Q: How old are you, where are you from, and what year are you in the program?
A: I''m 23, graduated from Lehigh last year majoring in Mechanical Engineering and I'm in the pilot class of Lehigh's Technical Entrepreneurship class, set to graduate with my Master's of Engineering in May 2013 (the program is one year in-house). Before Lehigh, I was born and raised in Edison, NJ.
Q: What have your experiences been like with the program?
A: The program's exactly what's advertised - learn how to design a product and bring it to market by launching a company in one year. No gimmicks - find a product (or service) that you are passionate about, and dedicate your master’s education to turning it into reality. It's been a fantastic addition to my engineering degree. I spent 4 years learning how to design things, but an invention is useless unless you have what it takes to bring it to the masses.
Q: What made you, or why did you, want to join?
A: I knew I would want to start a company at some point in my life, but never realized it was practical at such an early age. I worked as an engineer in a larger company when I was in school and liked it, but didn't love it. There's a big satisfaction in being able to take control of your career and shape it yourself, especially if what you're working on resonates with you personally.
Q: How does the program add to entrepreneurship in the big picture?
A: I think that anyone with a good head on their shoulders can start a pizza place, coffee shop, or a bar, and make a very respectable living for many years. What the program helps is foster innovation. From day one we focus on creating products that will make a dent in our industries. When entrepreneurs push the envelope we can create products and businesses that reach beyond the scope of our own careers.
Q: You won the Grand Prize at the EUREKA! Ventures Competition Series. Can you briefly explain your idea and why it is important?
A: I'm working on a device that will help firefighters communicate better verbally when they're in the heat of things (no pun intended). Since I've been an EMT for almost 7 years now (I started volunteering back in high school), I've had a lot of experience with public safety folks. The ability to utilize my education and experience to give back to them means a lot to me.
Q: Personally, how do you feel about the program and its offerings?
A: Choosing to go through this program was one of the best decisions I've made in my academic career. We're highly process-oriented, so it's comforting to know that even if this business fails, I can take what I learned and just start again. They say that figuring out how to learn is the more valuable part of an engineering education than the material covered. Well in the case of TE, the material covered IS how to learn.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I spend 10-12 hours a day in my office or the lab, and a good amount of hours on the weekend as well. I'm constantly thinking of my company and of work. There's not enough hours in the day to do what I want to do. And yet, somehow, I love doing it. Weeks fly by without my noticing because I'm so busy working on a project that I want to work on. I see the same thing happening to many of my classmates as well. If this is what the rest of my career is like, I'm in for many happy years.
Azim Sonawalla graduated with his M. Eng. in Technical Entrepreneurship in May 2013. He continues to develop his products and company, Second Shift Innovations, based in office space at the tech business incubator Ben Franklin TechVentures received through his Grand Prize award in Lehigh University’s 2013 EUREKA! competition. Prior to graduation, Sonawalla fielded interest from investors at a Silicon Valley venture pitch competition, where he won the “Best Idea Stage” award. He also led two interdisciplinary undergraduate teams in product development for his company through Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development program.