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Encouraging Underrepresented and Entrepreneurial-Minded Postdocs in High-Tech Startups

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Rachel Levitin American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)

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Current eFellows Program Director & IPERF Program Manager, Former NDSEG Program Director

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Teddy Ivanitzki American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)

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Dr. Ivanitzki is one of ASEE’s Directors within Fellowships and Research Opportunities (FRO). He has overall responsibility for the administration current government sponsored fellowship/research and scholarship programs under STEM umbrella, continuing supporting DOD/NSF with diverse undergraduate/graduate/postdoc fellowships, and managing modern apprenticeship programs for ONR (Office of Naval Research) successfully since few years.
Dr. Ivanitzki has over 25 years in management of commercialization technologies within IT industries in Europe and US and being CTO/CEO of high-tech startups. Prior to joining ASEE, Dr. Ivanitzki was managing director of the Ethiopian Institute of Technology in Mekelle, Ethiopia. Previously, he served as a dean of the College of Engineering and Information Technology at DeVry University in Houston, Texas.

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Rashida Johnson American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)

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When starting small businesses, particularly in high-tech sectors, women and underrepresented minority groups face additional hurdles in securing funding and investment. This is a problem. Not only is such a discrepancy in investment socially unjust, but it deprives the US of the advantages in innovation and global competition that could stem from widening participation in innovative sectors. Yet, despite efforts to provide targeted support to women and underrepresented minority-owned businesses, more remains to be done to close the investment gap.

The US Small Business Administration (SBA) provides more than $3.5 billion in funding to over 5,000 startups per year through its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. Moreover, the Small Business Act provides these programs with a mandate to target women and underrepresented minority groups. Despite this, 15% of those funds went to minority-owned companies[2]. The private sector tells a similar story. Diversity VC, a non-profit partnership promoting diversity in Venture Capital, reported in 2019 that in a comprehensive survey[3] of around 10,000 founders receiving venture capital backing, only 9% were women and a mere 1% were Black.

In order to i) accelerate innovation, ii) increase participation of under-represented minorities in new start-ups, and iii) ensure US competitiveness in the global market, the National Science Foundation (NSF) introduced the Small Business Postdoctoral Research Diversity Fellowship (SBPRDF) program in 2010 and selected the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) to administer it.

The SBPRDF placed postdoctoral Fellows with high-tech start-up companies, allowing Fellows to learn to collaborate in a multidisciplinary environment and develop an understanding of the expectations and constraints involved in successful entrepreneurship. In return, the Fellows applied their academic expertise to the important work of product realization in a globally competitive market. Forty percent (40%) of the SBIR host companies hired Fellows as full-time employees for performance testing and commercialization of their prototypes. Seventy-two percent (72%) of the postdocs noted that the SBPRDF fellowship gave them a competitive edge in the job market, with some further reporting that they gained valuable grant writing and business experience. Of all the Fellows in the SBPRDF program, 40% were women and underrepresented minorities, 43% of the participants were offered employment by their host companies, and 84% believed that the fellowship experience enhanced their professional qualifications.

In 2019 NSF/IIP (Industrial Innovation and Partnerships) selected ASEE to administer the Innovative Postdoctoral Entrepreneurial Research Fellowship (IPERF) program as a successful extension to the previous SBPRDF grant.

The overarching goal of the IPERF program is to emphasize and strengthen the entrepreneurial development of underrepresented Fellows, advance best practices in postdoctoral programs, and significantly expand the participation of underrepresented scholars in innovative research and technology entrepreneurship.

The IPERF grant is committed to providing professional experiences for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders in innovative start-ups and more industry-oriented research to encourage their own entrepreneurship. In addition to enhancing the quality of on-the-job training and mentoring provided to the Fellow by the host company, ASEE started a new professional development series designed to address the obstacles that have historically limited access to venture capital by underrepresented groups.

[1], p4.

[2], p.5-6.


Levitin, R., & Ivanitzki, T., & Johnson, R. (2022, August), Encouraging Underrepresented and Entrepreneurial-Minded Postdocs in High-Tech Startups Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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