Developing business acumen among STEM students

The 2018 Community College Innovation Challenge team from Oakton Community College pitches its project to judges of the competition. The "heat-recovering silencer" is truck muffler that reduces noise while recovering exhaust heat. (Photo: Bill Petrus Photography)

For many community college students aspiring to become science-based entrepreneurs, the business part of their innovations is a murky area. But there’s a national program to help them develop a better understanding of how to turn their prototypes into marketable products.

The Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC) returns this summer with the goal of providing selected teams of students and faculty who have worked on STEM-based solutions to real-world problems with experiences to help bring their ideas from the lab to the market.  Those experiences include expert advice about making “elevator” pitches, selling a story and understanding potential customers’ needs and preferences. The teams will be coached during a weeklong “boot camp” on how to present their projects before doing so at a special reception that will include invited members of Congress, White House staff and other top-level government officials.

March 31 is the deadline for college teams to apply for the 2020 Community College Innovation Challenge.

CCIC, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and managed by the American Association of Community Colleges, has served as a springboard for many students who previously participated in competition. A common kudo was the business education part of the program.

“The enriching workshops that we took part in taught us a lot and gave us a taste of how it would be in the industry and how to be successful in this competitive field,” said Shannon Coalson, who was a member of the team from Forsyth Technical Community College (North Carolina) that competed in 2016.

Among the takeaways for Audra Tenzeldam — whose squad from Laney College (California) developed a thermal electric solar water heater that they brought to the competition in 2018 — was becoming a better public speaker, honing her entrepreneurial skills and thinking logically about product development. The experience she gained through CCIC and other opportunities led her to study chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Value-added

Godfrey Ssenyonga agreed that the CCIC experience sharpened his business skills. Following the 2017 competition, the former Frederick Community College (Maryland) student joined Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine as an intern and later became a research associate/lab manager at a startup.

“CCIC helped me to channel my scientific ideas into business and attach scientific innovations into a more marketable and entrepreneurial concept,” said Ssenyonga, whose team tested using microbial fuel cells to generate power in emergencies.

He is currently working on his master’s degree in biotechnology and management at the University of Maryland, Global Campus.

Dallas Elleman draws in congressional members, staffers and others during his presentation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as part of the Community College Innovation Challenge. (Photo: NSF/Sandy Schaeffer)

For Dallas Elleman, a member of the 2015 team from Tulsa Community College whose project focused on sustainable aquaponic systems, CCIC helped him see that research must get out of the lab and into the real world in order to change lives.

“This process of translation involves communicating the value of scientific progress to real customers and stakeholders,” he said. “Effective communication requires skills that aren’t usually taught in science and engineering classrooms at university.”

On the right path

CCIC also helped Elleman to solidify his career path.

“Those experiences and conversations helped me understand the type of work I want to do and the kind of people I want to work with and have given me confidence in interacting with academics and professionals in a variety of settings, including interviews,” he said.

Elleman is currently a product development engineer and is working toward his degree in physics engineering at the University of Tulsa.

The experience also fueled Reavelyn Pray, a single mother of two who said she previously tended to doubt her abilities and ideas. Participating in CCIC — her Del Mar College (Texas) team won the challenge in 2017 with a product to slow down antibiotic resistance — was a “huge validation” and encouraged her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

“I do hope one day to use my passion to direct translational research and bring biotechnology to market for the greater good,” said Pray, who is also a research associate at the university.

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About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.