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I teach a course on software product management where I sometimes cross over into startup-land. During a recent class, I showed students a rara-talk by a VC, who was trying to convince them to become entrepreneurs. So I asked the class:
Statistically speaking, a 40-year old entrepreneur is much more likely to succeed than a student entrepreneur. Why is this venture capitalist so eager to get you to become an entrepreneur rather than a more experienced person?
After a bit of back and forth, one student finally said:
Well, if it takes 10 years to grow a startup, a 40 year old entrepreneur may not be be able to stick around for such a long time.
I’ve gotten used to such statements and take them rather stoically. A 40-year old PhD student of mine, however, was rolling on the floor laughing.
Ten years ago DARPA, the US defense research agency, first organized the DARPA Grand Challenge. The challenge was to build a car that could drive 150 miles through the Mohave desert autonomously. The key is the car’s autonomy: No human brain was to steer it and make decisions, it was computers and other technology all the way. The associated technical challenges were manifold: read and interpret the environment correctly, predict behavior of the environment and the car while interacting, plan the route and get to the goal fastest, don’t kill anyone on the way. In its second attempt in 2005, the challenge was first fulfilled and won by the team of Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University.
Since then a series of other “grand challenges” has followed, some of which were reasonable, some of them less so. Here is what I think makes a great grand challenge:
- It is relevant for society and a non-expert recognizes the relevance
- It is cross-disciplinary, combining many different problems into one
- It is a useful application with a clear tangible communicable result
- It is measurable and achievable so that we know it when we solved it
I would avoid any “grand challenge” that an expert recognizes but not a layman. A grand challenge needs to stir emotions. Looking at example grand challenges proposed around the Internet, I find many too abstract, too focused on disciplinary issues. My vote goes to “the secure cell phone” as a grand challenge, but there are many others.
I teach product management at a public German engineering school, where I am a professor of computer science. Product management is my nod towards “business informatics”, otherwise I only teach engineering courses (and one general how-to-perform-research class).
There is an old debate as to who makes better product managers: M.B.A.s or engineers? Having worked on both sides of the fence and having gotten both degrees, I can confirm that as so often, the question is wrong: A hiring manager for a product management position needs to focus on skills and attitude, not on degree credentials. The degree may be an indicator of such skills, but it is not a sufficient indicator.
Fueled by the success of Silicon Valley startups and other success stories, there probably isn’t a single university today which would not like to foster startups from their student ranks. There is a lot to be said about how to do that, but before all operational decisions, a university incubator needs to know where to focus, and this is easy to get wrong.
The figure above shows my thinking on a key aspect of the subject: The type of student to spend your efforts on. A university incubator should focus on those students (and teach them and make it easier) who are sitting on the fence. It should ignore those whole will never do it and it should neglect those who will always find a way, no matter what.
FIWare is a large EU-sponsored program. It has mission (“about”) statement. Specifically:
FIWare is an open initiative aiming to create a sustainable ecosystem to grasp the opportunities that will emerge with the new wave of digitalization caused by the integration of recent Internet technologies. […]