SEASON 2, EPISODE 2
CES 2020 Tom Miller, NCSU PT II
We continue our interview with Tom Miller, Senior Vice Provost at NC State University about entrepreneurship culture to innovate and programs fostering business-building environment at North Carolina State University
About This Episode
Announcer: 00:00 You’re listening to Trade Show Live On the Road, featuring conversations with the people who bring trade shows to life, including attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, and trade show industry thought leaders. We attend trade shows around the country in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to consumer products, and everything in between. The podcast is a production of the Trade Show Manager, a trade show consulting firm. And now let’s go On the Road with Trade Show Live.
Janet: 00:27 Welcome to Trade Show Live On the Road. This podcast is production of a Trade Show Manager and features an in depth look at the people, companies and organizations that bring trade shows to life. We are headed back to CES in 2020 the Trade Show Manager has assembled an exciting group of North Carolina based startups and organizations. We’ll be in Eureka Park. This is the home of some of the most exciting ideas for startups and new companies from around the globe. With me on the podcast is Tom Miller. He’s the senior vice provost at North Carolina State University. He’s also the executive director for NC State entrepreneurship program. We’ve already had one conversation talking really about the overview of the ecosystem of entrepreneurship at NC State and I encourage you to listen to that podcast. However, what we want to talk about now is specifically the kinds of startups that are coming out and some exciting new ideas. So Tom, welcome to the podcast.
Tom: 01:28 Hi Janet. Thank you for having me back.
Janet: 01:30 It’s my great pleasure. Well we had so much to talk about. We had to have two conversations and that’s because we wanted to talk literally about how does a startup get going and kind of move on out and grow up and out of NC State. So tell me a little bit about what you do in your role as the executive director for NC State entrepreneurship.
Tom: 01:53 NC State, like all universities is a very decentralized bottom-up organization. I actually work in the provost office. I’m a faculty member in electrical and computer engineering, but work in the provost office. I have been for several years now. And the provost is the chief academic officer overall, the academic elements of the university. So all the colleges, all the deans report to the provost. And so having that university wide responsibility is part of my responsibility and the entrepreneurship piece is just one role that I play in the provost office and it’s one that is a personal passion. So as I’ve taken on more and more administrative roles in the provost office, I said, you know, my one non-negotiable is I want to continue working with student entrepreneurs. And so really what I do is build programs that are across the university that support entrepreneurship primarily for students. I work closely with the office of research commercialization that supports faculty research, entrepreneurship, but you know, working together, we’re trying to a strong culture of entrepreneurship and leveraging a very strong past the history of entrepreneurship at NC State.
Janet: 03:08 I think one of the interesting things we mentioned in the earlier podcast is that this is not something new. This literally has been going on for decades, that businesses have been coming out of NC State and then fostered there. The ideas were founded there or they literally grew up and off the campus because they were too big naming Red Hat and SAS for instance. But the history goes back even farther than that.
Tom: 03:34 It certainly has been the strong culture here and the long history. SAS is one that I always point to that from the 1970s, I believe originated here in the statistics department and grew up really before the campus was sort of thinking about entrepreneurship or embracing it. I don’t think it was actually an easy road for them. In fact, it was, okay, well if you want to do this, if you want to commercialize this, you should probably do it outside of the university. So they set up shop on Hillsborough street, cross from campus and I grew the company there. I had a lot of success. Now have a very large campus and carry and have become the largest privately held software company in the world, which is pretty amazing. Red Hat was not founded by NC State alumni, but actually NC State was very involved in the startup of Red Hat.
Tom: 04:28 I knew Bob young, the founder before he started Red Hat. In fact, he reached out to me. He was selling software that I had created an accompany that ran on Linux and he was playing around with that, called me up one day and said, Hey Tom I think Linux is going to be a big thing. I said, I did too Bob, what are you going to do about it? He said, well, he said, you know, all the work on Linux has been people all over the world that are working together virtually through email and file sharing to build all the software. He said, I think it’d be really cool to get them all together in one place and have some kind of meeting or symposium or expo – expo is what he called it – and I said, that sounds great. That’s a good idea.
Tom: 05:14 He said, I think NC State would be a great place to do it. And he said, there’s a lot of Linux activity around NC State, around the triangle region, so we actually held, I think it was 1994 maybe I might be getting that original date wrong, but it might’ve been a little bit earlier than that. The world’s first Linux expo here on the NCCA campus in the atrium at the college of textiles. And the reason we held it there was because Bob didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any money. We needed a place that would hold a lot of people for no money. And so, so I helped them get the space. We had a party at my house the night before for all the people that came in from out of town. I said, Hey Bob, this is looking like a success. What are you going to do now?
Tom: 05:59 And he said, you know, I think I’m going to move to Raleigh team up with Mark Ewing, see if we can turn the Red Hat software distribution into a real company. And then of course, you know, it was just recently sold to IBM for $34 billion and has become, you know, a cornerstone of the technology ecosystem in North Carolina. So, kind of an interesting story there. So, yes, there’s been a long history there and you know, it continues on. And another great example of a company that that came out of NC State locally and went public is CREE doing the, the LEDs. They actually started out in doing some other semiconductor products, but LEDs turned out to be the big thing and they went public, but they were very much a startup of the founders. I actually want mortgage your house and maxed out their credit cards to get the company off the ground. And so another cornerstone company coming out of NC State, very much an entrepreneurial startup starting from nothing and turning into something very significant. So yeah, we do have a history there.
Janet: 07:03 Well, what a name dropper you are.
Tom: 07:06 You know, it’s been fun to be involved in all this stuff over the years.
Janet: 07:11 Trying to set that high bar of billion dollar valuation companies. That isn’t necessarily where the focus is. And you, gee whiz, you launched 21 companies just in 2019 not all of them have that potential, but they still can be very successful businesses.
Tom: 07:30 Yeah. My personal goal is not starting billion dollar companies. Well of course it’s great when it happens. It’s great for the economy. It’s great for the founders. That’s great for North Carolina and we want that to happen. But my goal is really to help instill that entrepreneurial mindset in our students to learn what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in a safe sandbox. I mean, our whole philosophy is experiential learning. It’s entrepreneurship is, and this wasn’t my analogy, but I use it a lot, is like swimming. I mean, you can read in a book about how to swim, but you’re never going to learn how to swim until you jump into the pool. And so our garage, our entrepreneurship clinic, our entrepreneurship, living learning village are, in effect, swimming pools for entrepreneurs as students.
Janet: 08:17 Well, let me ask you something about that analogy though. I think that anybody who gets into a pool should be able to learn how to swim. But anybody be an entrepreneur?
Tom: 08:28 I think anybody can be an entrepreneur. I think that a lot of people think that they want to be an entrepreneur and when they find out how hard it is, they don’t lock to follow through with it. I talked to people who say, you know, I’ve got this great idea and I think it could make $1 billion and you know, they want somebody else to do all the work or they don’t realize that ideas are really almost worthless. Ideas are a dime a dozen. I’m taking those ideas and executing them is what is critical and that follow through that passion, getting knocked down and getting back up and continuing on is hard, but that’s what makes an entrepreneur successful.
Janet: 09:06 Yeah, I agree. Absolutely. Sometimes there are people who don’t even realize they have an entrepreneurial bent because they didn’t come from that background. That’s maybe not where their family, I had experience and I think the interesting thing about you mentioned about the safe sandbox is that there are people who just need exposure to it and the ability to try their wings before they ready to fly.
Tom: 09:32 Yeah. Can I give you an example? I’m kind of, I’m kind of proud of this one because this was a student from about 10 years ago, that there’s an article about them today in the triangle business journal has company just got a seed round of funding for four point $7 million. This student, Hersh Tapadia, participated in the engineering entrepreneurs program when he was student here. And he got so excited, enthusiastic. He told me one day, said, I was going through NC State, I was doing my classes, I was going to get my degree is that I really was not enthusiastic. I didn’t know what I was going to do, wasn’t excited about anything until I got involved in this program. And then, you know, got really engaged. She started doing startups. He had many failures out of school, but he stuck with it. Now he’s on a good success trajectory in $4.7 million of funding and poised to grow both locally and in Texas with his company. And it’s just so rewarding to see that and to know that planting that seed with that entrepreneurial culture in that safe sandbox experience. I had that kind of impact and led to the success you see in today.
Janet: 10:45 You know, I wonder sometimes about, we live in ACC territory here and there are a lot of very talented young basketball players who sometimes don’t finish their degrees because the lure of going on to pro ball is really strong. But that problem with entrepreneurs or are they very dedicated to finishing their degrees along with launching their companies?
Tom: 11:08 You know, we do see that problem and it is often the most brilliant and creative students. We’re getting better at it, but our curriculum are fairly prescriptive and not all that flexible and a lot of circumstances. And so the students get bored easily that are most creative and have the greatest ideas. They are not very tolerant of that. And I’ve had a number of students over the years that are absolutely beyond brilliant that didn’t finish their degrees and have gone on to tremendous entrepreneurial success, tremendous corporate success and are very engaged. And we’ve very much embraced them as alumni and bring them back to talk the students. But I do wish they had their degrees and in many cases they do too. And frankly I’m hoping that some of these programs that we’re putting into place here at NC State will give them the opportunities and things that they would not have access to otherwise and will be a good reason for them to stay and finish their degree.
Janet: 12:13 Now I understand you have a program at NC State called the co-op programs so that most students who are certainly in engineering would think about, it’s going to be a five year degree, not a four year degree because they take a summer or a semester and they go out and work in the real world and get some experience there. Now that tends to be paid. Those aren’t, they aren’t working for free, are they?
Tom: 12:36 No, they’re not working for free and certainly then engineering students in particular and very high demand and so they’re free internships or free co ops are not something that they would do. In fact, the coop office I don’t think would support that.
Janet: 12:51 Okay, so can they work on their own business idea or does it have to be an external company that they work with?
Tom: 12:58 Well, not as a coop. I mean, they’re not going to get paid to work on their own business idea. Now we give them access. You know, if they’re here, students enrolled as they want to work on their companies over the summer, they can certainly do that. We actually have a couple of programs that are in place for students who are graduating that allow them to continue working on their, their companies, their ideas. One is the Miller fellows program, which is a six month program after graduation where we pay what I call rent and ramen noodles money. It’s enough money to kind of pay your rent and keep you in ramen noodles so that you don’t have to go out and get a job immediately after graduation if you want to continue working in your startup. And we’ve had some really good successes there. We have another program called the Andrews accelerator program, which was funded by a grant from one of our board of trustees members who is big on entrepreneurship. And that is a three month intensive summer program for students that want to continue their, their startups to help them really get their, their ventures ready to accept funding. So, you know, we do have a couple,
Janet: 14:06 Oh excellent. Well I think that’s really the key for a lot of students, as many of them work in different ways. They are fostered in different environments and they need different types of encouragement and support. So it sounds like you’ve built a quite a very program to support your entrepreneurs.
Tom: 14:24 We try to think of it as a pipeline and I guess that’s my, you know, my engineering thinking is that we’re bringing students in the front end. So we have outreach programs there and you know, we’re, we’re trying to raise awareness through our, our rankings and the Princeton review for entrepreneurship. And I’ve talked to a number of students. They’ve said they’ve, they’ve decided to come to NC State for that reason, that they see us as as one that’s very involved in entrepreneurship. So that’s on the front end. Then we have all the programs that we’ve talked about with the garage, the living learning village, the clinic, et cetera for students here. And then you know, we’ve also tried to continue that pipeline for students on the way out. That involves things like the Miller fellows, the Andrews accelerator, the relationship with HQ Raleigh, and we’ve built a very strong alumni entrepreneurs, not work in conjunction with the alumni association. And I neglected to mention a very important program called the Wolf pack investors network, which is an angel investment group that has over the past couple of years invested about $11 million and NC State related startups. So all those are part of the ecosystem, kind of all those components to make that ecosystem grow and thrive.
Janet: 15:36 All right, so looking ahead, to the future, what do you wish you could be doing or what’s coming down the pipe that you’re really excited about that would enhance this program and the opportunities for students?
Tom: 15:49 Well, I think, you know, we’re going to continue to build our programs, we’re trying to look at where we are weak and need more resources. I want to build more programs to support faculty, not in the research component of entrepreneurship, those elements are kind of already there, but faculty who want to incorporate entrepreneurship into their teaching, into their curricula to help them sort of build those skills and resources to do that. We’re working to increase the number of scholarships that we have for students that want to participate in entrepreneurship. I think that one’s very important because so many of our students work part time and if they had a scholarship that would allow them to work in their ventures as opposed to going out and getting a job at Starbucks or whatever to support their schoolwork, you know, that would be a great thing. So we’re working to build in that area as well. So those are some of the key things. One other I should mention is that NC State is in the process of working on a plan to develop a 32 acre innovation district on Centennial campus. And I think that will be the next stop for the garage and HQ Centennial and we’ll build more capacity to bring together startup companies from the real world and the university and, and that kind of environment. So those are big things that are on the horizon.
Janet: 17:08 Holy cow. Where are you hoarding 32 acres in downtown Raleigh?
Tom: 17:12 Yes, it’s, it’s 32 acres right next to the Dix Park property. So it’s a very, very coveted piece of real estate. I know our chancellor wants to put it to its highest and best use and he is very much supportive of this idea of innovation entrepreneurship. So that will, you know, figure prominently, I believe in the innovation district build out
Janet: 17:36 Well that is so exciting and it bodes well for not just NC State and your program, but of course for Raleigh and the triangle as a whole, it will definitely solidify our role as a tech town. In case you saw the news this week about Raleigh being number four in the nation by TechTown. So that’s pretty exciting stuff, too.
Tom: 17:59 We’re excited about it.
Janet: 18:00 Well Tom, we look forward to seeing you at CES 2020 stopping by the Trade Show Live booth in Eureka Park where we’re going to be with other North Carolina startups and innovators and looking at what’s new globally in the startup world or the consumer electronic show. And I look forward to seeing you in just a few weeks.
Tom: 18:22 Thanks, Janet. I’m looking forward to it as well. I’ll see you there.
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