As an engineer, you must constantly hear that engineering degrees will allow for an extremely diverse field of careers from which to choose. You are also constantly taught engineers need to be able to understand complex problems and solve them considering all real world variables. Well if you do not quite believe this yet, the Innovation Accelerator will prove it to you. The IA will give you the opportunity to apply your engineering training to unexpected real world problems as you work directly with the senior management and leading engineers of start-up companies.
At the IA, engineers are forced to think past normal x and y variables. The IA hands out semester- or summer-long projects that consist of working with a technical start-up company in order to provide recommendations for their future growth. These projects do not only require technical analysis and understanding, but also the ability to integrate technical solutions with efficient business models.
Students work in teams of three or four made up of students of diverse backgrounds including MBA students, PhD’s in technical and non-technical fields, and undergraduates from various disciplines. Each multi-discipline group is free to take command of their individual project and take it into the direction they choose. The advising professors only give advice and motivate a group to do their best, but giving direction is just not part of their job description. The groups must come up with their own plan, collect their own information through primary and secondary investigation, analyze their findings, and be able to then make confidant recommendations to the client. Most of the time engineering or science students will know more about the science of the projects than the advisors so it is the group’s responsibility to make sure that all claims made are backed by research and are industry-viable.
Living up to theses responsibilities means long hours, hard work, and good team interaction. Understanding a problem at hand, grasping the details, and then being able to plan a strategy is a process that must go well for a successful IA experience. This process includes learning the frustrating “art” of primary research while fighting to gather information. Unlike school reports, no one professor or book has all the answers. Whole days will go by waiting for e-mail replies or tied to the phone on interviews, yet students will be able to gather unique information from leading researchers, company leaders, and entrepreneurs. That is the easy part. Taking all the information and coming up with fact-based conclusions and recommendations will take a lot of deep breathing during the hours in the conference room with your team.
All this hard work is necessary to be able to stand in front of the CEO and other corporate leaders, not as students, but as business peers. Weekly phone conferences with your client contribute to the constant pressure to provide concrete results. The group presents the initial work and the expected deliverables to the client at a mid-semester tollgate, or presentation, and many times the group can get in trouble by promising too much. A final tollgate, and an over 30-page recommendation report with tons of research data attached, allows the student direct influence over the decisions of client company leaders. This client interaction is priceless in learning the unwritten rules of effective business communication.
The IA experience for engineers can be enlightening as it exposes them to business variables that dominate markets for the type of technical products they one day may be designing. Variables such as product competition, customer dynamics, market viabiltity, and others will be added to the list of business concepts that students become familiar with. The projects will also require not just the understanding of the problems and solutions, but the ability to express that understanding to others in a clear and convincing manner. If nothing else, presentation skills will be refined after hours of dry run practicing and coaching from the faculty. The IA is truly a crash course in critical thinking, team work, and deliverable-based planning which will teaches the business savvy that no classroom offers.
No other class, and very few internships, will teach you as much and hand you the skills and knowledge that will continue to help you in your career. In my personal experience, the IA has been largely responsible for helping me get other internships as well as a full-time job with a leading engineering and consulting company.
If you are looking for that experience that will take you out of the classroom seat and throw you into the real world pressures, challenges, and expectations, than IA is for you.