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Creating An Entrepreneurial Culture In An Engineering University

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Entrepreneurship Education: Unique Approaches

Tagged Division

Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.341.1 - 13.341.14

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Paper Authors

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Paul A. Nelson Michigan Technological University

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Edward Lumsdaine Michigan Technological University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture in an Engineering University


This paper describes the process followed at Michigan Technological University (MTU) over the past dozen years to develop an entrepreneurial culture, not only at the university but in the surrounding rural area as well. Michigan Tech offers programs primarily in the areas of engineering, the sciences, and business administration. The process of developing an entrepreneurial culture was gradual, and many obstacles had to be overcome, ranging from patent and licensing practices that discouraged innovation to faculty attitudes that were skeptical of “nontraditional” course content. Perhaps the greatest obstacle was a pervasive culture in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that conditioned people to wait for somebody else to do something.

The process started with a course in creative problem solving for freshmen taught as an overload by volunteer faculty. Later, a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) made possible the development of a course for senior students that focused on developing products for commercialization. Subsequent grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NCIIA, the Michigan Entrepreneurship Education Network, and industrial firms and donors facilitated courses and programs related to entrepreneurship. The Michigan Tech Enterprise SmartZone was eventually established as an entrepreneurial incubator for technology-based businesses, with the first of these businesses “graduating” in the fall of 2007 to a freestanding business with its own facilities. Dozens of faculty members are investigating the prospects of commercializing technologies that they have developed, and students are becoming involved in the process. Michigan Tech now has one of the highest percentages of undergraduate students named on invention disclosures in the nation. Also, many local inventors are approaching the SmartZone and Michigan Tech for advice and assistance in starting and developing businesses.

1. Context: Historical Background and Location

Michigan Tech is an emerging research institution with over two-thirds of approximately 5,800 undergraduates majoring in science and engineering. It produces 40 to 50 engineering and science Ph.D.s per year from approximately 900 graduate students enrolled in MS and PhD programs. As shown in the map on the next page, it is located 420 miles north of Chicago in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near Lake Superior. Authorized in 1862 as a Morrill Act land grant university, it did not really get started until 1885 as the Michigan School of Mines, offering the “engineer of mines” degree. Its Board of Control consisted of executives from the various copper and iron mines in the region, which were at the time America’s most important sources of these metals. The institution broadened during the twentieth century to offer degrees in most areas of engineering and eventually added programs in forestry, business administration, and more recently in a variety of non-technical fields. Directly influenced by local conditions today, “industrial archeology” is available as a course of study.

Geographic isolation contributes to the culture of the region, known as the Copper Country. About eighty percent of the land area in the Upper Peninsula is forest, and almost all of the

Nelson, P. A., & Lumsdaine, E. (2008, June), Creating An Entrepreneurial Culture In An Engineering University Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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