Taking Advice from Alumni

On Feb. 9, Pratt school alums offered advice to current students at two different forums. Natalie Wisniewski, a medical device consultant who obtained her doctorate in biomedical engineering in Professor Monte Reichert's lab, spoke at a Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) event on enhancing personal innovation and problem solving. Later in the day, John Glushik, a venture capitalist who obtained his bachelor's in mechanical engineering from Duke, offered his insight and advice on attracting the interest of investors to entrepreneurial students in the Masters of Engineering Management Program (MEMP). His seminar was titled "A View into the Black Box: How Venture Capitalists Evaluate Technology Opportunities."

Enhancing Personal Innovation and Problem Solving

Wisniewski graduated from Duke in 2001. While at Duke, she did an internship with McKinsey and later worked for the global consulting company as a consultant for two years. She then decided to leave McKinsey to found her own consulting company, Medical Device Consultancy, based in San Francisco. Her clientele includes Boston Scientific, start-up companies, and venture capital firms around the country.

The following tips represent a summary of her advice:

* Seek out internships. It's a virtually commitment-free method for getting a sense of the kinds of opportunities that are out there.

* Don't underestimate the amount you can learn through industry experience, regardless of the product at hand. As an undergraduate, Wisniewski said she worked during the summer at Kimberly Clark on the manufacture of diapers.

"It's amazing how much you can learn from a product like diapers -- about polymers, elastics, quality control," she said. "You can learn a lot about basic engineering skills working on just about anything."

* Take advantage of the flexibility you have as students. Take a course outside of your field or just talk to experts in other fields. For example, strike up a conversation about patent law, if that interests you.

* Take the initiative to reach out and make contacts. You can maintain that network regardless of your career path.

* A background in science and engineering can prepare you for many career possibilities. You may not have the specific training, but you are independent thinkers able to take a problem, dissect it and create an action plan based on the data at hand.

* As many companies outsource some of their operations, the environment is getting tougher. However, if you have the inclination to combine business with technical skills, there are lots of opportunities ahead. Remember to look to the future, see what's changing and position yourself accordingly.

* A degree from Duke can buy you a lot of credibility and help get you "in the door." While you will have to follow through once you are there, let this give you confidence to knock on people's doors and start having conversations.

A View into the Black Box: How Venture Capitalists Evaluate Technology Opportunities

John Glushik is a general partner with Intersouth Partners, one of the nation's most active and experienced early-stage venture capital firms. As one of the largest funds in the Southeast, Intersouth has invested in more 80 private companies over the last 20 years, focusing on the life sciences and information technology sectors. At Intersouth, Glushik works with the firm's information technology portfolio, identifying investment opportunities, evaluating technology and advising company management through start-up, growth and exit. In addition to his degree from the Pratt School, Glushik holds a masters degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.B.A. from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

The following tips represent a summary of his insights and advice:

* If there is no chance your technology will be a "home run," venture capitalists won't be interested. We have to hit as hard as we can just to get some home runs.

* Intersouth sees 1,500 business plans a year, looks closely at 200 to 300 and invests, on average, in eight. The first paragraph, even the first sentence, of your plan is critical in making the cut. References are also very important.

* It is not worth it to speed the process along. The most important factor is getting to know people. The decision-making process takes time because it has to.

* Attitude is critical. At the end of the day, you must be a salesperson for the ideas behind your company.

* If you don't have a lot of experience, let someone else take the reins and watch them. Learn from the process and negotiate to take more responsibility over time.

* It's a mistake to bring market research reports to the table. If there is already a market for your product that is defined by someone else, then your product is not unique enough.

* We like to see something hard to make. Something it took smart people with unique expertise time to build.

* Technology development is important, but market understanding is more important. The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is focusing the majority of their attention on the technical aspects. We will assume you can make what you say you will make. Now, tell us who will buy it and how you will get to them.