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Interview with Chuck Eesley '02, co-author of Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT

By Howie Rhee '04; Published February 7, 2011

MIT and Stanford are known for strong entrepreneurial environments, and one of the contributors to those environments is Duke alumnus Charles (Chuck) Eesley '02. After graduating from Duke in 2002, he helped research and write the influential Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT.  After finishing his PhD at MIT, he has become a professor at Stanford and continues to research, and write about, questions on entrepreneurship (and teaches a course on "Technology Entrepreneurship").

Tell us about your time at Duke.  What kinds of things were you involved with and what were your plans?

I had such a wide range of interests at Duke that I had to switch to Program II and create my own major combining biology, neuroscience and philosophy of mind to fit it all in along with pre-med requirements and study abroad. I spent a lot of time in various labs from cancer genetics to psychology labs. I had focused plans in the beginning but quickly switched to a more exploratory mode of following my interests and passion. The student groups I was involved with (Duke Start-Up Challenge, Self-Knowledge Symposium, Environmental Alliance, etc.) and my study abroad experience in India wound up being two key aspects of my Duke experience.
I understand you saw a poster for the Duke Start-Up Challenge.  You decided it might be interesting to enter.  Tell us what happened?

Well it all started in a remote village in India. I was there on a study abroad and the villagers were down to eating one meal a day due to severe drought and dried up corn crops. I returned to Duke in the spring and was in the midst of reverse culture shock. My work-study job was videotaping lectures for a Markets & Management class and the first speaker was a Duke biology professor who had developed a way to create drought-resistent corn. I knew she was trying to raise start-up funding and I saw that the DSC had a $50k prize so I suggested that we enter. Little did I know I was in for one of the most intense and defining experiences of my life up to that point. (Watch the video recap of the 2002 Duke Start-Up Challenge)

After you won the Duke Start-Up Challenge, how did this change your mindset?

I fell in love with entrepreneurship! I knew that it was something that I could do and I stopped seeing life as a linear career path. I started seeing more of the possibilities in life and that I could both change the world for the better and do well for myself and my family. 

So you went to MIT to get a PhD in Behavioral and Policy Sciences focused on Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  What did you study and what was it like to be studying entrepreneurship at MIT?

Studying entrepreneurship at MIT was terrific because it seems like everyone at MIT wants to become an entrepreneur and start something. But it's also frustrating because many people wonder why study entrepreneurship when you can go and do it! For me, I wanted to understand more deeply why some startups succeed and others fail. I learned at Duke that it was about many more aspects than just the technology and that's something that many scientists and engineers don't realize.

With Ed Roberts, you produced a report called
Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT (link). Tell us a little about the report. What were some of the most interesting things in this report?

The MIT President, Susan Hockfield wanted answers to three questions. How many companies have MIT alumni created, how much in revenues have they generated and how many people do they employ? We found that there are 25,800 currently active companies founded by MIT alumni that employ about 3.3 million people and generate annual world revenues of $2 trillion, producing the equivalent of the eleventh-largest economy in the world in the aggregate.

What impact has the report had on discussions of entrepreneurship?

The first place the report was unveiled was at the U.S. Congress in a session with lawmakers about entrepreneurship and universities. Since then the report has been cited in countless blog posts and articles as well as being discussed in entrepreneurship centers at many universities. I think the most important impact the report has had is in shifting the mindset about universities and entrepreneurship. It used to be that we focused on faculty spin-offs and the Technology Licensing Office. What this report underscores is that many, many more startups are created by alumni who are exposed to technology and entrepreneurial mindsets while at the university, meet future cofounders and combining that with a few years of work experience decide to start firms.

Given your experience and your research, if a Duke student wanted to start a company in school, what sort of suggestions would you have for them?

First, I would say just get started. Creating a company while in school is a lot of work, but it's a great time to start. I would suggest that they figure out who the most knowledgeable people are in whatever area they are working on and get those people to be advisors or co-founders in the company. You have to keep the standards for the people who you bring in very high. The research labs at a university like Duke are a treasure trove of innovations with commercial potential. Don't be shy to explore!

Tell us about your current research.  What are some of the questions you are trying to answer?

Right now I'm doing a Stanford Alumni survey (http://alumsurvey.stanford.edu) to try to figure out if successful entrepreneurs go through a different process for developing their ideas than less successful or failed entrepreneurs do. It appears that entrepreneurship is less about having a brilliant vision and more about iteration and experimentation. 

Editor's Update as of 10/24/2012: The results of the Stanford study is now complete.  A link to the study can be found in this Stanford News item.

In the past few years, Duke has put in more resources into entrepreneurship, yet it can take a long time for these things to make an impact.  Do you think the benefits for the university outweight the costs?

Duke wouldn't exist today if it weren't for entrepreneurship. Just look at the buildings, the statues and the major donors. James Buchanan Duke and other members of the Duke family and J.B. Fuqua's generous gifts to the university would not have been possible without their entrepreneurial spirit and endeavors. Increasingly, even large companies are seeking to hire those with entrepreneurial skills and a mindset for turning problems into opportunities. Many universities find that the most generous donors back to the university tend to be the entrepreneurs. Of course, this cycle takes time. In the MIT data, we find that the average age of founding a high-tech firm is around 35. There is a trend towards younger people being involved in entrepreneurship. The costs are likely to be small relative to the eventual returns both to Duke as well as to the students and the society as a whole.

Duke can't afford not to invest more in entrepreneurship education. In the MIT survey results we see that over the years increasing percentages of alumni entrepreneurs are saying that they chose to come to MIT for its entrepreneurial reputation. The schools who invest more in entrepreneurship, will be the ones that the most entrepreneurial students are drawn to attend because of that reputation. Everyone benefits when this virtuous cycle of entrepreneurship accelerates. At MIT, new neuroscience and cancer research institutes are being built and at Stanford, our new Engineering building was built thanks to the gifts of generous entrepreneurial alumni giving back. 

Learn more about Chuck Eesley, and his latest research, at his own web page.  And read more of his thoughts on Technology Entrepreneurship in this other interview.

Read more interviews of Duke's entrepreneurial alumni