June 8, 2017
By Kathleen Tibbetts
For Josh Thomas, an engineer by training, every new version of an idea brings a chance to discover something new. And the gift he’ll leave with SMU – an interactive map of the University’s entrepreneurial ecosystem – encapsulates both his work as an Engaged Learning Fellow and his hopes for future students.
“I wanted to let the undergraduate population know how many resources are available here on campus,” says Thomas, who will graduate May 20, from SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. “At SMU, we pride ourselves on our startup spirit – but you don’t get a more entrepreneurial campus unless you create more entrepreneurs.”
His map highlights resources such as the Dedman School of Law and its Patent and Small Business clinics – wellsprings of invaluable help and information that typical undergraduates may never know exist. SMU law students “give us great services like helping to search through existing patents, determine if an idea is patentable, process filings, help you set up your business as an LLC – and they do all this stuff for free,” Thomas says. “It can be a huge help, and the law students get great practice.”
An additional bonus: “Speaking with a law student can be slightly less intimidating than speaking with a lawyer you had to pay to do all this for you,” Thomas adds.
The Cox School of Business and its Caruth Institute for Entrepreneurship are another marker. So is the Deason Innovation Gym (The DIG) in the Lyle School of Engineering, a 24-hour source for maker education, brainstorming and prototyping. The Office of Engaged Learning earns a pin, as well as its Big iDeas program and The CUBE – a round-the-clock incubator-meets-office space in the University’s East Campus, run by students.
Director Jim Hart and his Arts Entrepreneurship Program in Meadows School of the Arts get the nod as perhaps the most unlikely treasure of all. Designed for arts undergraduates yet open to all students, Hart’s program offers broadly applicable guidance on starting a business.
Hart has won awards for what he’s built, and one visit to his office for friendly advice will show you why, Thomas says. “He does a fantastic job, and that’s a resource I don’t know that many students would even think to access.”
The fact that the SMU Entrepreneurship Map exists at all is a story in itself. In fact, at its beginning it wasn’t a map at all. The idea that originally earned Thomas an SMU Engaged Learning Fellowship – a grant of up to $2,000 to pursue work that intentionally links classroom experience with real-world experience – was to build a mentor network for his fellow undergraduates. Think of it as LinkedIn for the startup set.
“The idea was to create a space where students who had an idea could build a multidisciplinary team to execute it – not just your friends in the business school, or your friends who are engineers,” Thomas says. “When you need business students, engineers, marketing people – a little bit of everything.”
Thomas, a mechanical engineering major with a minor in computer science, thought his idea was pretty straightforward. But “it ended up not really solving a problem that the students needed solved,” he says. “There just weren’t that many students actively pursuing a business plan.”
As it turned out, part of that problem stemmed from not knowing where to start. So Thomas turned the project around and went back to the beginning. “My whole purpose was to try to improve SMU’s entrepreneurship network, but you can’t really improve anything until you figure out where you are and where you stand,” he says.
From there came the next idea: Map it out. “We missed a big mark on the first attempt, because we didn’t do enough research at the beginning.”
Faculty mentor Mickey Saloma, the Lyle School’s assistant dean for recruitment, retention and alumni relations, helped guide Thomas from one phase to the next. “He was really involved from the very start of this project,” Thomas says. “I asked him to be my mentor because he gave really great feedback and great ideas – but most importantly because he wasn’t afraid to tell us what we really needed to hear.” Saloma’s “unfiltered advice” was a difference-maker, Thomas adds. “It was really helpful, and sometimes it was a really good kick in the rear.”
Perhaps the best part of the project was the amount of learning he acquired outside the classroom, Thomas says. “A lot of this is not at all what I studied as an undergraduate – which is great, because I wouldn’t have gotten any of this knowledge if I hadn’t pursued the project.” He dived head-first into startup wisdom, from the writings of X Prize Foundation founder and chair Peter Diamandis to “How to Start a Startup,” a free online lecture series from the powerful Silicon Valley ideas incubator Y Combinator. “It was all just amazing. I ate it up.”
And Thomas says the most important thing he learned is that “one of the best ways to make the student body more entrepreneurial is to recruit more entrepreneurs.” He hopes future Mustang ambassadors will use his work to create a mini “entrepreneurship tour” for future prospective students.
After he picks up his diploma on Saturday, Thomas won’t have far to go to his next project. He already has a job as a technical consultant with Credera. The management, user experience and technology consulting firm is located in Addison, just a few miles north of the main SMU campus. “Software is eating the world,” he says with a smile. “I’m excited to broaden that side of my knowledge base.”
In other words: It’s another opportunity to discover something new.