Empowering Student Entrepreneurship
As an ECE professor at Virginia Tech and a founder of Kryptowire, a leader in cloud-based mobile security and privacy solutions, Angelos Stavrou works at the intersection of engineering and entrepreneurship. And at this stage in his career, Stavrou has been asking: how do I give back?
“To me,” he answers, “if we really care about diversity in engineering, then we need to enable students to succeed—beyond a siloed role on an engineering team.”
For Stavrou, this means empowering students with the education and opportunity to incubate new companies. He points to Virginia Tech’s Link License Launch as part of a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship at the university and possibly for Virginia to be a new start-up hub.
“Why not Virginia?” he asks. Citing the growth of tech hubs in Colorado and Texas, Stavrou argues that Northern Virginia and the new innovation center ramping up in Alexandria have their own advantages—including the potential for a mix of innovation tied to government as well as for innovative products used by everyone. His own company, Kryptowire, he explains, started with technological innovation tied directly to government contracts before broadening their market.
Kryptowire just raised $21 million of venture capital in February 2022, so Stavrou is well-versed in the finance side of the start-up equation.
He describes his own learning process regarding how to navigate the ecosystem of angel investing and venture capital, and he sees now that Kryptowire could have done better by taking VC funds and growing faster.
At Kryptowire and in his university research, Angelos Stavrou explores how to balance privacy and security with the proliferation of interconnected devices and systems. This area, he believes, is ripe for innovation and full of entrepreneurial opportunity.
With 5G internet connections, he explains, we are a lot more exposed, so one important question is about how we can protect the end user. Can someone access your television and record what you are up to? What happens to your voice when it is recorded by Alexa or Google Assistant? What if someone gains access to the medical data on your FitBit? On a larger scale, Stavrou explains, 5G security issues include infrastructure access. Can you break into a water plant and shut systems off while disguising what you are doing? And now that we have Wi-Fi systems in our homes and cars, how vulnerable are they, and what are the risks to our privacy?
Until a couple of years ago, Kryptowire didn’t even have a salesperson, he says. Anyone can raise money, he adds, but it’s important to raise it from a competitive VC network that will help you grow. He is currently helping friends, professors primarily, avoid some of his mistakes. “Failing fast instead of languishing is better,” he quips, “is something I need to instill in others.”
To further explain, Stavrou compares the United States to Europe, where there are no possibilities for bankruptcy. Here in the U.S., however, VCs expect some or most ventures to fail, and that is part of the system. Failure in some sense is the model. This is very different from what our engineering students think about failure, he jokes.
The trick, he says, is to teach what it means to take the necessary, calculated risks. Many successful entrepreneurs have failures under their belt and have learned from them. In that way, failure is valuable feedback that can lead to future success. Just like in a lab, Stavrou explains. “Some of your experiments will fail, but they will potentially teach you a lot. Our students need to learn and be comfortable with failing as part of the learning process,” he says, and have the experience in a controlled setting like the incubation center.
Learning from the overall process, Stavrou emphasizes, is the main point. “We are doing a disservice to our students when we train them to be highly skilled but don’t give them all the options,” he says. And one big option is entrepreneurship itself.
Considering all the options
Instead of graduating and joining a big company, students can create their own. They might not have security and stock options and a medical plan, Stavrou says, but at the end of the 2–3 year process, they have a shot at making something of their own and growing it. There are many responsibilities, but also many benefits, he points out. The experience of being CEO, salesman and head of marketing is invaluable, Stavrou believes, even if they later join a big company. In fact, he notes, many large companies hire people with startup experience at leadership roles instead of entry-level positions.
Not paying attention to the stages of innovation, intellectual property and business plans because we are technologists or engineers, Stavrou cautions, can be detrimental, even though it requires a bit more work.
While Stavrou involves students in his company through internships and co-ops, he also encourages them to join other start-ups. Most importantly, he wants them to look at their ideas from a business standpoint. “I do not want them to be fearless but less conservative—allow for a little more calculated risk-taking,” he explains.
He is trying to empower them to believe they can actually be the next Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. “Why not see how they do?” he asks. Some will start their own companies, and others will not, he says. But they will all learn valuable lessons from the process.
“You don’t have to be the person who comes up with the idea, which is something I learned personally. You can be the person who recognizes the value of the idea and has the team to build it up.”
“Maybe a Virginia Tech student will found the next big tech company. We’ll never know unless we try.”
Designing an entrepreneurial building data platform
Angelos Stavrou is collaborating with the civil engineering and construction departments to establish an Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled building data platform that will allow for the research and development of innovative approaches to sustainable, smart, and connected communities.
Focused on under-represented communities, the project will design and develop buildings for connected communities that meet the smart building/community/city paradigm that envisions the effective integration of physical, digital, and human systems working together. The goal is to work toward sustainability, prosperity, and inclusivity, he says. This includes systems and technologies geared toward Virginia’s 2045 carbon-free goal, as well as the related socioeconomic and technology elements.
The plan, Stavrou explains, calls for Virginia Tech to supply 5G internet service to these communities in Arlington and in the Blacksburg area and collect environmental data (temperature, barometric pressure, noise, etc.) as well as energy consumption data to optimize energy efficiency while promoting social integration and educational opportunities through high-speed internet access.