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Mathematicians in the Shark Tank!

On August 2 and 3, the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) tried something experimental. We're all aware of careers in industrial mathematics, but a career in entrepreneurial mathematics? Since the majority of new jobs come from small businesses, the IMA decided to hold the workshop "Fostering Mathematical Entrepreneurship: Creating New Businesses for Wealth and Impact," exposing mathematics grad students to the notion of starting their own businesses. The workshop, organized by John Dexheimer (Lightwave Advisors and First Analysis Private Equity), Doug Johnson (University of Minnesota Venture Center), Fadil Santosa (IMA), Richard Sowers (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), was attended by a total of 20 graduate students.

The workshop kicked off with a talk by Jeff Hofstein of Brown University and co-founder of NTRU, a company focused on cryptography. This was followed by two panel discussions—one on companies built on technologies in which mathematics is an important component and another featuring members of the venture capital community.

In the afternoon, after a "crash course" on how to create a business plan, the grad students broke into groups and were given assignments. The teams were formed around the technologies that the organizers put came up with. Each technology, which requires mathematics in order to be realized, is assumed to exist. The teams' task was to develop a business plan based on the technology. Technologies included algorithms for reconstructing documents that have been shredded (based on the DARPA challenge http://archive.darpa.mil/shredderchallenge; simulating diamond cutting and visualizing cut diamonds; noise cancellation technology for homes; and OCR for hand-written mathematics.

The task for each group was to come up with a 10–15 minute presentation targeted to venture or angel funding. In other words, they had to project the size of the market, and how their product would compare with others. None of these projects focused on the actual research of the graduate students; they were essentially case studies and thought experiments.

The organizers were truly amazed by the quality of the presentations. The thought and the hard work that went into creating the business plans were noticeable. Moreover, the delivery was extremely polished and convincing. It was clear that the students were enthusiastic and very excited by the exercise. The students exceeded the organizers’ goals by immersing themselves in the unfamiliar world of entrepreneurship and functioning as budding entrepreneurs

As one student noted, "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 process, careful analysis, the ability to convince, and the desire to solve problems.

Douglas Ulmer, chair of the School of Mathematics at Georgia Tech, participated as an observer, said that this workshop was very different from the typical workshop mathematicians go to.

"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," he added.