Donnell works to demystify engineering entrepreneurship

DonnellThere is more to engineering than working in a lab and solving equations, and Jim Donnell, professor of practice in the Texas A&M University Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working to educate and broaden the horizons of engineering students through entrepreneurship.

“I am so driven to unlock the mysteries that engineering students have around business. There’s a different (vocabulary) but it really isn’t as difficult as they fear it to be,” Donnell said. “This [course] can help break through that barrier and help them better understand the concepts which may escape them currently.”

Donnell said entrepreneurship is a broad and vague term that many narrowly define as applying only to those who are interested in starting their own company. For him, the term encompasses much more than that.

“I want you to learn the basic concepts of business, because those, along with an entrepreneurial spirit, can differentiate you from your peers. The engineers that come out of this place—whether they’re mechanical, industrial, chemical, petroleum or other—they are tremendous engineers,” Donnell said. “Everybody knows they can do the work. If we can supplement their incredible engineering education with a little coloration around the entrepreneurial experience, that will benefit them during their careers."

Donnell was asked in 2014 to develop and introduce curriculum on entrepreneurship with a plan to start the program in mechanical engineering, and if the program was well-received, it could be moved up to the college level. But there was some hesitancy at first.

“[The thought was] ‘We’re mechanical engineering, we teach thermo, we teach fluids, we teach statics, we teach heat transfer… and what are you talking about, entrepreneurship?’” Donnell said. “It was a foreign matter. So Dr. (Andreas) Polycarpou and I developed the course at a technical level, injecting content so that it would qualify as a technical elective seen as being of more interest to the students.”

Since then, Donnell said he has heard many students comment that the course has been among the most important they have taken at Texas A&M. He attributes that less to the course content and more to the students being asked to challenge themselves with uncomfortable material, which they then can master and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Donnell seeks to use the course to revise students’ current skills to use talents they didn’t realize they had. A major part of the program is a team project, where students generate their own product idea and develop a detailed business plan, including five-year financial projections. The proposals are then presented to a panel of industry judges at the end of the semester in the setting of a private equity pitch.

“It develops and refines skills for them that they didn’t know they had, presentation skills,” Donnell said. “There’s not a student that starts this class who thinks they’ve got a prayer of being successful, and the most important thing about the class is everyone walks away with an air of confidence, because they’ve worked extremely hard on something which is substantially outside their comfort zone and then they accomplish something they didn’t think they could do.”

Donnell graduated in 1982 from Texas A&M with his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering and later from Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. He started his career with Texaco and Natural Gas Clearinghouse, the predecessor to Dynegy, and went on to be the president and CEO of Duke Energy North America, Synenco Energy Inc., Poseidon Water LLC and RSH Energy, LLC.

“Most of what I know about business was learned on the job. I’ve always had this sort of insatiable curiosity about how things work, not just technically, but how a company makes money,” Donnell said. “I’ve been blessed with a pretty eclectic professional experience, but with a heavy concentration in energy. I started out technical, but pretty quickly began the transition to a purer business leadership role.”

Donnell also serves on a number of nonprofit boards and has served on the advisory boards of the Mays Business School and the Texas A&M College of Engineering. In 2014, Donnell was appointed professor of engineering practice and named a William E. Dark ’54 Faculty Fellow.

Starting in the spring of 2018, Dr. Cynthia Hipwell, who joined the mechanical engineering department in the fall of 2017, will join Donnell to teach MEEN 489 – Entrepreneurship in Nano and Energy Systems.

Learn more about Engineering Entrepreneurship and Professors of Practice at Texas A&M.