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Entrepreneurship in everything: How faculty are working startup culture into the curriculum

BioTEC logo Recent faculty efforts to infuse course offerings with innovative and entrepreneurial content have given students a new range of ways to put their skillsets to work. Now those efforts are being combined with programs aimed at helping students get their concepts out into the world, creating multi-stage pathways from inception to launch for big Golden Bear ideas.

Dr. Adrienne Williams, an assistant professor in WVU Tech’s biology department and a member of WVU’s second cohort of IDEA Faculty Fellows, has been working for the last few years towards this end.

Williams is teaching a new translational science course on campus designed to get the process started for students who want to innovate. She’s also heading up the BioTEC program, which provides students with the tools they need to finetune their innovative work.

“As an instructor, I know that there’s so much pressure to perform and to meet certain expectations. Students often think ‘I need to graduate and work for a company or work for somebody else.’ But we have a lot of brilliant students who just need encouragement and confidence,” Williams said.

Found in translation
The essential principal behind translational science is to find ways to move scientific advancements and new concepts – or translate them – into real-world solutions. In a nutshell, that’s what the course teaches.

Students in the course, listed as BIOL 493J, will be able to put their ideas to the test in a detailed way. It’s an intro-level course that walks students through the steps of exploring business ideas, product ideas or real-world problems they want to solve. There’s no prerequisite, though students should have a basic background in science. Students from any major can take the class.

The course is a first step in turning a student’s idea for a new products or service into reality. Students will learn how to find local resources, explore ways to build a network, conduct a strengths assessment and learn other associated skills for working with teams to get an idea off the ground.

They’ll also instantly join a network of like-minded students from a variety of majors and skillsets who can help them along the way.

“The class gives you a chance to explore your own strengths and skills in a way that you can’t do in a traditional course, the emphasis being on your ideas and what you can do with them. It’s honestly a situation where what you put in is what you get, so the sky’s the limit. There’s infinite possibility for these students to grow and to learn something about themselves and about those around them,” Williams said.

Biology, technically
Where the translational science course can teach students how to put their ideas into action, new programs like BioTEC give them to tools and financial resources to get started.

Students who complete BIOL 493J are eligible to apply to the program, which challenges them to take in-process or completed projects and start putting those first crucial pieces together.

Program participants will have one semester and some funding, provided by a grant from VentureWell, to launch a product or service that deals with biology in some way. And that’s a huge field. It covers everything from healthcare, exercise and medicine to food, animals and agriculture.

“We’ve had student work on a number of projects and ideas that would be a good fit,” Williams said. “We’ve seen cost-effective glucose monitoring systems, dog collars that track the animal’s emotions, computer programs that teach biotechnology, an educational hydroponics system, personalized skincare products and fabrics made from interesting plant fibers.”

BioTEC program participants will put together teams where at least one member is a current student who has completed the translational science course. Then they’ll receive an award based on the state of their chosen project.

The product award grants $600 for the semester to help create a viable product, with the money covering materials, services (think: machining or programming) and prototyping. The venture award is for ideas that are further along, granting $1,200 to help put the final touches on an idea with market research, patents and licensing.

“It’s a quick and low-risk way of testing to see if your idea will work. In one semester, you’ll know where you stand and how you’re going to be doing it. It helps support your idea, so why not take the chance and try it? Maybe it will take off. Maybe it fails, but now you know, and you can use that experience and do something that will work,” Williams said.

Then, if students want to take their ideas even further, their new network includes access to local startup resources: the HIVE in Beckley, the LaunchLab in Morgantown, additional VentureWell grant programs, rural entrepreneurship programs funded by the National Science Foundation and more.

For Williams, the multi-stage approach is part of a bigger plan. It’s about enabling students to go for their biggest, boldest ideas. But it’s also about showing them that they can do those big things right here in West Virginia.

“You don’t need to work for someone else. You have the abilities and know-how to do this yourselves. You could start your own business in Beckley and not have to go to California to find a job. You can do what you want to do and make the changes you want to make and, just maybe, you can bring other people home,” Williams said.

Find out more about the translational science course and the BioTec program on the WVU Tech engineering website. Questions? Reach out to BioTEC@mail.wvu.edu.

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