Grad school: the original incubator

Mar 18, 2016 · 3 min read

We never went into grad school intending to start a company. Now that we’re graduated and graduating, in hindsight, graduate school is why we were able to found Neopenda and create our product, a low-cost continuous vital signs monitoring system for newborns in under-resourced hospitals.

Why it’s worth starting your own company as a student

Starting your own company is an exhilarating struggle. Both of us had worked mainstream corporate jobs in engineering. We only ever saw one small part of the engineering process, distant and disconnected from any impact the final product may have on end users. Now, we have an intimate understanding of every aspect of the business and are constantly aware of how every decision we make shapes the product’s impact. Navigating corporate culture can be tiresome and disillusioning when you are essentially a replaceable component in a large company. As a founder and the creator of an original device, the exact opposite is true. Neopenda cannot exist without us.

Creating a device and developing a business made us masters of our destiny. None of this could have happened without our Masters program in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University and the project-based Biomedical Design course. The course provided critical insight into the design process: we learned how to solve problems by first understanding users’ needs, and how to find innovation at the intersection of technology, business, and human values. All of which led to the creation of Neopenda.

That’s us on the right, going over our prototype and preparing for small-batch manufacturing with Catapult Design Studio.

How grad school sparks and sustains entrepreneurship

Starting a business while in school may seem counter intuitive. Shouldn’t you wait until afterwards? Though we came up with Neopenda in a course, surely we could have waited until we both graduated to start a business. Actually, the right grad school can be the perfect incubator for new ideas and growing businesses, for a few reasons:.

Specialization leads to creativity.

We went to graduate school because we wanted to pivot our careers from our past engineering jobs to focus our engineering skills on global health challenges. We didn’t know going in that the best way to do that would be founding a company. The combination of specialization, concentrated learning, and passion at grad school led to the creation of a new device. That device needed a company in order to go from idea to real world solution, and here we are.

Universities fuel innovation…and fund them.

Top research universities inspire and sustain innovation. More and more, they have contests for funding. We received our first funds from Columbia’s student venture competition. We applied to join the Relevant Health accelerator after meeting the directors at a networking event that we were invited to last minute by a mentor in the Columbia business school. The university also helped us get the word out about our company. Next month, we compete in the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest and most well funded student start-up competition. These aren’t unusual, over 243 universities now have an accelerator.

People are on your side.

Because we were students, we had easy access to mentors, advisors, and experts. The department and the University want to see you succeed, generate IP, bring good press, and make waves in your field.

You don’t start a business because it’s easy.

Our GPAs definitely took a hit because running a company and scaling a device will always trump studying for an exam. The truth is, hiring managers don’t care about your GPA. Better yet, having a successful company means our GPAs will matter a lot less than the newborns our device is able to save and the global health innovations we’ll continue to design.

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