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  • Caltech sophomore Chen Chang working at IdeaLab, a local tech incubator.
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
12/23/2015 08:35:32

Hard Work Meets Hard Knocks: Caltech's SUSI Program

Caltech's students are familiar with hard work. Mastering the intricacies of quantum physics, biochemistry, and other demanding fields of study can be difficult. Being able to apply this hard-won education to make an impact in the business environment outside of academia can be equally challenging—and is not a lesson typically taught inside an academic environment. The Summer Undergraduate Startup Internship program (SUSI) is designed to bridge this gap by placing talented undergraduates in their first or second summer at Caltech into 10-week internships in real-world entrepreneurial environments.

The board of Caltech's Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences worked with Caltech professors and internal departments such as the Career Development Center (CDC) to develop SUSI. The goal was to identify small startup companies that could offer undergraduates the opportunity to see firsthand how bold ideas can be translated into successful businesses or products.

"This was an experiment that has been very successful," says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). "Startups, as an idea, are glamorous, but they are also a lot of work. Failure rates are high, and it is a very demanding environment in which you might want some experience before deciding that it's right for you."

"Caltech undergraduates have an excellent range of summer internship opportunities outside of traditional research labs, and many of these positions pay well and come with housing subsidies," says Michael Ewens, an associate professor of finance and entrepreneurship and one of SUSI's creators. "Startups that want to hire our undergraduates as interns often cannot compete with those offerings. The SUSI program steps in to provide a salary and housing supplement to make startup internships a possibility. This allows students to learn about startups while working inside them wearing a variety of hats."

Ewens recruited firms like Idealab, a local tech incubator, and other Pasadena-based startups to participate in the program. "We identified local startups that were associated with faculty and also through contacts at local small-business incubators and the board members of the Linde Institute," he says. "Next, we screened the potential internships to insure that students would be given substantive challenges rather than narrow tasks such as programming and created a website to advertise the positions to Caltech undergraduates. Finally, we placed those students who were selected with companies that were a good fit for their skills and potential."

For this year's inaugural round of SUSI internships, five undergraduates were placed with local companies. Mentors—Caltech faculty or staff—were assigned to each student.

"It was a great experience," says Phillip An, a sophomore majoring in computer science and economics, of his SUSI placement in Idealab, started by Caltech alumnus and current trustee Bill Gross (BS '81). Idealab typically includes about 20 startups working in a supportive and structured environment conducive to success for new small companies.

"In a previous internship, I headed U.S. business development at a startup cofounded by a Caltech alum," An says. "At Idealab, I had the opportunity to start and run a real company. In this experience, I was able to rotate through a variety of functions including product design, project management, raising venture capital funding, and actually reaching out to and interacting with our customers. My tenure at Idealab seemed like a whirlwind, engendering opportunities to get my hands dirty in product management, software engineering, and mobile app creation, to name just a few. I believe this program has given me opportunities few undergraduate students can experience."

SUSI combines the strengths of HSS, the Linde Institute, Caltech's Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships, the CDC, and the Entrepreneurship Club. The Linde Institute provides conduits to startup businesses through its board members. The institute, a hub for interdisciplinary research in business and economics, provided the funding to support the students during their internships.

Ewens is still evaluating the results of the first year of SUSI internships. Tracking the progress of the participants post-graduation helps refine future efforts. But it is clear, he says, that the program worked as planned. "It's still early in the process, but I think the students were provided a unique opportunity to explore the activity of an entrepreneurial firm," he says.

Ewens notes that placing students in the real-world environment of a startup helps them appreciate the broad number of options that they have as Caltech graduates. "I often tell students that a big part of college is simply figuring out what they do not want to do in life," he says. "They can only achieve this goal by trying out as many opportunities as possible while still in school. My hope is that SUSI can enable this for a select group of entrepreneurially inclined students each year."

Written by Rod Pyle