STEM Meets Business in Newly Updated Tech Entrepreneurship Program

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By Scott Lewis

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“Invention is coming up with new ideas. Innovation and entrepreneurship create value out of ideas,” says Nik Rokop, Coleman Foundation Clinical Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at Illinois Institute of Technology. “Entrepreneurship and business principles are tools to use in creating successful ventures.”

As the new program director of the Master of Technological Entrepreneurship (MTE) program at Illinois Tech’s Stuart School of Business, Rokop is leading the charge to implement an updated MTE curriculum beginning in the spring 2021 semester. It is designed for students and professionals in STEM fields who want to learn how to bring technology-based products and services to market.

“Our main focus is engineers, scientists, tech-minded people in computers and analytics, architects—the kinds of students that we have here at Illinois Tech,” Rokop says. “In this program you’ll develop the business, design, and innovation skills to launch startups and take on leadership positions in businesses of all sizes where technology plays a key role.”

Rokop describes the MTE program as an experience in which students continuously engage with Chicago’s vibrant tech community and start digging into their capstone project from day one. Options for the capstone are to build a business or startup, commercialize a technology, or take on a corporate innovation project as an intrapreneur within a company.

“I want students to be working on the capstone as their main activity and apply what they learn in the courses to the project,” he says. “Whatever you’re doing with the project, you’ll be interacting with the community, your customers, supporters, and funders.”

As a self-described serial entrepreneur, Rokop has lived what he teaches. Trained as an engineer, he worked in his family’s firm in the steel industry before branching off to start his own businesses, including a manufacturing shop and the world’s first cybercafe within a major airport. He has also led divisions of large companies, headed up international joint ventures, run a consulting business and other ventures, and brought researchers and business people together as director of the nonprofit Chicago Micro and Nanotech Community. During more than a decade at Illinois Tech he has mentored hundreds of students and entrepreneurs in their startup endeavors.

A key campus partner for the program is the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, which provides activities and facilities such as workshops, media labs, and maker spaces that are central to the university’s focus on project-based initiatives generated by students.

“Illinois Tech is in the middle of Chicago, in close proximity to a number of accelerators and incubators in different industry sectors,” says Kaplan Institute Executive Director Maryam Saleh. “Through their membership at the Kaplan Institute, MTE students will have the opportunity to grow their business ideas not only through the Kaplan Institute’s mentors but also through connections to the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Prime examples of those off-campus connections are organizations such as 1871 and mHUB, where students can access co-working spaces, business incubators and accelerators, training and seminars, and valuable networking opportunities. “That’s where you find like-minded people,” says Rokop. “People you can work with, work for, or partner with, as well as funders and companies that are supporting entrepreneurs.”

MTE is one of only a handful of similar master’s programs in the United States, according to Rokop, and is distinctive even within that small group because the curriculum includes courses from Illinois Tech’s Institute of Design. “Our students will learn about design thinking, design methodology, and making an impact through the use of technology,” he says. “These design skills and tools are really useful for entrepreneurs and ID is a world-class institution.”

Building your network and leveraging resources that are available around you are essential for successful entrepreneurship, Rokop advises. “I tell students that most of the time while you’re in school, people try to support you,” he says. “When you leave school, they’re all competing with you. So take advantage of the supportive community while you can.”