Professor looks to empower student entrepreneurship using his own startup experience
As a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech and a founder of Kryptowire, a leader in cloud-based mobile security and privacy solutions, Angelos Stavrou works at the intersection of engineering and entrepreneurship. And at this stage in his career, Stavrou has been asking: How do I give back?
“To me,” he said, “if we really care about diversity in engineering, then we need to enable students to succeed beyond a siloed role on an engineering team.”
For Stavrou, this means empowering students with the education and opportunity to incubate new companies. He points to Virginia Tech’s LINK+LICENSE+LAUNCH as part of a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship at the university and possibly for Virginia to be a new startup hub.
“Why not Virginia?” he asked. Citing the growth of tech hubs in Colorado and Texas, Stavrou argued that Northern Virginia and the new Virginia Tech Innovation Campus ramping up in Alexandria have their own advantages — including the potential for a mix of innovation tied to government as well as for innovative products used by everyone. His own company, Kryptowire, started with technological innovation tied directly to government contracts before broadening their market, he said.
Kryptowire raised $21 million of venture capital in February, so Stavrou is well-versed in the finance side of the start-up equation.
He described his own learning process regarding how to navigate the ecosystem of angel investing and venture capital (VC), and he sees now that Kryptowire could have done better by taking VC funds and growing faster.
Until a couple of years ago, Kryptowire didn’t even have a salesperson, he said. Anyone can raise money, he said, but it’s important to raise it from a competitive VC network that will help you grow. He is currently helping friends — professors primarily — avoid some of his mistakes. “Failing fast instead of languishing is better,” he said, “and it's something I need to instill in others.”
To further explain, Stavrou compares the United States to Europe, where there are no possibilities for bankruptcy. Here in the U.S., however, VCs expect some or most ventures to fail, and that is part of the system. Failure in some sense is the model. This is very different from what engineering students think about failure, he joked.
The trick, he said, is to teach what it means to take necessary, calculated risks. Many successful entrepreneurs have failures under their belts and have learned from them. In that way, failure is valuable feedback that can lead to future success, just like in a lab, Stavrou said. “Some of your experiments will fail, but they will potentially teach you a lot. Our students need to learn and be comfortable with failing as part of the learning process,” he said, and have the experience in a controlled setting such as an incubation center.
Learning from the overall process, Stavrou said, is the main point. “We are doing a disservice to our students when we train them to be highly skilled but don’t give them all the options,” he said. And one big option is entrepreneurship itself.
Consider all the options
Instead of graduating and joining a big company, students can create their own. They might not have security and stock options and a medical plan, Stavrou said, but at the end of the two- or three-year process, they have a shot at making something of their own and growing it. There are many responsibilities, but also many benefits, he said. The experience of being CEO, salesperson, and head of marketing is invaluable, Stavrou said, even if they later join a big company. In fact, he noted, many large companies hire people with startup experience at leadership roles instead of entry-level positions.
Not paying attention to the stages of innovation, intellectual property, and business plans because we are technologists or engineers, Stavrou said, can be detrimental, even though it requires a bit more work.
While Stavrou involves students in his company through internships and co-ops, he also encourages them to join other startups. Most importantly, he wants them to look at their ideas from a business standpoint. “I do not want them to be fearless, but less conservative — allow for a little more calculated risk-taking,” he said.
He wants to empower them to believe they can actually be the next Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. “Why not see how they do?” he asked. Some will start their own companies, and others will not, he said. But they will all learn valuable lessons from the process.
"You don’t have to be the person who comes up with the idea, which is something I learned personally. You can be the person who recognizes the value of the idea and has the team to build it up. Maybe a Virginia Tech student will found the next big tech company. We’ll never know unless we try.”