Season 2, Episode 1
CES 20 Tom Miller, NCSU PT I
An 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 the Trade Show Live.
Janet: 00:27 Welcome to Trade Show Live On the Road. This podcast is a production of the Trade Show Manager and features an in-depth look at the people, companies, and organizations that bring trade shows to life. We have headed again 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, The home of some of the most exciting ideas from around the globe with me today on the podcast is Tom Miller. He’s the senior vice provost at North Carolina state university. We are going to talk about the NC state entrepreneurship initiative and some of the amazing startups that are coming from NC State. Tom, welcome to the podcast.
Tom: 01:11 Thank you Janet, and happy to be here.
Janet: 01:13 Now as a Senior Vice Provost, that sounds like a very important position, but I can tell by your bio you’ve certainly earned it. You are a startup entrepreneur of the first order.
Tom: 01:28 Well I earned it. I guess I did earn it. I’ve been at NC State for 37 years now, 37 plus years. I started in 1982 as an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering and was doing teaching, research, all of those sorts of things. Actually that’s when my interest in entrepreneurship really started. It was the early eighties and I was in computer engineering was the new program where we’re building here at NC State. As a part of, you know, going from electrical engineering to electrical and computer engineering. And I was one of the new faculty that brought in to sort of help make that transition. And those were kind of the go-go days of the young upstart entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Microsoft with the IBM PC. And then, of course, the Apple computer that was all in the news.
Tom: 02:24 And some of the students that I worked with back in those early days as an assistant professor, you know, would come to my office – I have an open-door policy – and said, you can come and talk about anything you want. It doesn’t have to be what’s on the next test or the homework, et cetera. And so that actually led to some of the students come in and talking to me about what they wanted to do with their life, their dreams, their aspirations. And it was very interesting because as a computer engineer or electrical engineer, you can go to school, get a degree, get a job very easily at a big company at that time you could count working for 30 years, getting your go watch, nice retirement living happily ever after. But then some of these kids, they, they didn’t have that mindset. They wanted to be the next Steve Jobs.
Tom: 03:11 The next Bill Gates. They wanted to, you know, they were playing around with computers and wanted to do something big with them. I thought that was very interesting and I gave them support and encouragement, I guess when there were not many people here that thought that that was a proper thing to do at the university. I did. And so, you know, I guess through that support and encouragement, I had some students that went on and really fulfill those dreams. I had a couple of students in the early eighties that launched one of the first email companies. That was when the PCs first became networked. They launched an email company called da Vinci systems, which grew to be, I believe the third largest email company in the world when they sold it 10 years later. That was when they were here as students in their dorm room.
Tom: 04:02 It’s pretty amazing and I’ve been in touch with them ever since. But that and other experiences of how long, the way it made me realize that we should be doing a lot more for our students at NC State, that it had those entrepreneurial dreams and aspirations. It’s one of the things, it’s not easy. It’s a lot easier if you can learn some lessons in the safe sandbox of the university as opposed to the school of hard knocks. So I guess from that point on it became a sort of a passion of mine to support students that had these dreams and aspirations. You know, that led to from doing things informally way back then to doing things more formally as my career moved forward.
Janet: 04:47 Now NC State is a huge university with a lot of different disciplines. Do you find those that it was engineering computer science where people were pushing to become entrepreneurs or did you get a sense that what was happening really in all of the disciplines in the university?
Tom: 05:05 Universities are large and just distributed and often somewhat siloed. So the disciplines don’t necessarily talk to each other a whole lot. So my experience was really within the computer engineering realm. But in 1993, I actually got some funding from the national science foundation to start this thing called the engineering entrepreneurs program. And it was really to sort of help drive the engineering curriculum for the 21st century. You know, at that point in time, the whole thing of the safe and secure big corporate job of 30 years was kind of going away and students were having to take more and more responsibility for their own careers. And I started this in engineering and I actually made it open to as many engineering departments as would accept the credit for it. And started with my home department, but grew. But here’s the interesting thing.
Tom: 06:01 When you talk about across the university and the engineering entrepreneurs program, the students would be doing a senior design project. They would come up with their own ideas, you know, based on their knowledge that they’ve gained over their academic career and problems that they’d seen out in the world. Maybe when they were doing co-ops or things like that that they thought they might be able to solve, create a product to solve that somebody would be willing to buy. You know, that’s what entrepreneurship is all about. It’s making innovation sustainable through, you know, some kind of business or sustainable business model. And what I found was that the students that were really clever and creative there, when they came up with their ideas, they would realize that they did not have all the answers as engineers and they would go out and recruit students from other disciplines to join their team and contribute their knowledge and skills and background to whatever problem they were trying to solve.
Tom: 07:00 And I found that the teams that had students from different disciplines, I actually had more energy, more enthusiasm, or coming up with more creative ideas than the ones that were just purely, you know, within one engineering discipline. Not to say that there weren’t good and bad ideas on both sides, but, but there was really something to that. And so that program that I started in 93 it’s still very robust now. I’m not directly involved because of my administrative responsibilities, but what happened in 2008 was I was in the provost office at that time. I became a vice provost in 2000 and actually the chance of the provost came to me and said, Hey, we’d like to see NC state doing something university-wide and entrepreneurship. Would you be interested in leading that effort? And I said, I absolutely would because of my experience with those early, you know, teams and the engineering entrepreneurs program that included students from across the university.
Tom: 08:02 And that really formed the foundation of some of the ideas that we’ve really carried forward over the past us 2008 so 11 years now with things like the entrepreneurs garage, the upright entrepreneurs, living-learning village and other programs that really are designed not just for one discipline, but to incorporate students from all disciplines across the university, graduate, undergraduate. One of the core ideas that we like to talk about is this idea of beneficial collisions. We want students to not be sort of placed into teams or forced into situations if you’re going to do this, but let them find it on their own. And so creating environments like the entrepreneur’s garage that all students can apply and become members of bringing together from all different disciplines with one common interest. That is innovation. Entrepreneurship though they meet in the garage, they start talking, they share ideas, some have ideas about business, some have knowledge and skills, but not necessarily the idea, but you put all these things together and magic starts to happen. So yeah, that idea of breaking down the silos and bringing students together from across the university and faculty as well has been sort of a core to what we’ve built over the past 11 years at NC State.
Janet: 09:27 I’m very interested in the garage concept. Is it something like in the North Carolina area, we have something called HQ Raleigh, which is a place where a lot of businesses can start and it can be collaborative around the coffee pod. Is it a place where people gather to work on ideas or is there something more formal in training and in pulling people together? Do you have programming you have teaching about, Hey, here’s a patent lawyer or here’s somebody to talk about, you know, how to do budgeting?
Tom: 09:58 Yeah, we, we definitely have those things, and it’s, it’s there… There is certainly a tight relationship with HQ Raleigh. We’ve known and worked with those folks since their beginning and me actually now, I mean it’s very exciting that in July we’re on the third iteration of the garage. Now. We started in 2010 but in July, just of this year, we have opened a brand new space on Centennial campus that puts the garage co-located with a new instance of HQ, Raleigh. I think they have four facilities in Raleigh now and one in Greensboro. So they’ve grown very dynamically. But you know, as part of that beneficial collisions idea, we wanted the students not just to be working with other students and faculty within the academic community, but also engaging with the real world entrepreneurs. Again, that’s been something that has been our dream and our idea since the very beginning of the garage concept and it’s finally come to reality.
Tom: 10:55 So the HQ part is definitely something very new there now. It’s not new, the relationship. We actually have another program that was started by Lulu sheets and the poor college management called the entrepreneurship clinic in which he’s taken groups of students to HQ, Raleigh, downtown and sort of embedded teams of students with the startups to help them work on a particular problem that they may be having. It depends on the company, the skills of the students, et cetera. But you know, the common theme I guess is experiential learning. You ask about programs, the clinic is definitely a formalized program. They get course credit for that. There’s no course credit for the garage. That is a place where people to come together. And like I said, we don’t really want to force those collisions to want them just to happen randomly. We think that’s the best way for new ideas to really spark.
Tom: 11:50 But we do have a lot of programming there, have, we call it startup essentials where, you know, we’ll invite a member of the entrepreneurial community or an IP attorney or an accountant to come and give sort of a lunch presentation there and the students can ask questions and so on. We actually have four more classes in the garage as well. Some of the colleges of management entrepreneurship core classes are taught there. And again, that that’s a thing that gets, you know, some of the business students in the space, their home building is way on the other side of campus and it’s a large campus. So having the classes there in the garage gets the students mixing together a lot more than they might if we didn’t have, you know, those kinds of proactive approaches.
Janet: 12:36 You know, I was very active in Startup Weekend for about seven or eight different sessions. And one of the things that I thought was kind of interesting is that you know, entrepreneurs come in all sizes, shapes and definitely ages. And I think they actually say that the average age of a business startup is closer to 40 than one would assume 22 but what happens is, I’ve seen the 40-year-old come in knowing he needed something that he did not have the technical skills for, but Oh gosh, look at that fresh meat, look at all those students there. And I could definitely see folks going after these kids trying to bring them in and honestly treat them as free labor. And I wondered in your programming, do you ever help them understand how not to be taken advantage of and how to evaluate the value of their time against the potential of the business idea?
Tom: 13:34 We do. I spent a fair amount of time on one, one on one mentoring with students and you know, I have a, I have a six-person staff and they all, you know, have some background in business or entrepreneurship and technology in some cases. And yes, they all will mentor the students and help them understand these things. It doesn’t happen a whole lot that people come in and try to take advantage of the students. And, and I strongly discourage it. In fact, I react quite negatively to it if, you know, someone says, Oh, we want to come into the garage because they’re students there and they’ll work for free or they’ll do, you know, unpaid internships and things like that. Now I’m not really interested in that. If you want to mentor them and give them ice and help them with their ideas and their projects, that’s great. I do not like it when folks from the outside think that they can take advantage of students. But like I said, I don’t see a whole lot of that. I have seen it a few times and we’ve won’t give you any names of course, but we’ve kinda got a list of people that we keep away from the students.
Janet: 14:37 Well, one thing young people know how to do is that’s ghost somebody.
Tom: 14:40 Yeah, true. True.
Janet: 14:44 Well, I’d like to know a little bit more about what are your big plans are for the university. I mean it’s so big. Your spaces are being, you’ve got a lot of students involved. It really sounds like huge management and organizational challenge.
Tom: 14:59 It’s a challenge in a way. But let me tell you, it’s one of the things that we’re trying to do is not, not try to do anything top-down. In fact, at the university, that’s very hard to do anyway. I mean, I can come from the faculty side. It’s on the, you know, you always hear the expression hurting cats and that’s the term that definitely applies to university faculty. They do their own thing. You don’t really tell them what to do. And frankly, that’s a good thing in my case because if I had not taken it on myself to work on the side, the of building, the entrepreneurial culture might’ve never happened cause nobody was gonna tell me that’s what I should do. But we took an approach and this happened out of a few conversations about four years ago, and I guess sort of the big players in entrepreneurship on campus, the college of engineering and the college of management, the college of engineering, sheer volume.
Tom: 15:48 And the fact that there’s a great amount of technology that comes out of there and some really impressive startups that have come out of there. Not all engineering though. And you know, the largest privately held software company in the world is to SAS Institute, which came out of our statistics department. But it seems like the two colleges most engaged in entrepreneurship or engineering and the college of management and my friend and colleague Louis Sheets and the college of management, we’d sit and talk and he’d say, Tom, you know, I go around and I talk to people and tell them I’m working on entrepreneurship at NC State. And they’ll say, Oh, do you know Tom Miller? And I said I laughed that, you know, I get the exact same question. Do you know Louis Sheets? And you know, I talked to some of the people on the outside and they’d come in and, and once they get to know the ecosystem here, they’d say, wow, there’s really a lot of stuff going on.
Tom: 16:44 I had no idea. And we started scratching our heads and like, why does nobody have any idea? I mean, we’re inside, we see it, they’re not seeing it, but it is that decentralized element. So we brainstorm this idea of forming, not kind of a top-down structure to house entrepreneurship at NC state, but it’s sort of a, I almost call it a trade organization. We, we call it the entrepreneurship Alliance. And I actually borrowed that name Alliance from one of our alumni who has a company called the Alliance, which is, an insurance conglomerate bringing people together under that kind of model. And his agents are all independent. This has been so, okay, well what if we look at all of these programs and silos that are going on, entrepreneurship-related across the university and we bring them together under some kind of Alliance model and I can take my central staff at the university and kind of repurpose some of their time to support the Alliance overall that, you know, we did the programs, a reason to join this.
Tom: 17:52 And actually, you know, it was kind of an experiment that’s been going on for about four years and it’s actually been a very positive thing. We have a lot more internal communication as a result of that. We have a website, entrepreneurship.ncsu.edu that represents the whole gambit of her Rams across the university. We have an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org which anyone from the outside can send an email and say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in the garage or the entrepreneur’s village or the Entrepalooza festival or the entrepreneurial clinic or the tech program and any of these programs that are part of the Alliance.’ And we have people who monitor that email and we’ll respond and route them to the right individual for whatever it is that they’re interested in. So that has done a lot to I guess bring focus both internally and externally to all the entrepreneurship activity that we have going on here.
Janet: 18:50 Oh, that makes so much sense. Because if people were interested in tapping some of the resources and the bright minds going on there, but gee, how do you do that info at isn’t really going to get you very far. So yeah, it’s great that you’ve created that focus. You know, when I think about professors and teachers at universities, I remember the adage, publish or perish, is it now be an entrepreneur or perish?
Tom: 19:20 No, no, not by any means publisher or parish is still alive and well. And in fact, if I hadn’t got the NSF grant funding, you know, in 1993 for the engineering entrepreneurs program, I probably would not be doing what I’m doing today. So it’s very fortuitous there that that counted towards the publisher parish and get grant funding kind of thing. You know, entrepreneurship is actually much more widely recognized and supported across the faculty now than it was. And I’ll attribute a lot of that effort to our office of research and particularly the office of research commercialization that has worked hard to sort of put the pieces in place for faculty entrepreneurship for the translation of research in particular to commercialization. There’s basically a couple of ways that you do that. The more traditional way is, you know, licensing you, you create technology, you get a patent, you copyright, et cetera, you licensed to a company and then the faculty go back and continue to do their research and that’s still, you know, very, very viable and strong mechanism.
Tom: 20:30 But it’s become I think more recognized in recent years that the real wins, the real opportunities to bring, I guess a lot of visibility to the universities. Then in some cases, a lot of money, you know, to the universities is through not just the out-licensing to large companies in which some cases, you know, they, they do build products based on these things. In other cases, they just added to their patent portfolio, put it on a shelf. But when you do a start-up, there’s a little bit of magic that happens there because the researcher or the faculty member, the graduate students that worked on the technology, they are very excited about, they understand better than anybody else what the potential of this to make an impact on the world is. And so through a start-up having those individuals, you know, maybe not as the CEO, but as the technical founders and the consultants and so on. And very often the graduate students will go on, join the startup based on the research work that they’ve done. They have that energy, they have that enthusiasm. And I think that the chances of big impact and big success through that route, the startup route is really a greater potential.
Janet: 21:48 I will say that some of the folks who have had a booth at the CES, Eureka Park under the North Carolina startup banner, most of them were developing their ideas as students or graduate students and were able to, you know, move their idea forward with the support of the university systems. It’s really quite amazing how we used to think of the education is, well, you graduated, there’s your degree now start from square one to go get a job. And nowadays, you know, people are walking out with complete businesses or business ideas, business relationships, and they are well on their career path by the time they graduate.
Tom: 22:31 Yeah, absolutely. It’s really amazing and it’s really rewarding to be involved in that. I mean there’s sort of the two different levels, you know, our undergraduate level, which I talk about the garage and that’s available to graduate students as well, but it’s predominantly undergraduate students not work that’s based on research grants and things like that. There’s probably fewer startups that come through that path, although there’s a good number. I mean we’ve had some really amazing successes that have come out of there. And then one company called FilterEasy that has raised $18 billion. Another medical technology company Metacom started by students in the garage. They’ve also raised venture capital. We’ve got quite a long list of those and yes, that happens at the undergraduate level, but you know, most of the students that participate in this don’t start companies right out of school.
Tom: 23:22 Like you say, the average startup age is, you know, the early forties. I actually have heard 42 is the average number, but on the research side, the technologies that come out that are actually protected by patent and copyright that have come out of the research program, they’re in many cases ready to go right then and there. One I know that attended CES year because I made the connection for him was a company called Luminova that came out of our research program here doing very, very high bandwidth wireless technology through optical. Networking kind of means that a local area network and that’s a that’s an up and coming field with things like virtual reality and things that require very, very large bandwidth and a wireless kind of context. So that’s a startup that’s really got off to a great start coming right out of the university. There are quite a few more, I mean there’s a, I think this year there were 21 startups launched out of our tech transfer office, our office of research commercialization 21 and to get put that into context, out of the entire University of North Carolina system, the 17 campuses, I think there were 24 total. So 21 coming out of NC State. That’s, yes, I’m bragging at this point.
Janet: 24:42 Yes. I get to say you are a hotbed of startup innovation.
Tom: 24:47 We’re actually ranked number four in the nation for startups, for universities without a medical school. So again –
Janet: 24:55 And I’m curious about that distinction. Do you find is statistically, if a university has a medical school, are there a lot of individual medical-related businesses that tend to come out of it?
Tom: 25:07 Well, it’s not just businesses, it’s patent and intellectual property in general, the association of university technology managers, which keeps statistics on all these kinds of things. Actually purposely separates the universities without medical schools from those with medical schools because it’s not an apple to apple comparison. So yes, the medical schools, because they have a medical school teaching model, a lot of practical things going on there and the teaching hospitals and so on, there’s a lot of technology that comes out that becomes commercialized that you know is not possible in the same way at the university without medical schools.
Janet: 25:46 So let’s do a wrap-up and help people know how they should reach out to you. So obviously if you’re a young person, a student getting ready to go to college, that is all pretty clear. But if you are developing a business or you want to be more involved in the entrepreneurship program through NC State, how should they reach out to you?
Tom: 26:08 I gave you that email email@example.com and that’s certainly a way to reach us and find out what’s going on. Also, we have the HQ presence now on Centennial campus managing the technology incubator that’s here. And so for companies that are not part of NC State but want to be involved at NC State, that would be a route to get involved, is to reach out to HQ and say, ‘Hey, how do I get some space, some connection to NC State?’ Another great mechanism is the NC State Centennial campus partnership office. They represent all of Centennial campus and Centennial. Gosh, I don’t even know how many companies that are here now. I think the number is more than 100 which has some kind of presence on Centennial campus. And you know, we’ve had a lot here. Red hat is a company that grew up here on our campus, so a lot there. But the Centennial campus partnership office can provide information to external entities about all the resources and partnership opportunities that are available on Centennial, including, you know, what we’re doing with the garage, HQ, entrepreneurship, et cetera.
Janet: 27:21 Excellent. And to those listening, don’t worry about trying to write anything down. If you go to the show notes for this podcast, we’ll have links to all of the emails and or programs websites mentioned during the conversation. Well, Tom, I can’t thank you enough for coming to the podcast, the Trade Show Live, and telling us about the exciting things going on at North Carolina State University and I know we’re going to be seeing you at CES 2020 this year, so we’ll be able to have a follow-up conversation there. But thanks again for joining us on Trade Show Live.
Tom: 27:56 Janet it has been my pleasure and I look forward to attending CES. I’ll see you there.
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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
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