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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2014

Pivoting the focus

A message from the dean

Dean Daryll DeWald
Dean Daryll DeWald

An entrepreneur is traditionally assumed to be someone who has or wants to create a business—a service, a product, or a storefront—with the goal of generating a profit. While this may be accurate, it is also a relatively narrow characterization.

The etymology of entrepreneur is French: the verb “entreprendre” means to undertake, as in a specific task. Entries in the Oxford and Merriam-Webster
English dictionaries reflect the common business-focus of the word, but you’ll find a broader, more modern definition on the ubiquitous website: a person who organizes and manages any enterprise…usually with considerable initiative and risk.

Academics are by nature entrepreneurial. From designing course curriculum to conducting experiments to creating new art, WSU faculty, researchers, and scholars initiate, organize, and manage significant knowledge-creation enterprises every day.

Entrepreneurship is also about discovery and forging new paths—two concepts in which faculty and scholars are well versed. The University and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) are working to create a culture where knowledge and ideas are collaboratively evaluated for opportunities beyond their initial purpose, including business applications.

When research moves out of the laboratory and into the marketplace, the information is reframed so it is accessible and meaningful to an external audience. The science itself transitions from having value as a published paper to serving as the basis for an economic opportunity.

Reaching across disciplinary boundaries and engaging in new ways is key to making the transition, and it’s happening right now at WSU.

For example, working under the guidance of the SKILD at WSU program, food science graduate student Amir Golmohamadi and chemistry post-doc Cindy Choy analyzed a technical engineering paper on microwave-assisted pyrolysis and a new, potentially energy-dense, clean-burning fuel compound. They then researched refining processes and regulations and discovered an environmental opportunity in the ocean-going shipping industry. Together, the SKILD team and the researcher successfully reframed the product profile into a proposal that businesses and investors could hear and understand. That’s entrepreneurship.

Pivoting the focus of an idea to generate new opportunities can benefit projects in many disciplines. Dene Grigar, associate professor and director of the Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) program at WSU Vancouver, is developing a digital press and a structure to formally review scholarly efforts and activities in the humanities. It is an academic project, but it is also entrepreneurial because no one has done it before.

The same can be said of Kim Christen Whithey, associate director of DTC in Pullman and director of digital projects for the WSU Plateau Center, American Indian Programs, who is creating a cultural heritage licensing model similar to Creative Commons that is sensitive to specific cultural norms.

Alongside the SKILD program, CAS is collaborating with successful alumni and working with Glenn Prestwich, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Visiting Professor at WSU and an expert in commercialization of university scholarship and technology, to encourage and increase entrepreneurial opportunities for faculty and graduate students.

Undergraduate students are also an important creative resource and they benefit greatly from exposure to interdisciplinary and collaborative experiences. The Carson College of Business (CCOB) at WSU is proposing an undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship that will nicely complement any CAS area of study. CAS students can participate in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s Frank Institute where teams of students from engineering, business, science, and the arts work together to develop a product and then enter the annual CCOB business plan competition.

The goal of these activities is to enhance the overall University experience, create a well-trained workforce, and augment the value of WSU research, scholarly, and creative activities.

Fundamentally, we are all intellectual entrepreneurs—working at the margins of understanding, building knowledge, finding opportunities, and forging new paths.