Are We Diluting BME Capstone Design?

An interesting topic just came up at ASEE’s annual conference in Seattle, one that we don’t discuss very often in the world of innovation promotion: are we focusing too heavily on it? That is, are we diluting BME capstone design by orienting the curriculum too far toward technology commercialization? Are engineering fundamentals getting lost? In effect, has the pendulum swung too far from rigorous design education to entrepreneurial education?

Dr. Goldberg facilitating discussion at ASEE

Dr. Jay Goldberg of Marquette University has seen many changes in design education over the last ten years and is asking faculty to think about these questions. While he feels that new technologies can only make an impact on society when they’re being sold on the market as commercial products (not locked away in, say, a university lab), he believes that as far as biomedical engineering students are concerned, it’s much more important for them to know how to design and test devices than to know how to create a startup. BME capstone design students need to first learn how to design products that perform as required and do not fail and injure patients.

That said, according to Dr. Goldberg, it’s still important for engineering students to understand how products are commercialized, whether they work for a startup or established company. Engineers do indeed play a role in the commercialization process, so they need to understand what it takes to introduce a new product, even if they won’t necessarily be responsible for all of the commercialization activities themselves. Goldberg’s emphasis is on developing business literacy (marketing, finance, accounting, etc.), and less on entrepreneurial literacy (how to find external funding, how to conduct a market analysis, how to run a company, etc.). If students do want to pursue a company, they should work with VentureWell, as its programs increase the probability of success for student startups.

Dr. Joe Tranquillo of Bucknell University believes that engineering students can and should go deeper into the technical analyses of their innovations while at the same time developing their entrepreneurial skills. Particularly, they can create, like they do at Bucknell, a Product Archaeology Canvas that develops both technical and entrepreneurial acumen. According to Dr. Tranquillo, it’s important to know both how to design and test devices as well as gain skills that can promote innovation in any future workforce opportunity, whether it’s a startup or in private industry. In fact, most BME graduates will indeed become intrapreneurs—people who innovate within existing companies.

Dr. Tranquillo debating the issue

For its part, the audience at the ASEE panel identified two themes:

  1. Many faculty are currently incorporating entrepreneurship into their capstone design courses without even realizing it. Dr. Goldberg thinks this may be because they don’t consider what they’re teaching to be entrepreneurship.
  2. There are many definitions of entrepreneurship being used by faculty. It is not clear exactly what is meant by “entrepreneur” or “entrepreneurship”. According to Dr. Goldberg, we (the capstone community) need an operational definition of entrepreneur that we can agree on so we are all speaking the same language.

VentureWell President and ASEE panelist Phil Weilerstein–and everyone else at VentureWelll–believes in the value of the entrepreneurial capstone. Research has shown that entrepreneurial capstones:

  • Boost GPA and retention rates of engineering students.
  • Provide students with the skills and attitudes needed to contribute to existing organizations and pursue their own ventures.
  • Have the potential to address current and anticipated workforce demands.

For us, the key is developing BME entrepreneurial literacy. BME students are in a unique situation, being at the interface of medicine, which gives rise to the need for new technologies; engineering and science, which provide the means for realization; and business, which provides the vehicle for delivery. Leaders at this triple interface are BME entrepreneurs—and the education necessary to participate at this interface takes place in entrepreneurial capstones.

VentureWell’s role is to stimulate and support opportunities for BME students to become innovators and entrepreneurs. VentureWell does this by supporting program activities that build innovation and entrepreneurship curriculum as well as engaging in grant-making and hosting competitions to support emerging student entrepreneurs.

In short, VentureWell believes an entrepreneurially inclined capstone experience can be a catalyst, providing students with the skills and attitudes needed to propel the innovation economy and help solve the world’s intractable problems. Faculty are confronted with a moral obligation to prepare students for the real world, and the capstone design course is poised to respond to that call.