a huge impact," Caner said. "It will give them a chance to explore a possibility."

For more information, call Susan Griffith at 216.368-1004.

Posted by: Marsha Bragg, July 31, 2007 09:28 AM | News Topics: Alumni, Collaborations/Partnerships, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Students, Weatherhead School of Management

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