Four Actions Engineers Can Take to Ensure Their Startup Succeeds

An image of Chenyang Xu on a gray background looking directly into the camera.
Photo: Chenyang Xu

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTEEngineers often misunderstand what it takes to launch a successful startup, according to IEEE Fellow Chenyang Xu, who has been advising entrepreneurs and investors for 20 years.

Xu was general manager of the Siemens Technology-to-Business Center, in Berkeley, Calif., where he led a team of venture technologists who invested in and partnered with more than 50 promising disruptive-technology startups. He helped found the Silicon Valley Future Academy, a consulting company in Palo Alto, Calif., that teaches startups about design, venture capital, and cutting-edge technologies including artificial intelligence and big data. He’s now a partner at the Corporate Innovators Huddle, in Menlo Park, Calif., which provides a forum to help large companies be more innovative by investing in and partnering with startups. And he’s the managing partner at Perception Vision Medical Technologies, a fast-growing startup involved with AI, based in Guangzhou, China.

 Xu says many technologists struggle when they start their own company. “Running their own business is foreign to many engineers, because they don’t understand the process,” he says. “They fail because there are too many gaps in their knowledge.” Xu calls that gap the “entrepreneurship Grand Canyon,” with engineers on one side and entrepreneurs on the other.

“It’s a gap that feels so big that engineers feel they cannot cross it,” he says.

Xu identified four actions that engineers can take to narrow the divide.

EXPAND YOUR EXPERTISE

Being an expert in a single area can cause you to lose perspective, Xu says.

“This is not to say that specialization is wrong,” he adds, “but I think that as you keep specializing, it’s also important to be aware of the speed of change of the broader engineering discipline.

“A cutting-edge technology today can become a dinosaur tomorrow. Don’t become obsolete.”

GET ENTREPRENEURSHIP TRAINING

There are a host of things that engineers turned founders need to know besides technology, Xu says, such as business-model development, venture-capital processes, communication, leadership, and how to prepare pitches to investors.

“Engineers will have a far greater impact to society if they are able to understand entrepreneurship,” he says. “I’ve coached hundreds of brilliant engineers over the years, and I found they are held back because of their mindset.”

There are many entrepreneurship programs out there, he notes. One valuable resource is the IEEE Entrepreneurship program, which offers online resources and both online and in-person events for people to meet and support one another. Its IEEE N3XT event series provides startups with opportunities to connect with venture capitalists and others who might help them get their company off the ground.

Some corporations, including Cisco and Siemens, offer entrepreneurship training to their employees in the form of boot camps.

Colleges such as Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, are doing a good job of incorporating entrepreneurship courses into their engineering programs, Xu says.

ACQUIRE COMMUNICATION AND LEADERSHIP SKILLS

Entrepreneurs have to deal with a lot of uncertainties and unknowns. That is not easy for engineers, who often know what they have to do and prefer to stick to fundamental principles, Xu says. Startup founders have to be good communicators who can articulate ideas effectively to investors, he says.

“The stereotype for engineers is that they don’t like to work with people and only talk through computers,” Xu says. “This is indeed common. But from my experience, all engineers can learn to be good communicators if they set their mind to taking continuous-learning courses and practicing their communication skills.

“Another critical skill that entrepreneurs need is leadership, which isn’t taught in engineering school.”

IEEE offers several online career development courses, including An Introduction to Leadership: A Primer for the PractitionerLeadership Development for Technical ProfessionalsCommunication and Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals, and Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School: Communicating Effectively.

HIRE WOMEN

Gender equality is an important issue for Xu.

“Women show more empathy and tend to develop relationships—which are two key attributes of effective entrepreneurs,” he says.

Xu is a member of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department industrial advisory board at UC Berkeley and a member of the Biomedical Engineering Department advisory board at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

These university engineering department boards are working on ways to recruit more women and attract more girls from grade school and high school to engineering, he says.

“Companies need to hire more women and promote diversity,” he says. “We are seeing some women leaders rise up through the ranks, but in general there is still a minority.

“A team with more diversity often achieves higher performance and better results.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 29 July 2019.