Entrepreneurship for Humanity

Kevin Oye '79 is the executive director of the Tufts Gordon Institute, which fosters engineering leadership and provides venture opportunities through its Entrepreneurship Center. Professor Oye believes in business and technology for good.

Kevin Oye — Executive Director of Tufts Gordon Institute, Director of the MS in Innovation and Management program and Professor of the Practice — sat down with Abigail McFee '17 to share what entrepreneurship's impact is on engineering and how the two disciplines work in tandem to provide Tufts students a transformative experience. Read Kevin's insights from the September issue of Jumbo Engineer.

What distinguishes the Tufts approach to entrepreneurship?

At Tufts, we care about developing the entrepreneurial mindset in all our students than teaching them just the mechanics of startups or measuring our success by the number of startups they launch. It's more important to us that they discover how to find problems that matter, and develop the tools and agency to take action, risk failure, and persist even when challenged, knowing they can make a difference. We differentiate our approach to entrepreneurship in three ways:

  1. Rather than just focus on generating startups, we aspire to give every Tufts student the opportunity to experience the entrepreneurial mindset.
  2. We hire faculty who have deep industry experience.
  3. And, we take a very practical, hands-on, not theoretical, approach to teaching entrepreneurship, immersing our students in doing, not just studying, venturing launching.

You graduated from Tufts yourself with a BS in electrical engineering and then eventually returned as a faculty member. Could you speak about that journey?

It takes more than an understanding of technology to drive a successful technology business, especially during times of rapid change ... Becoming a trusted leader requires humility, empathy, and a deep appreciation for the richness a diverse group can bring to a creative enterprise... It was at Tufts that I first began to realize this when I took Jungian Interpretation of French Literature with Professor Seymour Simches. It was a remarkable class; through the lens of interpreting French literature with Jungian concepts, he conveyed the importance of seeing the uniqueness in every individual and the importance of encouraging and nurturing that uniqueness...as the bedrock for continuing creativity in society, whether it be the arts, sciences, government, or business. Tufts engineers today are fortunate to have access not only to top engineering and liberal arts faculty, classes, and research, but also top entrepreneurial and business faculty with deep industry experience. Taking classes far afield from their technology roots increases the probability they'll run into ideas and people they did not expect, which can be the sources of the deepest insights into oneself, other people, and the world we live in. By developing their people skills as well as technology skills, they'll be more than great engineers, they'll be great engineering leaders. The world needs leaders who are steeped both in technology and business skills, with deep sensitivity to humanity, to ensure we do great good, and not great evil, with all the emerging technologies. What better place to start this journey than at Tufts?

What opportunities are available to students through the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center?

Photo of MSIM Winners in the 2019 Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition holding large checks
Winners of the Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition come from across the university including the MSIM program.

Over 500 undergraduates a year take one of our entrepreneurship classes and over 100 complete the requirements for an undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship, making it the most popular undergraduate minor at Tufts. Besides offering classes on a variety of topics, from startup launching to marketing and finance to leadership, the TEC also hosts a number of co-curricular events, including workshops and weekly venture cafes featuring entrepreneurs, many of them Tufts alumni, sharing their wisdom and stories. A variety of pitch contests, hackathons, and the annual school-wide $100k New Ventures Competition, give students multiple opportunities to learn and practice the entrepreneurial mindset and skillset.

Along with Professor James Intriligator (Mechanical Engineering) and Professor Chris Swan (Civil and Environmental Engineering), you co-taught a course on commercializing research. How do engineering and business go hand-in-hand?

It takes more than having a great technical idea to impact society. The technology has to be applied to a tough problem in a more compelling way than existing approaches. Discovering how to translate research into applied solutions, and building a viable business model that is scalable and financially investable, is what we cover in our commercializing research class. It's been a joy co-teaching this class with James and Chris, as we each bring unique and complementary perspectives, and can be great facilitators and sounding boards for our students, helping them discover within themselves the confidence and creativity to translate research into societal impact.

In partnership with the Tisch College of Civic Life, the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center has created a new minor in entrepreneurship for societal impact. Could you speak to its purpose?

As the world is changing so rapidly, we need people in large and small organizations, for-profit and nonprofit, governments and NGOs, who see the world with fresh eyes and take the risks to experiment with new ideas, knowing they may fail many times before they succeed, but [who are] confident they will converge faster and with higher quality solutions to our biggest challenges. The new entrepreneurship for social impact minor gives students the opportunity to develop and apply the entrepreneurial mindset to social issues. It's a powerful combination.

Is there a particular story that stands out to you of Tufts engineer-entrepreneurs making an impact?

Alex Rappaport graduated from Tufts in 2017 with an undergraduate degree in environmental/environmental health engineering and a minor in entrepreneurship. He then enrolled in the Master of Science in Innovation and Management program (MSIM) at the Gordon Institute where he connected with chemical engineering Professor Ayse Asatekin who had recently developed a new patented membrane filter technology that had the unique property that it didn't clog. Working with a team of other MSIM graduate students, Alex reached out and did over 100 interviews across multiple industries to discover opportunities to leverage the technology into industrial water treatment applications that are superior to existing filtration methods while also lower cost, and longer-lasting. In the spring of 2018, the team entered the Tufts $100k New Venture Competition where they captured first place in the technology track and received their first investor inquiry. Within months of completing his MSIM degree, Alex launched ZwitterCo, raised over $1.2M, and is now in the midst of entering pilot trails and closing a multimillion-dollar investment round. It's a wonderful example of a Tufts engineering student combining his engineering technology skills with his entrepreneurial mindset ... to build a company that translates leading-edge research into a venture that will have great positive impact on society. He is a role model as we build a worldwide community of transformative leaders, with heart.

Read more perspectives and insights across the School of Engineering in September's issue of Jumbo Engineer.