Mathematicians in the Shark Tank!

November 17, 2012


Student team members (from left) Elizabeth Lam (Toronto), Drew Swartz (Purdue), and Lei Ge (Central Florida) make a business pitch.
Fadil Santosa and Richard Sowers

We're all aware of careers in industrial mathematics, but what about a career in entrepreneurial mathematics? Because the majority of new jobs are in small businesses, the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota decided to run an experiment, which took the form of a workshop, Fostering Mathematical Entrepreneurship: Creating New Businesses for Wealth and Impact. Held August 2 and 3 at the IMA, the workshop was designed to expose mathematics grad students to the notion of starting their own businesses. John Dexheimer (Lightwave Advisors and First Analysis Private Equity), Doug Johnson (University of Minnesota Venture Center), Fadil Santosa (IMA), and Richard Sowers (University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign) organized the workshop; 20 graduate students attended.

Kicking off the workshop was Jeff Hoffstein of Brown University, who is co-founder of NTRU, a company focused on cryptography. His talk, in which he recounted his journey as an entrepreneur (see accompanying interview), was followed by two panel discussions. One panel was made up of people from companies built on technologies in which mathematics is an important component; the other featured members of the venture capital community in discussions of the types of companies they fund.
In the afternoon, after a crash course on creating a business plan, the students were divided into groups and given assignments. The assignments were formed around technologies that the organizers had come up with; all required mathematics in order to be realized and all were assumed to exist. A team's task was to develop a business plan based on the assigned technology. Some of the technologies are:


Each group was to come up with a 10- to 15-minute presentation (to be given the following morning) with the aim of attracting venture or angel funding. In other words, they had to project what the size of the market would be, how their product would compare with others, and so forth (thank goodness for the web). None of these projects were centered around the students' actual research; they were essentially case studies and thought experiments.

The organizers were amazed by the quality of the presentations. The thought and the hard work that went into the business plans were noticeable. Moreover, the delivery was in general polished and convincing. It was clear that the students were enthusiastic and genuinely excited about the exercise. As organizers, our modest goal was to ask the students to step briefly outside their comfort zones. They exceeded our goals by immersing themselves in an unfamiliar world and functioning as budding entrepreneurs.

One student remarked that she did not realize until she participated in the workshop how much fun it was to put together a business plan. Another said, "I now have a better idea of what opportunities are out there for me, and hearing the personal experiences of individuals with similar backgrounds, their successes and failures, is invaluable." In many ways, mathematics is a good preparation for entrepreneurship. It is a competitive field that requires logical thought processes, careful analysis, the ability to convince, and the desire to solve problems.

Douglas Ulmer, chair of the School of Mathematics at Georgia Tech, attended as an observer. He noted at the end that the workshop was very different from the typical mathematics workshop: "This was a valuable experience that more mathematicians should be exposed to. Not everyone will end up starting a company after they go to a workshop like this, but this kind of activity really broadens their perspective and informs them of opportunities for mathematicians. The IMA should run workshops like this for faculty also."

At this clearly nonstandard mathematics workshop, the students seemed to find immense enjoyment in the challenge of connecting (admittedly fictional) mathematical ideas to something that could be commercialized. The IMA is planning another such workshop for the future; stay tuned.

Students interested in seeing potentially viable ideas for business might want to check out the following:


Fadil Santosa is director of the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota. Richard Sowers is a professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.


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