"Startup Stories" Encourage Physics Innovation and Entrepreneurship

By Mary Ann Mort

For my final project in an electronics and instrumentation course last year, I created a device that varied the colors on a strip of LEDs according to audio frequencies. My goal was to cut down on the effort that goes into pre-programming light shows for music concerts by letting the frequency filters do the work. But once my product was finished, I had no idea what to do next or how to put it on the market. As the next semester started, my enthusiasm for the project died.

If I had an opportunity to take a class for physics students on marketing, patents, and how to navigate the business world, I might have pursued ways to design and produce more devices like the one from my final project. And what if there were a new kind of class, lab, or part of an existing class that covers how to take innovative ideas from prototype to product? Every semester, physics students are tinkering away and making gadgets and gizmos to help make their lives more convenient — so why not find ways to bring these ideas to market?

In an effort to give students these real-world skills, APS is promoting physics innovation and entrepreneurship (PIE) education for physics undergraduates through the NSF-funded PIPELINE project. This project brings together the efforts of six universities to develop and implement new approaches to teaching PIE. Alongside the physics curriculum, these courses aim to help physics students commercialize new technologies that they create, as well as develop leadership, communication, and multi-disciplinary team skills. These skills will not only serve the meager five percent of physics bachelors destined to be permanent physics faculty, but also those with careers as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs in the private sector where team management, leadership, and project management skills are so essential for success.

APS also has a new online feature called "Startup Stories." These are profiles highlighting young physics entrepreneurs who have used their physics knowledge to start their own innovative businesses. As an APS Careers intern through the Society of Physics Students, personally interviewing and writing up the stories of these fascinating entrepreneurs was inspirational because I heard about their success in overcoming obstacles. These profiles get students like me excited about solving global problems by using our physics training in innovative ways. The Startup Stories are available on the PIPELINE homepage.

And the Startup Stories aren’t just for students. While the profiles give entrepreneurial tips to students as they complete their undergraduate degrees, the advice also applies to physics faculty who train future generations of physicists. The individual pathways to success are different for each entrepreneur, but the idea of attracting investors by effectively communicating the goals is universal.

These Startup Stories are a part of a larger effort by APS to promote PIE. There is also a monthly newsletter on the latest developments in PIE Education (sign up at Pipeline Network), and a student-oriented webinar on entrepreneurship coming up this fall. PIPELINE members also presented several talks at the 2017 American Association of Physics Teachers Summer Meeting in Cincinnati.

As a physics student who has daydreamed of starting my own business, I will be interested to find out how the curriculum evolves through the PIPELINE project. A class that covers the process of creating a business, which mirrors research in many ways, could strengthen the contributions of physicists. Physicists already have technical problem-solving skills, and teaching them to apply that pragmatic mindset to other aspects of life offers the possibility of improving life for all of us.

The author is a graduating senior in Applied Physics at Sacramento State. She just finished a summer internship at APS through the Society of Physics Students. You can learn more about her internship by reading her blog at spsnational.org/programs/internships/2017/mary-ann-mort.

Mary Ann Mort

Mary Ann Mort

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik