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Scheller’s TI:GER Program: Q&A with ISyE Ph.D. Students Jana Boerger and Emma Wu

Jul 7, 2021 | Atlanta, GA

New technologies often lead to innovative startups. Because of this, Georgia Tech has numerous options for students interested in entrepreneurship. One of these exciting opportunities is TI:GER® (Technology Innovation: Generating Economic Results), a 12-credit, three-semester program that pairs Tech MBA and Ph.D. students with Juris Doctor (JD) students from the Emory University School of Law to transform ideas into successful technology innovations.

TI:GER offers participants an immersive, practical educational opportunity through a combination of classroom instruction, innovation projects, and real-world experience. It also prepares them to work with the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL-Atlanta), a mentoring program for seed-stage, science-based startups directed by Scheller College of Business.

In Spring 2021, two ISyE graduate students joined TI:GER and completed the first semester of the program. This includes Jana Boerger, Ph.D. student in machine learning, and Emma Wu, Ph.D. student in operations research. Boerger transitioned out of the program to complete two internships at the Boston Consulting Group and Shopify, but Wu will continue on with TI:GER. In this interview, they talk about their experience with the program, how their perspectives of entrepreneurship have shifted, and their future plans.

What motivated you to apply for the TI:GER program?

JB: I was always interested in entrepreneurship, and more recently, how to get from an idea to an actual business. When I saw the program and that they take Ph.D. students, I thought it sounded perfect.

EW: I talked to one of my mentors, who is a Georgia Tech alumna, and she told me that the program is awesome and that it has benefitted her a lot during her job – that’s why I decided to apply. I would like to expand my horizons with TI:GER and learn more about entrepreneurship.

During the program, Ph.D. students can use their own research for their team’s innovation project. Were you interested in commercializing your research?

JB: Actually, Emma and I both brought an idea. For me, it wasn’t exactly my research question but very similar. My team worked on an algorithm that improves decision making in warehouses, and we found that there is a need for it. It’s very difficult to implement because every client has their own warehouse management system, so we need to adjust the product for each client – that’s a big finding we had.

EW: My research is about machine learning in quantitative trading strategies. I feel my research project has the possibility of commercialization, and one of the ways I could do that is by setting up a startup that uses my trading algorithms to give people the quantitative insights about the market and help people manage their financial portfolios.

Describe the classes you have taken so far.

JB: The lab portion was on research methods. At Tech, we're very much into quantitative research, so it was helpful to learn more about qualitative research, such as how to do interviews with people without leading the witness. When you want to find out if a company would be interested in your product, you don’t tell them you already have it. You’re trying to learn more about their problems, and that’s how you get information.

For the innovation analysis course, we learned about the steps of customer discovery. First, you figure out your idea and determine your value propositions for a potential customer. Then, you build hypotheses, such as how many hours you can save in a customer’s process or how much money you can save. Once you've built these hypotheses, you reach out to people in that industry who could be a potential client to see if you are correct. We cold-called people and reached out to people on LinkedIn whom we thought would fit the profile and had conversations with them to figure out if our technology would be helpful in their warehouses.

EW: I’ve never done customer discovery before, and it was very beneficial. One of the customers I talked with is a Georgia Tech alumnus who also went through the TI:GER program. The product that I'm going to build is related to an investment management software like a robo-advisor, and I figured out through talking to him that there are some entrepreneurs who barely invest in the financial markets and instead they invest all of their money into their business they own. That was one of the interesting things I learned.

Another person I talked to is a Georgia Tech alumna who works as a credit risk quant manager. She told me that there have been some firms that tried to sell their investment management software to banks (which was my original idea), but that banks do not prefer software built by third parties because they have the analytical skills to build the products by themselves. She recommended that I think more about trading strategies that can beat the market and to focus more on the asset management side. Also, I didn't expect that my product could be useful and popular in cryptocurrency, but customers are quite excited about crypto trading because it's a hot topic now. Overall, by talking to different customers, you could learn more about the real needs of customers and find the right market for commercialization.

Did you have any experience with entrepreneurship before?

EW: I had a short experience running a small startup with my friends after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. We traded commodities in the Chinese market by building trading algorithms. I learned a lot from that experience, and I found that a better understanding of complicated models would be helpful. So, I decided to come back for graduate school, and the TI:GER program is perfect. It helped me to reconsider some of the steps that could have been improved and to discover potential weaknesses.

What has it been like to work with MBA and JD students?

EW: For our team, my role was more like a technology consultant. I introduced them to my research and helped my teammates to brainstorm potential markets. The MBAs were quite proactive about exploring different markets, and they were really excited about coming up with marketing strategies and thinking about potential investments. As for the JDs, they helped us with things like drafting contracts for filing patents and understanding the steps to becoming licensed if we wanted to start a family office or a capital investment fund. This has been an eye-opening experience for me; I enjoyed learning from my team members and exploring their brilliant ideas together.

What was the end result for your projects after the first semester of the program?

JB: At the end of the semester, all the groups presented to the rest of the class and our two professors, one from Scheller and one from Emory Law. We talked about our research findings: how big the market is, how valuable we think our product would be, and so forth. In our case, it was a “go” decision, but since I'll be dropping out, and it was my project, we won’t continue working on it.

EW: For the final presentation, our group decision is to go, but I have not officially received approval for my project yet. Personally, I'm okay with either outcome – working on other projects that have better potential or continuing my project – since I feel this is more of a learning experience. Before I joined the program, I thought that after the program, I would have a real startup with teammates who are interested in running the startup together. But the purpose of TI:GER is to be an educational program, and you try to learn as much as possible.

What are some of your takeaways from the program so far?

JB: Definitely that understanding the customer discovery process – how to do interviews – is a very valuable skill, not just if you want to become an entrepreneur, but in any environment where you need to test your hypotheses. I have a good idea now as to what the genuine steps are in the process of going from an idea to an actual venture. You can build the coolest project product in the world, but if no one is going to buy it, you have a failed venture.

EW: Before, I thought that creating a startup was an art, where you never know if you will succeed or fail. But through this course, we learned that there are actual steps you can take, test, and learn. Also, if you focus only on your research, you will probably just see it from the academic side. Through the customer discovery and disciplined entrepreneurship courses, we spent a lot of time exploring the real needs from the customer side, the potential markets, and the competitors on the market. So, I also got the opportunities to touch the business side of my research.

Do you see yourself building your own startup in the future?

JB: Yes, absolutely. I could see myself founding a company down the road; it’s definitely something that I don't want to miss – maybe when the perfect idea comes around.

EW: I'm very passionate about starting my own firm, but I probably wouldn't do it very early. I figured out that the main reason I quitted the first startup attempt was lack of experience. I would prefer to go to an investment firm first to equip myself with more knowledge about markets and technology, as well as network with talented people who have the same goals. I’m spending this summer as a quant strategist intern at Bank of America, and I’m very excited about this internship.

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

JB: It’s funny you ask, because we learned in our customer discovery class to always end on that question, “Is there anything else you want to add?” And we also learned to always ask, “Who else should I talk to?” It’s a super helpful question that we've gotten lots of leads from.

EW: I highly recommend this program. You don’t get many opportunities to work with MBAs and JDs – especially JDs because Georgia Tech doesn’t have a law school. Being able to collaborate with all those students, where everyone can bring their own specific and unique perspectives, is amazing. I would recommend TI:GER to anyone who wants to explore how to commercialize technology innovations.

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  • Jana Boerger and Emma Wu

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Grace Oberst

Communications Assistant
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering

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