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From Engineering to Entrepreneurship to Giving -- It's All About Opportunities

James A Anderson, Urban Science Inc.

The essence of entrepreneurship, say many entrepreneurs, is the ability to see and act on opportunity.

That’s what Jim Anderson did some 30 years ago when he designed groundbreaking computer mapping technology while working on his master’s degree in civil engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. That’s what’s led him to found and grow Urban Science at 18 percent a year for the past 30 years into a $75 million company. And that’s what happened when Ralph Kummler, dean of Wayne State’s College of Engineering, invited him to get more involved in the college from which Anderson launched his career.

Anderson was working at Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies in 1977 when a former grad student at Cadillac Motor Car urged her boss to call Anderson to create computerized color dot maps. Cadillac wanted to visualize new vehicle registrations—more than 37,000 annually in Chicago alone—and had been told by several computer companies it couldn’t be done.

Anderson figured out how to do it. But churning out that much data on Wayne State’s batch mode processor became impractical, so he borrowed what he could to buy a computer and plotter to start his own company. Boosted by a presentation of his new mapping technology at Harvard University, Urban Science grew rapidly and really took off in the early 1980’s after Anderson showed Cadillac how to use existing data to locate dealerships for maximum customer convenience.

Engineering Ventures Program

Today, with 12 offices and 400 employees worldwide, Urban Science helps clients in the automotive, financial and retail industries optimize the performance of their retail networks, individual outlets and customer relations through advanced data analytics.

Anderson’s entrepreneurial success earned him a 2002 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the business services category. Attending the national competition in Palm Springs that year, he says he learned two things.

“One was that my company was a whole lot better than I thought but had a long way to go to be truly great. The other was that entrepreneurs generally possess this trait of eventually giving back to the world from which they came.”

Thus, when Dean Kummler invited him to support a fund drive at Wayne State, Anderson saw the opportunity to create a program to help engineering students translate their great ideas into viable businesses—and avoid some of the mistakes he made on his own journey from civil engineer to successful entrepreneur.

Anderson’s initial gift of $500,000 in 2003 launched the Engineering Ventures Program (EVP), which has three components. First, EVP identifies students with entrepreneurial aspirations.

“Jim was always an innovator,” says Dean Kummler. “In the planning of his gift, Jim identified a student organization—the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO)—created a chapter at WSU and personally took the students under his wing.

“I met Jim at the CEO-WSU kickoff meeting last year,” says Dan Thomas, a graduating senior in mechanical engineering who aspires to own his own company. “He’s made himself available to me for mentorship sessions where he’s helped me clarify my goals and be more sure of myself. He’s also provided massive networking opportunities at such events as the E&Y Awards ceremony.”

EVP also connects students with internships where they can apply inter-disciplinary methods and scientific problem-solving tools in real-world environments. This goal has been facilitated by CEO’s close relationship with TechTown, a business incubator affiliated with the university. Finally, as its third component, Anderson or EVP plan to help fund some of its students’ most promising ventures through networking with venture capital companies and possibly Urban Science.

Long-Term Commitment

Anderson is now committed to giving a total of $2.5 million, part of which will endow a chair to lead Wayne State’s engineering departments. The rest will go towards two rooms in the new Engineering Development Center, including one for CEO headquarters. In addition, he’s helping to raise funds to endow chairs for departments within the college and he lectures about four times a year as an adjunct faculty member.

Anderson remembers how inspired he was in 2002 by Geno Palucci, the National E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year who was over 80. At 62, Anderson says he plans to be around for at least 25 more years to hold EVP accountable to some specific benchmarks:

  • 250 graduates by 2009
  • 25 graduates own businesses by 2014
  • Five business owners win an E&Y Award by 2019
  • All five winners endow chairs in EVP or equivalent at Wayne State by 2024
  • EVP is viewed as the best entrepreneurship training program in the world by 2029

From a business perspective, Anderson believes giving financially and about 20 percent of his time to entrepreneurship has helped him meet and interact with best-in-class engineers seeking non-traditional paths—the kind he says that are hard to find and likes to hire for Urban Science. He also anticipates one day investing in and profiting from some of the businesses started by EVP students.

On the personal side, as a civil engineer, he likes bridge-building. He sees Urban Science as a bridge between science and business, EVP as a bridge to help young people get where he got faster, and entrepreneurship as a bridge to help strengthen his beloved but economically stressed state of Michigan.

“It’s just very gratifying to feel like I’m doing my part to help make that happen,” he says.

© 2007 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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