Fostering the Spirit of Entrepreneurship at SEAS

The C.P. Davis Auditorium was jammed with students and young alumni as the culture of entrepreneurship manifested itself at Columbia. Almost 200 spectators and 41 enthusiastic, budding entrepreneurs flocked into the SEAS auditorium to take part in the first “PitchFest,” organized by the School’s Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement (CTICE).

Neil Sarkar ’07SEAS, and his partner Ricky Joshi ’06BUS, created, a social sports web site centered around sports teams, featuring videos, news and blogs, and are looking for investors.
Drawing idea-laden students from across many University schools, the PitchFest showcased products that ran the gamut from highly technical to highly practical. Olga Cooperman from the School of Continuing Education proposed a way to use plant technology to screen for drug toxicity early in the drug development process, while Meena George ’03, PhD ’08GSAS, now a student at the Medical School, pitched an online computer software program that will provide research laboratories with a way to minimize waste of laboratory reagents by creating a secondary market.

Many SEAS participants focused on computer-based products and applications. SEAS students were inclined to develop technical products, often computer-based, such as real-time translation software for 18 different languages proposed by Fred Rassam MS ’08, and a searchable-by-sound musical database proposed by Michael Mandel MS ’06, PhD ’09.

One new design that received hearty audience endorsement was Business School student Jennifer Wright’s environmentally-friendly pizza box made from 100 percent recycled materials that breaks down into serving plates and a convenient storage container for the left-overs.
“PitchFest was an extremely successful first step in the School’s effort to build a culture of entrepreneurship,” says Rebecca Rodriguez, senior associate director for entrepreneurship at CTICE. “Students have become vital, irreplaceable drivers of entrepreneurship training at SEAS. And our alumni have jumped on board wholeheartedly, too, helping organize and promote all our entrepreneurship efforts.” Science and Technology Ventures and the Business School’s Lang Center for Entrepreneurship co-sponsored PitchFest. Student group sponsors were the Society for Entrepreneurship and Technological Innovation, the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization, the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, and the Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Consulting group.

A follow-up entrepreneurship event in March featured a business/technology demonstration that gave participants feedback on their business plans. Nine student venture presenters gave five-minute presentations on their businesses, followed by five minutes of feedback from the audience and a panel of experienced entrepreneurs.  Alexandra Piol ’79, ’83 and Omar Jaffrey ’87 served on the panel of evaluators.

“This latest event was a great educational opportunity for students who plan on entering the Columbia Venture Competition,” says Rodriguez. “The feedback given by our panelists was of direct value to each of them. We are all looking forward to the Competition. I know we will be seeing some very strong new business ideas.”

Entrepreneurs entering the Columbia Venture Competition have a chance to share $25,000 in prize money and to receive in-kind support so they can turn their ideas into reality.  “Entrepreneurship is important enough to join teaching and research as part of the mission of the School,” says Interim Dean Gerald A. Navratil, “and so we are providing the resources that are needed for the program.”

“Our focus on entrepreneurship at the Engineering School incorporates two important aspects that are absent from most programs,” says Rodriguez. “We support efforts to develop and implement green technology, and we have a long-range plan to build community engagement into every aspect of the program.”

The winners of the Competition will be decided by a panel of judges who will include members of the School’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board. The Board, formed last year, acts as a resource for the Engaged Entrepreneurship Program, which is  under the aegis of CTICE.