SUCCESSFUL IEEE FOOTHILL ENTREPRENEURSHIP FORUM HELD JANUARY 31
|February 17, 2015||Posted by COMauthor under CN, COMSOC, EmpNet||
The IEEE Foothill Entrepreneurship Forum #3 was held on Saturday January 31, 2015 at DeVry University Pomona. A small but committed and engaged number of IEEE members participated. Below is a commentary on the presentations and the questions addressed during this successful meeting.
Mobile Communications with Social Media for Engineers
Why would working engineers have any interest for on-the-job Social Media use? It is fairly obvious that engineers do have some habits and attributes that distinguish them from the general population. Right from their undergraduate days, they learn to be focused on the problem at hand; they will divide a problem into smaller pieces by analytical methods; and they will start out in private thinking of a solution to the stated problem. Very soon though, engineers learn to bring their proposed solutions out the greater public for review and support. If their project is approved, then engineers will gain commitment to completing the project in public view, whether within their engineering team, their company, or to the wider public community. They will use all available media to get the project satisfactorily completed. Media for them is another tool to use.
Here is where Social Media becomes useful to engineers. As Tribhuwan Choubey, our presentor, noted, nearly 67% of engineers use one of the currently most popular social media, either Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. The HR group at his firm uses Linked In daily to search for possible employees. In response to a question Tribhuwan stated that HR personnel claim to search for consultants this way, but how effectively we do not know. (Are they doing key Buzz-Word search software? Do they have even limited understanding of what the engineering needs are? By the way, these are critical bits of information needed by engineers looking for new jobs.)
From his data, Twitter is used for a few dominant types of messages: “Conversation” 37 % of the time; “Just Saying” 40 % of time; with other messaging needs filling in the remainder. With only 140 characters, there is only some much information that can be exchanged via Twitter.
Facebook claims a huge engineering community amidst all its groups (over 1 Million groups); members (over 300 Million members) and 1.3 Billion connections. Just how effective all these connections are in exchanging actionable information needs to be quantified. (Just don’t ask Facebook to do that task.) As a questioner noted, structure and ease of connections may be fine, but “engineering content” is still King. This brings several obvious questions to the forefront of the discussion. Who will do the work to provide this content? Who will do the filtering to provide the engineering and data evaluations of this content?
Tribhuwan made several useful points about Linked-In. Apache Lucene can be used for a full text search engine. For data analytics there is Apache Hadoop. So, if one can obtain sufficient data connections via Linked In, one has open source software methods (Apache is open source) to sort through your data, and “data-mine”. He mentioned a serious drawback to use of Linked- In. This is an aggressive and continuous contact via emails from Linked-In to you requesting that you sign up more contacts and supply referrals. These may be at the 1st degree of connection, 2nd degree,….., Nth degree. Is it the endgame to have X number of contacts and endorsements from other people who are located out in the Linked-In galaxy at some distant location? After all, engineers are busy. What’s the point?
For his company, their most useful Social Communication means is their internal and controlled “Yammer” network. This is part of their Office 365 software suite license. The data from their Yammer network is stored someplace on the “Cloud”. For security reason, no company reports or documents are posted on Yammer. (Who knows where the cloud storage servers are located?) For work contacts during working hours on the job, this is a quick means of communication.
Tribhuwan actually began his presentation with his most pertinent remark about Social and Mobile Communications. The most effective means of engineering communications is still the telephone, which today means our “smartphones”. This should stand as his conclusion this morning.
Updated US Patent Law Issues for Engineering Entrepreneurs
What has happened since the Smith-Leahy Bill was signed into law on September 16, 2011? Yes, a number of changes in the patent law process have occurred, but more confusion has entered due to recent US Supreme Court rulings, as noted by Ray Roberts, our presenter.
The 17 year rule for maintaining a patent has been abandoned. There is now a 20 year rule, but extra time may be allotted if there is delay by a government agency in doing their internal review. This may occur, for example, if the FDA needs more time for trials of new drugs and your patent involves such drug testing. Again, maintenance fees need to be made at the 3.5 year, 7.5 year, and 11.5 year point from the date of patent issue. Note that it is important to check the cover page of your issued patent, which contains the important dates.
The issue of “first to file” versus “first to invent” was one of the major changes in this 2011 law. How is it working out in practice? An inventor should be aware of the one year rule. The inventor can file up to the end of that time provided he has not publicized his patentable work or commercialized it within that time frame. An internal company report would not be considered a “publication”. So, do not wait any more than a year, and do not give a presentation to any venture capitalists or in any public convention or conference.
The biggest issue confronting patent attorneys at this time is the ramification from the US Supreme Court’s decision in the ALICE case (13-298) in April 2014. In this case, a patent was denied as it was considered to just add a computer to process a fairly standard risk-mitigation transaction. This brings into question the basic idea of software patents. (The IEEE Policy group on patents submitted a friend-of the-Court briefing to the US Supreme Court for this case.)
Ray Roberts expressed the quandary as this: What is the definition of an “abstract idea” that the Supreme Court says can’t be patentable. He did give an example. A person came to him and showed him her RFID module attached to her auto key ring. A click and her car is locked shut. A light on the car flashed. Suppose she suggested that she needed a “handshake” vibration on her RFID module to indicate that the car doors were actually shut and locked. That is an abstract idea; one has not (yet) designed a particular device that would do this “idealized” function.
To explain more about what the US Supreme Court is ruling, consider the introduction to a US Supreme Court decision that Ray Roberts cited this morning,” Mayo Collaborative( 10-1150)”.
“Although “laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas” are not patentable subject matter under §101 of the Patent Act, … “an application of a law of nature . . . to a known structure or process may [deserve] patent protection,…. But to transform an unpatentable law of nature into a patent-eligible application of such a law, a patent must do more than simply state the law of nature while adding the words “apply it…..It must limit its reach to a particular, inventive application of the law…….”
We will await Ray’s updates in the future on this “what is an abstract idea” topic. In the meanwhile, IEEE inventors, patent attorneys, IEEE policy experts, and the US courts will be chipping away at these issues.
Ethical Issues that Confront the Practicing Engineer
The starting question is, “Why Do EEs need Ethics?” A claim is made that without Ethics, a person, an engineer, and a company will not survive and prosper. What a consultant and an entrepreneur looks for in himself /herself and his / her associates and partners are the evidences of ethical behavior; mainly character and integrity.
Business ethics may be simply illustrated in terms of business contracts (in the most general terms of business contracts: explicit and written, or less formally by “hand shake agreement”, or implied as part of a more top-level agreement) which are to be executed with respect to a defined law. Business contracts spell out the rights of each party to the contract, as well as the responsibilities of each party. Is all relevant information known to each party made available to the other party? Is the contract agreed to without duress? What is the likelihood that this contract will be executed as written (or stated verbally) and agreed upon?
Yes, Rights and Responsibilities are the core of any business agreement for an entrepreneur.
When we look for an ethical standard against we measure character and integrity, we first go back to antiquity (~5000 years BC) to view the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. It has essentially been passed down unchanged to our present day. When one examines the IEEE Code of Ethics, one sees many similar norms. We reviewed several parts of the IEEE Code:
• To accept responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment
• To avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist
• To be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data
• To reject bribery in all its forms
• To avoid injuring others, their property, reputation, or employment by false or malicious action.
The question now is, does our current business society, as well as our contemporary engineers, agree on a norm of ethics? The answer is yes. A number of cases were discussed where Wall Street traders set up so-called “expert networks” of personal contacts within large and small electronic industry companies to feed them advance information to facilitate their stock trading. Of course these “expert network” personnel were fed substantial cash bribes. After court cases, substantial prison terms were the new “norm” for the unethical “expert network” people.
Many other cases involved computer IT types “claiming” that the software they created for the company on company time and $$$ was now liberated as open-source, free to walk out the door with them for use elsewhere. The case of Cadence versus Avanti in Silicon Valley which resulted in some sticky fingered engineers serving time in San Quentin Prison was described. Our society still calls stealing just that, “stealing”.
Two very recent, and ongoing disputes, were discussed. One is Zenimax versus Facebook over rights to the OCULUS Rift 3-D virtual reality hardware and software. Did the engineers with the critical knowledge base leave their relevant designs, EPROMS, and data flash drives behind when they moved to a new Facebook address? Carelessness on the part of the engineers will not be a defense with the amount of money involved in this dispute. Another ongoing dispute is the “Wage Suppression” lawsuit that claims that all the major new entrepreneurial firms in Silicon Valley agreed to limit engineering wages by forming a cartel to stop hiring from each other. Could it be possible that our new glamorized Entrepreneurs are lacking in Ethical Behavior? Stay tuned.
Lastly, the case of a recent culprit from Wall Street, who found several MDs who gave him advance notice on results for ongoing FDA drug effectiveness tests, in return for substantial cash bribes, was discussed. Yes, his surreptitious advanced knowledge saved his trading firm mega-millions, and gained him a multimillion $$ bonus that year. His odyssey from Duke to Harvard Law to Stanford’s MBA program was described, as well as the long Federal prison sentence he is just starting to serve. What could we say about this person’s character?
Character counts. It can be identified. Engineering entrepreneurs should be aware of Character and Integrity in their potential partners as well as their potential customers.
Yes, go back and read the IEEE Code of Ethics soon. Read slowly. That is the word from our presenter, Frank G Freyne today.
“Start-up Engineer Entrepreneurs Tell Their Story”
Our first seasoned engineering entrepreneur to “tell his story” was Kendall Waters PhD. He described his journey from graduate school at Washington University, St Louis MO to a post-doctoral appointment in France to working with an engineering startup in the San Francisco area. Acquired expertise making ultrasonic measurements in human tissue led to his role in this particular engineering startup.
Here the startup planned the development of an ultrasonic catheter imaging system to be used in an Intraventional Cardiology medical practices. The aim is to give the cardiologist a clearer image of the human heart and its current real-time state of functionality. This company started operations in 2007; it is moving into a manufacturing phase in 2015.
Yes, many of the common problems associated with startups were encountered. There were the continuing efforts to raise funds from investors; the finding that the “burn rate” of cash on hand was too high, and the missed program milestones. Since it was a medical device, there was a need to obtain several FDA approvals for in-human testing studies and device design approval.
What can be learned from these startup efforts? Kendall gave us his three primary lessons. First, “Keep Calm and Know your Exit Strategy”. What are the initial goals for the startup? Should it design, develop, manufacture and sell a product?
Should it develop a product, and maneuver the company and its product so that it will be acquired by another larger company in the medical device field who will take over the device manufacturing? Should it just develop in-house engineering expertise and do substantial designs towards an eventual product such that the company is bought? For this startup, specific questions of whether or not to develop a diagnostic tool versus a therapeutic tool to actually improve a patient’s health had to be addressed.
When do you declare Success and Exit the Startup?
The Second Lesson Learned was, “Keep Calm, and No Plan B”. Once an engineer gets going on a project, it is tempting to digress and try to explore other refinements and applications. All of these digressions take time and burn money. Yes, they sound so inviting and obvious, as every engineer knows. Kendall admonishes us to keep focused on the original goal; do not dilute efforts to get to the pre-planned goal point. (Engineers have to be told “No” at certain times.)
The Third Lesson is that the People who are part of the startup, actually the principal part of the startup, determine the overall success or failure. In Kendall’s words, this lesson states, “Keep Calm and Create a Culture”. How can a spirit of optimism be maintained? How can the team handle failures and losses? Is there trust between and among all members of the startup team? Is the culture positive or negative? Should other skill set besides engineering, such as business and marketing, be represented on the startup team from the beginning? Yes, plans count, but people count more. (It is easier to change plans that to change people on the startup team.)
We thank Kendall for his insightful presentation, both optimistic and sobering at the same time. It was one that all would-be engineer entrepreneurs should hear while setting up their plans. We quote management guru Peter Drucker (from his study “Innovation an Entrepreneurship”), “Entrepreneurship is “risky” mainly because so few of the so-called entrepreneurs know what they are doing.” After listening to Kendall, all our assembled engineers should know more.
Our second talk on Engineering Entrepreneurship was given by Kip Brown, P.E. Kip had the fortune to arrive on the professional scene just as the semiconductor device era was kicking into high gear. He arrived at Portland State University as a student at a time when there were seven professors and a shortage of students. When a fellowship in Laser Atmospheric propagation opened, he took it. This led to an opportunity to be a consultant to GTE Sylvania Electro-Optical Systems. In turn, this lead to his investigating mode locking effects in laser systems in order to design a narrow pulse (1 picosecond) high power laser system
Did these devices work? Yes. Just have Kip recount the story of the experiment at the Queen’s University in Belfast N.I. where they accidently blew a hole in a building.
Later he joined Siliconix, where he was building ICs (bipolar JFETs, some CMOS, analog switches, A to D convertors). More to the point, he wrote into his employment contract that he would continue to consult on laser projects on his own time.
Kip was well aware of the need to avoid conflict of interest situations during this consulting role. He wrote down all IP (intellectual property) agreements. This consulting process and procedure has continued throughout Kip’s career. (Kip calls this his White Gloves approach.)
On his scorecard, these consulting tasks on IC design / chip layout all met specifications that were presented and negotiated, but only a few brought in $$ royalties. It seems that his customers fell equally into three categories: either they changed their specifications after Kip’s delivery was made; they themselves went out of business; or they successfully integrated his results into their product. Only in the last category did they return some royalties; typically after 5 years had elapsed.
His first attempt at a startup company (Ultra Physics Inc) involved building a high power transmitter (dump 10Kv on a capacitor / avalanche diode circuits). These 1 picosecond events could be resolved on an image intensifier. Then he moved on to Raytheon, where he took a nine month leave to work with Sage Electronics. At Sage, he and others saw the need to do in-line thermal testing, device transistor parameter testing, and wafer parameter testing at the end of the wafer production line. This would help establish the data prior to circuit level testing, and save time and resources later in the device cycle. After he returned to Raytheon, Sage continued to prosper moderately, and was sold to Optical Associates some twenty years later. (“Missionary” type marketing is no substitute for a real marketing campaign in this industry.)
From Raytheon he moved on to Fairchild Semiconductor. Then to MOSEL electronics, a startup where he was involved with developing 2 nm MOS devices. (This company is now listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange, with a significant mid -sized company evaluation.)
Next up was a startup for developing hearing aid technology. He formed Engineering Consortium as a C-Corp in the 1982 era. These devices used analog circuitry, and created disposable hearing aids on a single chip SOC that sold for a moderate price and lasted for some 40 days. A fabless foundry model company, his hearing aid SOCs were built in Florida. This small company grew for nearly two decades and was profitable, but the time came for Kip to exit the CEO / CTO role from this essentially family firm and sell it to a larger firm. The negotiating sessions with three much larger firms were described, and the proposed prognosis from his firm and its employees were quite different. Then the Dot Com bubble burst, and a completely different “Exit” strategy occurred. Nevertheless, Kip has the satisfaction of knowing that some 20 million people have better hearing with his wide dynamic range analog SOC chips in hearing aids.
In more recent days, Kip has been called for consulting on the Trans-San Francisco Bay underwater cable (400MW/ 400KV) power which extends some 40 miles under the bay. Based on his experiences with IC power amplifier design, he has been able to contribute to this program. Some stories of the type of engineering problems that he has had to address on this underwater cable were presented. Can you imagine that wire bonds connecting resistors can break when excited at their resonant frequency?
We should note also that for 15 years Kip has taught a UC Berkeley Extension class on analog design. The pay of these teaching efforts is close to zero $ per hour. This is a gift to the EE and IEEE community that we collectively thank him for making.
Throughout his presentation, Kip offered many insightful thoughts on what it takes to be successful as an engineering entrepreneur, based on the various startup situations then and there that he was confronting. Here we will collectively list a few:
(1) Choose an Angel Investor that contributes more than money.
(2) Be sure to include, in your startup management, a “singed tail feathers” survivor from a previous startup. Such experience is vital.
(3) Seek venture capital from multiple varied sources.
(4) Be careful if you allow any PhDs on your staff to explain the startups goals, plans, milestones, and progress to your investors. Do not let them lapse into PhD-to-PhD only lingo. In one of his companies, he held venture capital from various groups drawn to technology: a group of pig farmers from the Central Valley CA; a psychology practice group from far northeastern CA, etc. All solid investors. Explain your startup to them in suitable language.
(5) Research your investors for both competence and conflicts of interest.
(6) Continually seek investors and customers.
(7) Build a startup team that you can trust (and the team members can mutually trust) and that the investors will accept.
(8) Remember: a team is only as strong as its weakest link.
(9) Research your markets; the patents in your field; and study all potential competitors.
(10)Know your Exit strategy.
In summary, on behalf of the IEEE Foothill Section, we thank all our speakers at this Forum. We especially thank Kendall Waters and Kip Brown, both Directors of the Consultants Network of Silicon Valley, for traveling down south for this Forum. Those IEEE members who participated were exposed to much useful and unique information. They will appreciate it as they pursue their individual efforts in consulting and engineering entrepreneurship. Several soon-to-graduate DeVry University students attended; we will be watching as they start growing into their professional careers.