Creating Innovators, Not Companies: Measuring the Success of an Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship Course

Entrepreneurship Course Success; José Lugo and Mari Luz Zapata Ramos, faculty members at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, and their course

Design Thinking, Meet Business Savvy

“We are not creating startups or companies. We are creating innovators,” says José Lugo, associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM). Funded by a total of $50,000 in awards from VentureWell over two years, he and UPRM Professor Mari Luz Zapata Ramos created the New Venture Design Experience (NVDE), blending business and engineering in a one-year interdisciplinary program that explicitly seeks to develop a “culture of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship” on campus. And it’s working.

As a chemical engineering student, Maricely Ramírez-Hernández came up with new product designs all the time—but she wasn’t picturing a customer when she was creating her products, until she entered the NVDE program. “My team members with business backgrounds showed me the importance of understanding the user’s problem when inventing a product,” she says. “I’ve changed how I think about inventing by first listening to the customer’s pain points and challenges.”

Through NVDE, students receive support in developing products, services, or processes that have the potential for commercialization. Each team is assigned funds to develop prototypes, and they receive dedicated mentoring opportunities with professors and industry professionals within UPRM’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Ramírez-Hernández and her interdisciplinary team founded Burnflex, developing a novel burn wound dressing using a film-forming foam that is portable and easy to apply, enabling more patient mobility, protection against outside elements, and accelerated healing. Their professors encouraged them to apply for even more VentureWell resources, and Burnflex participated in both stages of the E-Team Program, Pioneer and Propel—which together provided $25,000 in funding, entrepreneurship training, and intensive mentorship—as well as GIST startup training. The team also won First Place at the OPENminds Innovator Showcase at the 2019 OPEN conference.

“We are not creating startups or companies. We are creating innovators.”—José Lugo, associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez

Ramírez-Hernández and the Burnflex team are just one example from a program that has now run for years and led to many success stories. “The support that we received from VentureWell was key to keeping the program going for so long,” says Zapata Ramos. “It also helped us on the administrative side,” adds Lugo. “It got us outside recognition, which helped us to offer more extracurricular activities. That’s another part that I will say that is as valuable as the funding itself.”

Applied Learning Leads to Job Opportunities

Entrepreneurship Course Success; Students at work in the NVDE classroom.
Students at work in the New Venture Design Experience classroom.

Students who enroll in NVDE gain hands-on access to the resources available at the E.P.I.C. Makerspace, UPRM’s first-ever makerspace, as well as tailored guidance in branding, intellectual property, and business models from contacts at the School of Law at UPRM. There’s even a two-day design challenge for teams to test their skills. Employers take notice of experiences like this.

“When our students started attending job fairs, they told us companies like Boeing would see their resume and ask about our course,” said Zapata Ramos. “They saw keywords: design thinking, consumer behavior, and a year’s worth of experience. Our students applied what they learned, and that was valuable for a company that was recruiting.”

Once a person learns how to innovate—learns that they can be an innovator—they will be an asset wherever they go. “Many of our students have gone on to work at startups, and they credited the experience that they had in the course to be able to apply to a job that’s not easy to get,” says Lugo. “It’s also a job that not everyone has the right mindset to get into.”

Zapata Ramos agrees, underscoring the need for preparing students to enter the workforce. “What you’re learning here with I&E—innovation and entrepreneurship—can definitely be implemented in other companies, and will make you a better asset for them,” she says. “I&E is not something that is a trend that will disappear. I believe that it’s something that hopefully will become more common, and it’s something that’s going to be adapted into many more fields.”

Growing a Campus-Wide Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

Entrepreneurship Course Success; Mari Luz Zapata Ramos leading a New Design Venture Experience class.
Mari Luz Zapata Ramos leading a New Design Venture Experience class.

Both Lugo and Zapata Ramos have presented their work at VentureWell’s annual OPEN conference for many years, always willing to share their successes—and failures—with higher education colleagues from across the U.S. In one of their most popular sessions, “F*ck Ideas: How To Innovate After the Failure of Ideation,” they collaborated with faculty from Lehigh University, Montclair State University, and the University of Washington to discuss why certain practices fail to advance I&E ecosystems in higher education. The session combined a panel discussion and a hands-on workshop activity that introduced a more effective method of fostering engagement on campus.

“We are seeing that shift in universities,” says Zapata Ramos. “Before, they used to prepare students to work for a company. Now, if you want to work for a company, that’s great—but if you want to create your own company, we are also giving you those tools. And the tools that you learn through I&E can be used either way.”

NVDE continues to produce innovators. Psychology students Alondra Toledo and Joel Josué Colón launched the startup UnderstHand in an effort to address communication gaps that create problems for the deaf community, a need they identified after a great deal of research. “We assumed many things about what the deaf community needs,” said Toledo. “We had done interviews and market studies. We were looking for solutions to a problem.”

Their innovation, an app for clinical psychologists to improve communication with deaf patients, eliminates the need for a third-party translator during private therapy sessions. “They developed an amazing product,” said Zapata Ramos. UnderstHand went on to win the student entrepreneur award sponsored by Entrepreneurs’ Organization Puerto Rico Chapter, which then allowed the team to travel to China and represent Puerto Rico in the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards competition, where they won the Innovation Award.

“VentureWell is a very unique bridge. I don’t think any other organization is helping at the level of VentureWell very early on,” says Lugo. “Once you have the ball rolling, you’re able to get pitch competitions and many other things. But I see VentureWell helping you in the first steps that are very critical to expanding an I&E ecosystem… I think that’s very unique and very, very helpful.”

Hear more from Lugo and Zapata Ramos on how VentureWell has supported their work shaping the I&E ecosystem on their campus:

Join the waitlist for OPEN 2025 to be the first to hear about the call for proposals, registration launch, schedule, special events, and more!

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Read More