Organic Entrepreneurship

written by: Dr. Tony McCaffrey

Bringing Students' Original Ideas to the World

My basic approach to teaching entrepreneurship is to set out “traps,” so to speak, both in and out of my classes to catch students in the act of creating original ideas. In this way, they often make intellectual property (IP). After IP is created, I explicitly teach them about IP and help them protect theirs using the relevant instrument: a utility patent, design patent, trade secret, trademark, or copyright. The student will then take their first steps to get their idea out into the world by weighing various business and publication options. Instead of having a course specifically dedicated to the topics of IP and business, this approach works more organically and is thus called Organic Entrepreneurship.
Below are two successes of this approach which occurred this school year. The first is a patentable idea that was created in a class. The second is a math discovery that took place outside of class and for which the resulting paper now is copyrighted.
The first example took place when a student 3D-designed on screen what looked like a new structure for a jigsaw puzzle. After a series of Google searches came up empty, the student and I were pretty certain that this was an original idea. We then brought the parents into the conversation and together filled out a patent application as they learned about IP. Currently, the new jigsaw puzzle design has a patent pending status and will be reviewed for a full U. S. patent in a year or more. The student next has to decide whether to license or sell the idea to an existing company, or launch their own start-up. In any case, the student will graduate with IP, which definitely looks great on a college application!
The second example took place on a wall of whiteboards residing just outside my new classroom in the PJM STEM Center. I fill the whiteboards with puzzles of many types. Regularly, I put up a puzzle whose underlying math has been overlooked or, at least, under-explored (many puzzles are of this type). This fall, two students extended what is known about the math behind a particular puzzle: one made a novel observation and the other crafted a formula that quantified the observation. After conducting many Google searches using diverse search terms, we suspected it was an original math result. We quickly wrote it up as a short paper ensuring it was copyrighted. We are now moving ahead to get the paper published.
After providing many opportunities that entice students toward creating IP, the next key to Organic Entrepreneurship is for teachers to be astute to the times when a student’s idea might be original. They need a good “novelty detector,” so to speak. If a student’s idea seems novel, then the teacher needs to help the student conduct the Google searches and, possibly, patent searches to confirm its originality. After this initial verification, teachers can start to instruct the student (and often their parents) about the relevant IP and business issues.
I find Organic Entrepreneurship to be a more effective way to teach entrepreneurship than through theoretical classes. Students are often not motivated to learn the IP and business content until they have actually created an original idea that needs to be legally protected quickly before it is “scooped.” In these real world situations, you experience students becoming empowered to engage with the world of ideas and commerce, and you see the walls between the classroom and the world fade away.
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