Everybody’s an Entrepreneur

Innovation and entrepreneurship are hallmarks of the Stevens experience.

I&E – that’s innovation and entrepreneurship – has been a staple of the Castle Point experience since Colonel John Stevens was testing his “steam waggon” and trying to start the country’s first railroad company. Though innovation has evolved beyond those early days of the industrial revolution, the creative spirit still thrives on campus. Faculty, alumni and students continue to pursue ambitious entrepreneurship.

When Howard Oringer ’62 enrolled as a freshman, Stevens was still a year away from offering a specialized degree in anything other than mechanical engineering. Since then, of course, the university has developed expertise in an array of innovative fields.

Oringer has also stayed ahead of the curve. After getting his broad education at Stevens, he spent 35 years in the telecom industry, initially with AT&T and then entering the emerging wireless market as CEO with a venture-funded new company, TeleSciences. He’s now lending his expertise to startups as the managing director of Communications Capital Group, a consulting and venture capital firm.

With his wife Janice, Oringer made a gift to establish the Howard Oringer ’62 Fellow at the Stevens Venture Center (SVC). The SVC launched in 2016 and now occupies space within a new 500,000 square-foot building in downtown Hoboken.

“Jan and I created the Oringer Fellowship because we believe in entrepreneurship and new business generation,” Oringer said. “Stevens has a history of supporting inventors, innovators and bright minds. If we are going to help solve some of the most challenging problems of our time, we need to continue to support students in their pursuits of business. This fellowship assists faculty to spend more time and resources with students who hold the most promise.”

The first Oringer Fellow is Dr. Mukund Iyengar, who turned down offers from Facebook and Google to teach at Stevens beginning in 2012. Iyengar is busy at the SVC. He runs Launchpad, where students learn from real-world entrepreneurs before starting their own companies, iSTEM (more on this below), a healthcare hackathon and plenty of other I&E activity.

In Launchpad, students learn to identify ideas with commercial viability and practice the steps in building a startup. “Starting and growing a company is incredibly difficult,” Iyengar said. “It’s the ultimate education.”

Iyengar is bootstrapping Launchpad with his own resources, but he is eager to see the program grow. To date, six student-led startups founded through Launchpad have been valued at a combined $36 million. This includes iUbble, a web browser founded by Kevin Barresi ’16 M.Eng. ’16, and which Barresi, with Iyengar’s guidance, merged with FinTech Studios, a search and analytics platform for financial firms.

Barresi is now FinTech’s CTO and an entrepreneur-in-residence at the SVC, where he is also available to mentor students. In fact, Barresi donated a $5,000 prize he won from a coding competition to grow the SVC.

“Mukund has had an immense impact on the students and young companies he has assisted thus far,” Oringer said. “He is an impressive individual, and we are thrilled to support him, and by extension, the entrepreneurs getting their start at Stevens.”

In addition to its alumni, Stevens is fortunate that many friends are supporting I&E on campus. For example, in 2013, trustee Tom Scholl established the Thomas H. Scholl Lecture by Visiting Entrepreneurs a talk Bill Barhydt ’90 gave this year on Where WiFi Meets SciFi: Entrepreneurship in a Future Shaped by AI, Bitcoin and Flying Robots.

Then there is the Ansary Family, a prominent family of international lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs, educators and authors. Cy and Jan Ansary started their namesake foundation in 1983, and they’ve since passed the philanthropic torch to their children, including Jeff, who is the foundation’s president, and Brad, who is managing director of the family’s company.

The Cy and Jan Ansary Foundation supports education, entrepreneurship and other causes. In 2016, they began providing prize money at the annual Innovation Expo, where seniors pitch their design projects as potential startups to a panel of guest judges. An endowed gift ahead of the 2019 pitch added a prestigious new name of the Ansary Entrepreneurship Competition, featuring the Ansary Prizes for Entrepreneurship of $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500 to the top three finishers.

“Through the generosity of this wonderful family,” President Farvardin said, “Stevens is able to nurture, support and provide recognition and rewards for the talented entrepreneurs in our student body. The Ansary Entrepreneurship Competition is a significant milestone for Stevens innovation. It will further motivate students to consider the commercial viability of their senior design projects, and it will provide funding to assist in that transition from a simple university project to a viable startup enterprise.”

During the inaugural Ansary competition, the students of Castle Point Rocketry co-won first place by impressing a panel that included judges from Google and Tesla, plus Dawn Ortell ’77 of Johnson & Johnson and Marques Brownlee ’15, a tech influencer with 2 billion YouTube views.

Castle Point Rocketry aims to launch a liquid-fueled rocket past the Karman Line, an imaginary line 100 kilometers into space. The team thinks it can service companies seeking low-cost payloads for drug development, disease modeling, crop science, quantum satellites and other uses.

“It’s been hypothesized that the next cancer-fighting innovation will have its beginnings in space, with pharmaceutical companies already researching new drugs on the International Space Station,” Faris Ibrahim ’19 said during Castle Point Rocketry’s pitch. “Our goal is to make this frontier of research accessible to small businesses and universities.”

Though the founding students of Castle Point Rocketry have graduated, a new cohort is continuing their work. This year, the alumni of Castle Point Rocketry are using their Ansary
prize, plus money they received from direct gifts, to fund three new senior design teams.

“They will each work on a small section of the rocket, iterating on the current design to make a better vehicle overall,” said Dakota Van Deursen ’19. “We look forward to what this partnership holds in store.”

Around 2011, Emilio Fernandez started hearing a lot about Stevens from his friend who had recently become the university’s president, Nariman Farvardin. They met years before while Farvardin was a professor at Fernandez’s alma mater, the University of Maryland. Fernandez was so impressed with Stevens, he became actively involved and was invited to join the Board of Trustees.

Fernandez knows plenty about I&E, having secured more than two dozen patents and formed or funded several companies. But he remembers having a tough time in school, and he’s now supporting other students in the same boat.

“I realized I don’t learn in a linear fashion,” Fernandez said. “Like myself are many who do not. And yet, we’re able to make contributions. I want to try to rescue some of the students in high schools who are very technically able, as they prove by participating in labs and science fairs. After hours, they belong to computer clubs. But, their grades might not reflect their capability.”

Through philanthropy, Fernandez is powering iSTEM – the “i” standing for instinctive – a program for Stevens students to discover, develop and apply their talent for I&E.

“iSTEM is a unique ecosystem that fosters successful enterprise-building with students in a leadership role,” said Professor Iyengar. “Our mission is to unleash the innate passion and talent of our participants in a powerful way.”

iSTEM students receive academic support and mentoring. Since the program started in 2018, iSTEM students are on track to start three companies and one non-profit.

Jocelyn Ragukonis ’22 came to Stevens with no prior experience in coding, unsure of what she wanted to do with her degree. Through iSTEM, she has explored her passion for helping her sister who just had a baby. After tinkering with spare cameras and open-source software and spending a summer learning about computer vision, AI, hardware and iOS development, Jocelyn designed a new baby monitor. With three users so far, Jocelyn formed Bira.ai – as she calls it, the Tesla of baby monitors. She wants to raise $4 million before she graduates to run the company full-time, eventually capturing adjacent video markets like pet-care, senior-care and home surveillance.

“One of the most rewarding experiences of starting Bira.ai has been speaking with new mothers from all walks of life,” Jocelyn said. “No two stories of pregnancy, delivery and life with a newborn are the same.”

Like the entrepreneurial students he is helping, Fernandez also has a grand vision for iSTEM. “This is a program I feel strongly about,” he said. “It could get started here and perhaps continue to other universities under the Stevens banner. It has been a very rewarding experience to see how it’s developing.”

Thanks to dedicated faculty, enterprising students and generous donors, I&E will continue to flourish at Stevens. This year’s HealthTech Hackathon, sponsored by companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Quest Diagnostics, features students pursuing solutions to improve the patient experience. An anonymous donor recently made a gift to establish an accelerator at the SVC. Seniors are working on their design ideas ahead of the next Ansary Entrepreneurship Competition in May, and the students in Launchpad and iSTEM will continue exploring I&E, just like in the founding days of Stevens.