Confessions from engineers who have made it in the business world

It is not hard to name engineers who have built their ideas into a prosperous business. What does it take to do this?

From Henry Ford to Bill Gates to Elon Musk and, closer to home, Atlassian founders Mike Cannon-Brooks and Scott Farquhar, there are ample cases to suggest that engineers and technologists can make super-successful company founders and leaders.

So, do engineers make good entrepreneurs? Anyone can make a good entrepreneur, said Professor (Emeritus) and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Innovation Adviser Roy Green. The essential element is a viable product, based on good research, and which can be commercialised.

“An engineer or technologist has a head start in that respect because they understand product development,” said Green, who will moderate a panel discussion titled ‘The Genius of Naivety’ on 19 September at the Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney.

“But in order to translate a product into a market opportunity, other skills are also necessary.”

Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin is the Founder and CEO of startup accelerator BlueChilli and has won the EY Entrepreneur of The Year (Emerging category). His resume includes 10 years as a weapons engineer in the Royal Australian Navy.

BlueChilli founder and CEO Sebastian Eckersley-Maslin.

Asked if members of his profession make good entrepreneurs, he tells create: “I think engineers do make really strong, good leaders, but that’s only one of the characteristics that they require to be a successful entrepreneur.

“Also, engineers are fantastic problem solvers, and it’s that active problem solving which I think can make them amazing entrepreneurs.”

Without guidance, however, they can sometimes suffer from ‘The Developer’s Dilemma’. They might be in love with their idea though without an understanding of their end user. Building things to solve problems is in their DNA, and when there are problems they might just keep adding technology.

“Their instinct is to go back to what they know, which is to build, and they add more features or tweak the services or whatever,” Eckersley-Maslin said.

“You end up in this horrible loop, where you just keep adding more stuff. And you end up building massive, monolithic structures that no one is buying.”

He advocates the well-known Lean Startup methodology to avoid this possible trap.


Need for speed


Byron Kennedy, CEO and co-founder of SPEE3D, is commercialising an additive manufacturing method using robotics to spray metal powders at supersonic speeds to build parts. It officially launched at Formnext in Germany last November and has received orders within Australia and from the US, Germany and Singapore.

SPEE3D is combining robotics and 3D printing.

He and co-founder Steve Camilleri previously spun out In Motion electric motors from Charles Darwin University, selling this to a division of Regal Beloit. He believes entrepreneurship is “just chasing your dream or your passion” and an entrepreneur can come from any disciplinary background.

“However, what engineering does is give you the skillset to solve technical challenge. What we do on a day-to-day basis is to have a particular engineering challenge,” he explains, adding that his and Camilleri’s profession helps in systematically breaking a project into smaller problems.

“When we started on the printer, for instance, we broke it into 10 separate elements and we ran Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) on each of those and you could ultimately see where you had to spend your time. One was already a four – happy with it. But is that one a zero? We’ve got to put a bit more time into that zero, at least get it up to a one or something like that. We put a lot of process thinking into solving these problems.”

Engineering skills give the founders the ability to understand a range of possible solutions. Other, entrepreneurial skills, says Kennedy, allow them to pick out the most realistic solution based on constraints (financial, technological and other) and risks, before proceeding.


Robo rehab


UTS students Rowan Smith and Thirunisha Thirumurugan are at an earlier stage in their entrepreneurial journey.

Smith picked a ‘Robotic Rehabilitation’ option during the Summer Studio program. He did so following his grandmother suffering a stroke in late-2017, and rehab being “a pretty crap process”.

As Tech Gym, the two students are developing two solutions, one to assist rebuilding upper body strength and the other involving musical games to recover hand and finger strength.

“We are definitely still in the stage of looking for a mentor on a start-up level: we haven’t quite found that yet,” Smith said.

Robotic assistance to help manipulate a patient’s arms also addresses physical issues for physiotherapists. Smith says they train five years for a job that they leave after seven years on average, due to work injuries.

One of the first steps in developing Smith’s and Thirumurugan’s ideas was to hear what the UTS physiotherapy researchers’ problems were. Though the venture is a promising one – the pair won a recent university pitching competition and will present at the Virginia Tech Global Entrepreneur Challenge Competition in August – they are always looking to potential end users for guidance.

Roy Green says engineers understand product development, and therefore make excellent business leaders.

“The big part that we need is mentors to push us in the right direction of the medical field, because both Nisha and I are mechanical and mechatronic engineers, so our medical understanding is quite limited,” he said.

“We just want to build robots.”

Asked if engineering students should be exposed to entrepreneurial thinking before graduation, Eckersley-Maslin said yes, though he added every engineer should be an entrepreneur or vice versa.

“But I do think a healthy understanding of the two worlds is important for people to make an informed decision if that pathway is for them, or they want to go and work for a high-tech, high-growth company,” he said.

According to a survey by Smith’s university, a significant proportion of students (40 per cent) are seeking an entrepreneurial element to be taught through their degree. As featured in the March 2017 issue of create magazine, the university began offering an MBA in Entrepreneurship (MBAe) with other Australian universities also offering new post-grad degrees with an entrepreneurial bent.

As with Eckersley-Maslin, Green believes students, including those in engineering, should be exposed to entrepreneurial ideas as a matter of course.

“Not all of them of course will necessarily end up creating a business. But even if they didn’t, wherever they work they’ll take an entrepreneurial mindset with them,” says Green.

“And not just a technological mindset or managerial mindset. They would have a much broader approach to whatever problems and challenges might be facing them.”

What are the skills young engineers need to succeed in business? What can existing businesses do to stay on top of current trends? Roy Green will share his insights at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney 17-19 September. To learn more and to register, click here

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