From the garage to the valley

[ubermenu config_id=”main” menu=”84″] NEWSROOM From the garage to the valleyOct 30, 2014 Being your own boss. Setting your own hours. Having your name on the front door. Those are the perks that come to mind when most people think of life as an entrepr …

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From the garage to the valley

Oct 30, 2014

Being your own boss. Setting your own hours. Having your name on the front door.

Those are the perks that come to mind when most people think of life as an entrepreneur. Natalia von Windheim wants more; she wants the freedom to change the world.

Thanks to her involvement with NC State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI) – a university-wide program encouraging entrepreneurial and collaborative efforts across disciplines – the idea doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Among the EI’s innovative programs is an annual spring break trip to Silicon Valley – the northern California spot that has been a training ground for budding entrepreneurs while providing a historical blueprint for some of the most successful companies in the world. Since then, the creation of an on-campus entrepreneurial competition known as the Lulu eGames and a try-and-try-again space known as the EI Garage have followed.

Beta-testing an experience

In March, von Windheim became part of the EI spring break tradition as she and 15 other EI students made the cross-country trip to Silicon Valley. The trip is made possible thanks to generous sponsors and friends of the EI.

“It was really inspirational to go out there and see all the things happening,” said von Windheim, a junior in materials science and engineering. “I think a lot of the things about the environment in Silicon Valley encourage people to be motivated – to make something happen.”

Hearing this type of reaction is what keeps Dr. Tom Miller going. He is founder of the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program (EEP) and the EI, and it has been a decade since he first traveled with 12 students and three faculty members to California.

In the mid-1990s, Miller made a connection that would help bring the experience to life when he was invited to keynote at a meeting for department heads in electrical engineering. There, he met fellow keynote speaker Dr. Tom Byers from Stanford University, who invited him to attend what is known today as the Roundtable on Entrepreneurship Education Conference. During a later visit in the early 2000s, he and colleague

Aerospace engineering student Brett Pearce works in the EI Garage on NC State's Centennial Campus.Dr. Steve Walsh ran into a former student turned entrepreneur named Joe Britt – co-founder of Danger, the company that created the T-Mobile Sidekick. The interaction would inspire him to make his next big move: bringing NC State students out to Silicon Valley.

“After the very first one of these trips, going into it, I thought, ‘Well, we’ll probably do this one time – this will be the one and only time,'” said Miller, who is also the McPherson Family Distinguished Professor of Engineering Entrepreneurship. “But then, after the trip, we had a number of students coming and saying very sincerely that this was a life-changing experience. I realized we were doing something good.”

This year’s group – the largest cohort yet – included students representing disciplines from analytics to chemical engineering. Many were members of the EI Garage, a unique space on Centennial Campus that has all the things you’d need to transform a sketch into a pitch-worthy prototype. Others were members of both the Garage and the EI Ambassadors Program, of which von Windheim is president.

Wolfpack in the West

The trip is five days, but Miller ensures students are exposed to the full spectrum of entrepreneurship – from long-standing Fortune 500 companies to startups in their first few years of existence. To make it feel like home, there were plenty of alumni sightings along the way, including a homemade chili dinner courtesy of industrial engineering alumnus Tony Blevins – Apple’s vice president of procurement. He has been a host to the program for many years.

“I think this program is fantastic; I really admire it,” Blevins said. “Every year, I get as much out of it as I give . I think what these students are doing with their spring break is spectacular.”

Dinner at Blevins’ house was the end to a busy first day that included a walking tour of Stanford led by electrical and computer engineering alumnus Greg Mulholland. Mulholland, who also co-founded the Krispy Kreme Challenge at NC State, made the same trip during his senior year in 2007.

The next few days included travel to San Francisco to tour the city and visit entrepreneurs like NC State computer science alumnus Thushan Amarasiriwardena, who co-founded Launchpad Toys to develop digital toys and tools that empower kids to create, learn and share their ideas through play. The group later received personal tours and had lunch with alumni at Silicon Valley giants like Google and Apple. Sprinkled throughout the trip were stops at iconic spots like the Palo Alto Creamery and the Dutch Goose – the backdrops for many business deals.

Throughout the trip, students posed their best questions, including to a venture capitalist – the person they’ll one day work with to receive funding for their next big idea. As they sat in a boardroom where previous entrepreneurs pitched business plans, their confidence allowed them to ask bold, timely and challenging questions.

“You only have one shot, so you’ve got to be confident,” said Chad Etoroma, a senior in mechanical engineering. “The EI has definitely helped with that.”

Having NC State computer science alumnus Marshall Brain, director of EEP, on the trip was a tremendous resource. He is founder of, and students look to him for guidance both in the classroom and as they venture out and interact with potential investors.

“It’s interesting to see what they’ll do when they get back,” Brain said, reflecting on how students respond to their experience during the trip.

Later, when these students walk away with a degree, they’ll have a network of alumni to meet if they decide to make the trip back to the West Coast.

“To see these alumni who were in their shoes as students just a few years ago, taking their classes and having this kind of success in the hottest tech community in the world – not only competing, but succeeding in this world – it lets them know their NC State degree will allow them to do anything they want to do,” Miller said.

Driving the idea – a new space for the Garage

The Garage is the place to be for EI students. The space was established in 2010 after Red Hat made a gift to NC State and quickly turned into more than a place to build a company or launch the next best thing.

Imagine a place with 3D printers for making a prototype in a few hours, a media room with hi-tech equipment that helps students make a creative video that will be pitched to investors, and a plush sofa to crash on when it’s been a long day of brainstorming.

Well, that’s the Garage.

The space was previously located in Research Building IV on NC State’s Centennial Campus, but it became part of the new Andy and Jane Albright Entrepreneurs Living and Learning Village on Centennial Campus this summer. The Garage is now housed on the first floor of Innovation Hall, which is located in Wolf Ridge Apartments. Now, students can be neighbors and business partners.

Having resources like the Garage, fueled by other staple programs of the EI, attracts the next round of world-changing entrepreneurs to NC State.

“Many of these students – they’ve got the mindset, they’ve got the drive, they’ve got the passion, and they’re going to do great things,” Miller said. “If they do these great things as NC State alumni, it really makes the university more visible on the national and international scene in a positive way, a very positive way.”

Credit:  NCSU Engr News Article “From the garage to the valley”

Filed Under

Marshall Brain II

Director, Engineering Entrepreneurs Program
 Engineering Building II (EB2) 2016B

Tom Miller

McPherson Family Distinguished Professor Emeritus
 2400 DH Hill
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