Nail It at the Design/Business Competition: Advice for Undergrad Engineering Students
Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from Laura Schoppe’s guest lecture to undergraduate students in the Senior Design Project course in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program at North Carolina State University (NCSU). The course ends with business plan competition–style presentations by all of the students to local business managers as the judges.
Click on the slide graphics below to view larger versions.
Why Communication Is Important
Keep in mind that many of the judges are shopping for employees. This is your chance to impress them. You might get a job out of it.
Plus, the skills we’re talking about today are relevant for the rest of your life: getting a job or your next slug of funding, pitching projects internally, negotiating for salary/promotion. Even if you become a professor, you’ll be selling all the time as you try to get lab equipment or funding. Like it or not, you will constantly be selling for the rest of your professional life in order to advance your career.
Put It in Context for the Judges
I’ve been volunteering as a judge for the Senior Design Project for a few years. One year, there were two completely different displays in the students’ booths — one had a golf cart and one had a door. But when I asked them to describe their project, they both said something along the lines of, “I came up with the circuitry, I did some programming”… and that’s it.
It turned out that the golf cart was related to passively charging an electric car as it drove over a roadway. The other was to help a deaf person know when someone was at their door. These projects were two completely different things, but the students described them the exact same way.
You have to be able to engage the judges and get us to understand your project from the start. You need to focus not on what you are doing but why you are doing it.
Find the Market Fit
Basic research seems okay now because you’re undergrads, but in the long term the focus is on applied research. Federal agencies are focused on solving a problem. This is even more the case at corporations, where you have to justify the investment and know how much is needed. Because it’s gotta make more than it’s gonna cost, you have to understand the market.
This may be beyond the scope of what you’re doing for this project, but you should be thinking about it. Why? Because it all fits into the business plan — either for the product or for the business itself if you’re talking about a startup.
And now it’s so easy. We used to have to buy market research reports. It has gotten to the point where you can find a whole lot of this data on the Internet. So as you’re starting your project and you’re wondering how you’d compare, do an online search. Does someone out there already offer a technology to alert a deaf person when someone is at their door? If so, how much does it cost and how easy is it to install? You’d be amazed at what you can find online.
And if you think you don’t have any competition… Even if your idea is entirely brand new, you still have competition. Instead of a product, your competition is the market doing nothing. They are surviving today without your technology. That’s still competition.
It’s never too early to think about the market and competition for your idea.
Editor’s note: Laura also included a discussion about her AMMO concept for communication — learn more about the AMMO here.
Constructing Your Message: Focus on Benefits and Applications
Focus on what it is you have to offer, explaining what it is, its benefits, and its potential applications. Why and how are you different? Are you better, faster, cheaper? If you are more expensive and you do what already exists, you are dead in the water. If you’re much, much better, then people might pay a premium, especially for safety in certain industries, like aerospace.
Providing examples of possible applications helps the judges connect the dots between what you’ve designed and how it can be used. It makes them care about what you’ve done. Also, the panel of judges are from different industries, so you’re more likely to connect with them if you make it easier for them to see it as part of a final product. Think broadly about how what you’ve developed can be used.
7 Important Reminders
1. Write down your technology overview. Take 5 minutes to jot down your pitch, and then keep it as a living document that you modify as you talk to people.
2. Immediately get their mind where you need it to be. You don’t want them wondering what the heck the golf cart has to do with what you’re talking about. Your first sentence should lay out what problem you’ve solved.
3. You don’t have to get everything out right away. To begin with, you’re just trying to capture their interest. If the judge from Cisco or wherever likes what they hear from you and how you present yourself, they’ll come back to learn more.
4. You’re not educating them about how it works. Again, they’ll ask more questions if they’re interested. Plus you don’t want to ruin your ability to get a patent on your technology, so don’t disclose too much.
5. Don’t use any jargon. Your judges might not be technical. Some of them may be your professors, but many are from industry with varying backgrounds. Even the engineers among them may not be EE, and some are business-minded people. You have to connect with all of them.
6. Be presentable and dress appropriately. That doesn’t mean a suit, but not shorts and a ripped t-shirt. Taking pride in your work will impress the judges. (Here’s more advice if you’re a woman.)
7. Relax and be confident. Chances are good that you know more about what you’re presenting than they do, so relax. (Consider these 6 Ways to Reduce the Stress of Presenting from Harvard Business Review.)