Entrepreneurial immersion informs PhDs about career options

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l to r back row: Adarsh Ravi, Martin Liu, Yuying Zhang, Natalie Nesderavani, Jake Gemerek, Jashan Singhal. front row: Runxi Shen, Chinasa Okolo (photo credit: Runxi Shen)

The Silicon Valley Entrepreneurial trek exposes doctoral students interested in careers in innovation to various companies and organizations that contribute to a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, including university spinouts, incubators/accelerators, venture capitalists, and large innovative firms. The trek also helps them learn about a variety of careers in start-ups, large innovative firms, finance, law, and consulting.

“Overall, the Trek was an excellent opportunity for PhD students exploring career options outside academia. After we were exposed to the excitement and inspirations in entrepreneurship, founders and venture capitalists did not hide the competitiveness, instability and the hard work that an entrepreneur must endure for ultimate success. However, for those that truly believe in their passions, all those connections we made in this Trek were genuinely giving all their encouragement and support for those future entrepreneurs to succeed.” — Yuying (Sylvia) Zhang (Biomedical Engineering)

“ At the start of my academic career, I never considered that entrepreneurship could be an option for someone like me. I had only heard of computer scientists being professors or software engineers and being a Black woman, I saw few examples of people who look like me pursuing careers like these. I have become enamored with the idea of pursuing academia and entrepreneurship concurrently and participating in the BEST Silicon Valley Entrepreneurship Trek gave me a clearer idea of what this could look like and where I would start.” — Chinasa Okolo (Computer Science)

Additionally, Chinasa and Sylvia participate in a leadership program called WE Cornell which is designed to increase the number of women entrepreneurs by helping them overcome some of the common challenges female STEM entrepreneurs face. It helped prepare them for the trek.

“The way the program was structured lent itself to a rapid learning curve. Through these meetings we learned about qualities shared among successful entrepreneurs: They believe whole heartedly in their projects and are able to convince others to share and invest in their visions. Each CEO described unique stories of perseverance that demonstrated their ability to problem-solve at multiple scales. One CEO of a medical device company put it: “In this job I use 120% of my brain.” While PhD research moves the needle on field-specific academic discussions, researchers in SV articulated broader, material impacts for their work.” — Natalie Nesvaderani (Sociocultural Anthropology)

The immersive experiential trek is also an excellent opportunity for the participants to network with many Cornellians in the region and to get insight into what constitutes a good startup. We learned “a good startup is composed of good people, good idea, good execution, good ability to adjust, and resilience,” said Runxi Shen, PhD student in Computational Biology.

“Silicon Valley Entrepreneurship Trek was an enriching experience for a second year PhD student like me. Living in Ithaca, we are in this academic bubble where we don’t really know what is going on around the world in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation. Through this trek I got first hand interaction with some of the best entrepreneurs and VCs of Silicon Valley.” — Jashan Singhal (Electrical and Computer Engineering)

The Entrepreneurship Trek included site visits, networking with alumni working in Silicon Valley in academic entrepreneurship as well as with founders who based their company on their graduate research.

“Having the chance to talk to venture capitalists and visiting a venture firm with $5 billion dollars under management was extremely inspiring and opened up my career path to a whole new dimension. Being able to talk with entrepreneurs who graduated with PhD degrees in varying engineering fields strengthened my enthusiasm for technology, aligned and showed that an interest in entrepreneurship can lead to valuable returns. Being one of 8 students selected to attend the trek was invaluable to my personal and academic development and provided me with an unparalleled experience that exposed me to innovation firms, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs, expanding my Cornell network immensely.” — Chinasa Okolo

These types of immersive events are useful to aid students in making informed career choices. Treks are unique and opportunities arise at various times for PhDs and postdocs in all fields — in arts, humanities, social sciences and STEM. If you are interested in the criteria for these opportunities, please make an appointment with our office, BEST.cornell.edu.

The trek was centered in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. The first visit was to SEMPLUS to meet Founder & CEO Alessandro Levi (PhD Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna/Stanford).

“During my visit to Semplus, I learnt importance of patenting and some caveats around it. Creating a new technology which cannot be replicated easily by competitors and also avoid it stepping into the coverage of existing patents is very crucial. Don’t be constrained by the original idea you have, keep an open mind to look for more options and make adjustments in time. Hardware is hard to produce and be funded by VCs.” — Runxi Shen

The group had some great interactions over lunch with StartX Founders Jeff Schlosser, Co-founder & CEO of SoniTrack Systems (Stanford PhD ’13 ME & BME) and Gloria Lau, Co-founder & CEO of Alpha Medical (Stanford PhD ’04, Engineering & CS). It was extremely valuable to have the chance for informal discussions over a meal.

“At StartX, Jeff and Gloria gave us a taste of how accelerators work, and how to transition from academia to commercialization.” — Jashan Singhal

“Coming from a biomedical engineering background, it was extremely inspiring for me to hear their success stories and how they handled hurdles such as FDA approvals and lack of business partners or investments.” — Yuying (Sylvia) Zhang

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(in photo, l to r:) Adarsh Ravi, Martin Liu, Jake Gemerek, Yuying (Sylvia) Zhang, Runxi Shen, Chinasa Okolo, Natalie Nesderavani and Jashan Singhal pose on Stanford University’s campus. (photo credit: Michael Roach)

After a walking tour of Stanford University the group visited Stanford Career Education for some West Coast insights from Lance Choy, Career Coach for Engineering PhDs and Postdocs. Next on the agenda was Menlo Park where the group spent the afternoon at Canaan Partners to engage with its Co-founder & Partner Eric Young (Cornell BS in ME, Northwestern MBA).

“Cornell alumnus Eric Young not only gave us a thorough introduction of venture capital functions, but also the importance of venture capital funding for an early-stage startup. Since we had been only looking at entrepreneurship from the founders’ points of view until that moment, Eric gave us insights from a unique perspective when thinking about pursuing entrepreneurship as a career.” — Yuying (Sylvia) Zhang

A special Cornell PhD dinner was held with alumni at Zola’s, in Palo Alto to learn from Molly Morse (Stanford PhD, Cornell BS, Founder & CEO Magno Materials), Diego Rey (Cornell PhD ’10 BME, Co-founder & CSO Endpoint Health), and Michael Santiago (Cornell PhD ’16 ME, Co-founder & CEO FloraPulse).

“With interest in medical/healthcare-product startups, I felt that the first-hand account of the issues and process involved in obtaining US FDA approval for medical devices, funding, patents, and technology transfer was very informative. Also, I was excited to hear from two founder CEOs about their willingness to offer me internships in their startups.” — Adarsh Ravi (Electrical and Computer Engineering)

A site visit to Google included a walking tour of the campus and a conversation with Data Scientist Geoff Davis (NYU PhD Mathematics) at Google Accelerated Science.

“The next day we had a walking tour of Googleplex and a great interaction with Geoff Davis who told us about Google Accelerated Science program where they are basically trying to apply Machine Learning in various biological and chemical processes.” — Jashan Singhal

“Geoff introduced to us the unique empowerment approach Google has established for employees to chase after their innovations, which often lead to tangible social impact and spin-offs such as Waymo. For those of us who dislike strict social hierarchy within companies, Google seems to be a perfect combination that includes rich financial and intellectual resources from big companies and flexibility and trust from small companies.” — Yuying (Sylvia) Zhang

The group then met Software Engineer Vasu Raman (Cornell PhD ’13 CS) at Nuro in Mountain View. “Nuro was founded by two former Google employees with expertise in autonomous vehicles. Hearing Nuro’s journey from a small startup to a billion-dollar company was extremely inspiring,” said Sylvia Zhang.

The packed day finished with a visit to Ceribell to speak with its Co-founder and CEO, Jane Chao (Cornell PhD ’05, Biophysics).

“At Ceribell, the founder Dr. Jane Chao told us her journey in entrepreneurship. She was very candid about her confusion and uncertainty after finishing her PhD degree and how her experience at Mckinsey really opened her doors in the business world. What resonated the most with me was her passion and firm belief in what Ceribell can revolutionize in the healthcare space, which had been her motivation that drove her beyond all the difficulties that she and her team had to face.” — Yuying (Sylvia) Zhang

“We’ve met people from various fields, including previous and current entrepreneurs, which helped me a lot to know more about the business and how to be a good entrepreneur in the future.” — Runxi Shen

The trek was led by Michael Roach, J. Thomas and Nancy W. Clark Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business.

“The trek was an invaluable learning experience for students like me who have a passion for entrepreneurship. Prof. Michael Roach did a tremendous job of organizing and coordinating the trek.” — Adarsh Ravi

“Beyond the brief meetings with the many incredible people on the Trek, nearly all of them have provided me with their contact information and LinkedIn connections and insist on following up if I ever need mentorship. Overall, the Trek was an incredible experience and I’ve made several real connections with founders located in the best place in the world for entrepreneurship. To say I highly recommend this Trek would be an understatement, and I can’t thank those at the BEST program (Mike and Susi!) enough for having been given this awesome opportunity.” — Jake Gemerek (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Jake was recently selected as a Commercialization Fellow at Cornell where he will explore the commercial potential of a sensor control algorithm he is developing for enhanced computer vision. Participating in the NSF I-Corps program for customer discovery is part of that fellowship.

“ During the Silicon Valley Entrepreneurship Trek, I learned more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Silicon Valley, how academic research contributes to it, and how I can pursue a career in the intersection of these disciplines.” — Chinasa Okolo

“The BEST Program’s SV Trek is elucidating and inspiring. I walked away with new ideas for bridging scholarship with start-up ventures. I recommend this program to students seeking to broaden their horizons beyond the ivory tower.” — Natalie Nesvaderani

“It was really inspiring to meet those entrepreneurs who were in the same position as us right now but took the courage to start something amazing.” — Yuying (Sylvia) Zhang

“Overall, it was a highly boosting experience set towards preparing us for an entrepreneurial mindset.” — Jashan Singhal

Learn what participants in the previous treks to Silicon Valley in 2016 and 2017 and the 2018 Boston trek have to say and what they got out of their experiences.

Supported by Cornell’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the College of Engineering, and the BEST Program in the Graduate School.

rethinking training of PhDs

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