A gap exists between engineering a technology breakthrough and turning it into a money-making, viable enterprise. The skills needed to bridge this chasm fall under the broad area of entrepreneurism, and university programs around the country have popped up in an attempt to impart this business knowledge to engineers.
Yet, it is practical experience, coupled with an innate drive, funding and perhaps some good connections, that really transforms technical expertise into business leadership. Ikhlaq Sidhu, the founder and director of the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, has been working to address the need to develop business skills within the school's engineering students.
The 3Com Corp. engineer-turned-professor last month joined early-stage VC firm Onset Ventures as a venture adviser. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based firm is known for the academic connections and big tech and healthcare company backgrounds of its partners. "My role at Berkeley has been to bring into our programs an understanding of entrepreneurship in a real way from actual people who do it every day," says the India native. "I can bring what I know into Onset, but the real hands-on experience I have with the firm will also benefit the curriculum here."
Sidhu, 46, was recruited in 2005 by Berkeley to start Cal's entrepreneurship program after he founded a similar organization at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What Sidhu helped create at Berkeley has become one of a handful of top entrepreneurial university programs in the U.S., including Stanford University's Stanford Technology Ventures Program, which is chaired by Tom Byers, brother of famed VC Brook Byers; Georgia Institute of Technology's Technological Innovation: Generating Economic Results, or Ti:ger, run by Marie Thursby; and similar organizations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
The Berkeley program is taught largely through case studies, but Sidhu brings in executives and engineers from companies around the Valley to breathe life into the lessons. He also infuses the curriculum with his career experience.
After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1988, Sidhu worked for three years developing the first generation of laser printers at Hewlett-Packard Co., then entered the doctoral program in electrical engineering at Northwestern University. He parlayed a summer job in 1994 with USRobotics Corp., then located five miles from NWU, into a full-time position, working on advanced development for the modem maker.
After USRobotics was acquired in 1997 by 3Com, Sidhu continued working at the enlarged company on technologies that were fundamental to voice over Internet protocol, wireless and network routing. He racked up 60 patents in the process.
Sidhu left 3Com in 2001 to work for Cambia Networks Inc., a wireless router startup that flamed out two years and $11 million in VC funding later. Many of its rivals met the same fate; the one competitor that pulled through was Starent Networks, which was acquired by Cisco Systems Inc. for $2.9 billion in 2009.
Cambia's timing was unfortunate, and there were internal dynamics and personality issues that led to its demise, Sidhu says. And though he thrived after 3Com's takeover of USRobotics, history proved the $8.5 billion transaction to be a painful milestone for 3Com, which was purchased by HP in 2010 for $2.7 billion.
"There is an integration over time of all these things I've experienced," Sidhu says. "It's not just a technical product or what you can create through analysis. There are other skills and ways of looking at the world. My goal in returning to academics was to close that gap."
Among the successful ventures that have sprung from Sidhu's program at Berkeley is six-year-old Rapleaf Inc., whose technology helps businesses understand consumers' Internet usage. The San Francisco company's founders, Auren Hoffman and Manish Shah, met while working on a project at the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology.
Sidhu says he has already met with potential early-stage ventures in his new role at Onset. But the collaboration is working in the other direction too -- Sidhu is writing up a case study with Onset Ventures partner Shomit Ghose.
The piece will analyze the decision last year by Netflix Inc. to separate its DVD-by-mail service from its streaming content offering. Netflix's plan was roundly criticized, but Sidhu says his initial findings show the business case for the move might have been on target. Netflix, perhaps, faced the common Silicon Valley problem that Sidhu is trying to solve: an inability to bridge the gap from a sound idea to market reality.