Keller summer programs engage students locally, globally

By Wendy Plump
July 05, 2017

Burgers and cold drinks gave the Keller Center’s recent barbecue a laid-back vibe, but the students representing the Center's signature summer programs brimmed with energy.

“We are all very excited, as this is a pivotal summer,” said Ben Sorkin, a mechanical and aerospace engineer major, and founder of Flux Marine, the team that is developing electrical outboard motors to compete with higher-polluting gas-powered motors. “Members of the eLab team have been working on the project for two years, and this is the summer that can be our transition from a project to a scalable venture."

The Flux Marine team is one example of the students working through the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education’s eLab Summer Accelerator Program, now in its sixth year. Other summer programs include the international Research Exchange Program (REACH), the oldest of the Center’s summer programs, begun in 2010; Tiger Challenge, now in its second year; and Princeton Startup-Immersion Program (PSIP), also initiated last summer.

The eight- or 10-week programs embrace the Center’s mission to build on students’ entrepreneurial skills through internships, or provide a platform through which they can launch a startup venture. Workshops, mentoring, lab work, guest speakers, and meetings with advisers and community leaders fill out students' time on campus. Student interns have also been dispatched to Manhattan, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tel Aviv.

In all, the center's four summer programs engage over 150 students.

“I think students are really looking for opportunities like this,” said Lilian Tsang, associate director of outreach and administration for the center and program head for REACH and PSIP. “We have a very different formula than you might see at internships at a place like Google. These are very small companies. Students do everything, so they have opportunities they wouldn’t have in a larger company. They’re doing roll-your-sleeves-up, high impact work.”

Three students laugh and talk at picnic

Nurturing startups

The eLab Summer Accelerator Program has 36 students on seven teams who work out of the Keller’s Entrepreneurial Hub on Chambers Street as they refine their startups. The teams this summer include BoxPower, targeting innovative infrastructure solutions for off-grid and under-served markets worldwide; Epigrammar, an automated student assessment platform for teachers; Flux Marine, developing electrical outboard motors that outperform traditional gas engines; HomeWorks, a local, after-school enrichment community for at-risk high school girls; Scribble, an enhanced whiteboard app for equations, diagrams, and drawings; SenseSim, developing computer vision components for autonomous vehicles; and Thrive+, a consumer products goods concern targeting the negative effects of alcohol consumption.

A new component of eLab this year is a three-day boot camp to kick off the program in June. Ed Zschau, who introduced Princeton's first entrepreneurship class in 1998 and taught it for 16 years, returned to lead the series of discussions, workshops, exercises and conversations about entrepreneurship. The teams studied cases on well known companies as well as cases focused on the current ventures in the eLab. In addition they were given readings in advance and then conducted peer assessments, and helped their peers develop an action plan for the summer.

This year the teams also have been assigned advisers from the Keller Center entrepreneurship faculty, who meet with the teams each week, in addition to mentors from the business community, who also meet throughout the summer.

“We are offering more entrepreneurship courses at the Center that are exposing students to the skills they need and giving them a head start,” said Stephanie Landers, program manager for Keller and the manager of eLab. “We’ve added so many courses over the last five years that the entrepreneurial bug has caught on."

The eLab summer program concludes with two "Demo Days," one in Princeton on August 15 and one in New York City on August 16, at which students pitch their ventures to a team of investors and organizational leaders.

Four male students pose for camera

International research exchange

The REACH program sends students abroad for eight-week internships with faculty members at universities in Germany, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some 13 Princeton students have internships this year in areas including applied cryptography, security in embedded devices, material science, mechanical engineering and cloud computing, said Tsang.

REACH also is hosting eight international students on Princeton’s campus from the international partner universities. Students generally apply to work under the direction of a specific Princeton professor, guided by opportunities listed on Keller’s website, Tsang said. Several of those professors have been working with REACH since its inception seven years ago.

Solving intractable problems

The Tiger Challenge is a multiyear program organized around a design-thinking methodology that emphasizes empathy and creativity in problem-solving, as well as time, dedication and partnerships with the communities most impacted. Currently 72 students work in 14 Tiger Challenge teams and a fellowship program.

A newly initiated cohort of 22 students is addressing four issues, some proposed by students, some by partner organizations, said Rafe Steinhauer, entrepreneurial program manager/Tiger Challenge. The four topics include helping resettled refugees build fulfilling careers in New York and New Jersey; decreasing the number of new cases of lead poisoning in Mercer County; enhancing participation in Princeton municipality’s climate action plan; and assisting medical staff in more effective monitoring of infant pulse- and blood-oxygen levels.

Rising senior Stefan Lee is working on the Princeton municipality climate action plan, named Green Plan It. “We have a team of 14 mentors who are volunteering their time to contribute to our overall progress, including one partner organization, Sustainable Princeton, that has been incredibly enthusiastic about giving our project direction and focus,” Lee said.

“Our greatest challenge will be increasing visibility for the project and encouraging widespread participation. All of our recommendations will be drawn from our conversations with community members, and tailored to promote widespread interest.”

Five team members, two men and three women

Startup immersion

The largest of the summer programs, PSIP, sent 34 students to New York and 23 to Tel Aviv for internships at early-stage startups. The New York students live at the Princeton Club in Manhattan and disperse across the city each morning to work as interns at 19 startups in the digital technology, biotech, social and health fields.

Students in the PSIP-Israel program, new for summer 2017, intern at Tel Aviv-based startup companies, with the added dimension of an immersive cultural experience, said Tsang.

“Israel has the highest density of startups in the world, and per capita venture capital investments greater than that in the US, Europe, China or India,” she said. “Sending our PSIP students to learn their ‘secret sauce’ to innovation and entrepreneurship was a very logical next track for expanding the program.”

While each of the programs has an end-of-summer gathering, there are no assumptions that the work is finished then, or for quite a long time afterwards. Most of the projects begun or inspired by the summer programs will continue: innovation takes time, and startups have a better chance of succeeding if they are well designed, said program managers.

“For the Tiger Challenge, there’s no final presentation, paper or pitch,” Steinhauer explained. “The ‘finale’ is working with a partner community to implement an innovation that has a sustainable impact. This is both an inspiring and daunting objective, so we try not to distract our students with competitions or arbitrary deliverables. This makes the Tiger Challenge an unusual program in higher education, but we are practicing a skill that we preach: embracing ambiguity.”