Engineering School at the Forefront

by Heather Ross

"Did you know that 80% of new product ideas are not marketable in their present forms, and that 80% of all new products or services launched will fail?" --Saskatchewan Research Council

In 1997 a successful business owner and an alumni of Engineering approached the college about making a large, anonymous charitable donation. To this generous donation a condition was attached, the money must be earmarked for a project which would promote, educate, and encourage students to explore entrepreneurship. Many students possess the ideas and innovative spirit, but are intimidated by the financial risk associated with entrepreneurship.

This funding enabled the College of Engineering to create ForeFront Design, a student-run, non-profit company. Students employed by ForeFront experience first hand the important aspects of running a small business, exploring administration, customer service, financial, marketing, and project management roles. Gaining this experience in a financial risk-free environment allows students to experiment with new ideas and innovations, educating them on the possible common pitfalls associated with small business ownership.

ForeFront employs three to six students at any given time throughout the year. Students can apply for CEO, web design specialists, or summer design positions. Housed within the College of Engineering, ForeFront is overseen by the Finance and Development Coordinator and has a senior advisory board, composed of faculty from the college of Engineering and Commerce, representatives from Working Ventures and Saskatchewan Economic and Cooperative Development, and local entrepreneurs. The advisory board, drawing on a wealth of expertise and experience, provides valuable guidance and direction to the students.

At its inception in 1997, ForeFront offered commercial digital publishing to the College of Engineering, the University of Saskatchewan, and the local business community. These contractual projects included World Wide Web site design and maintenance, desktop publishing, CD ROM development, multimedia presentations, and custom graphic design.

The following year, ForeFront added another project area, pursuing student initiated design projects. ForeFront solicits engineering student for product ideas - a marketable idea they have invented or envisioned. Projects are evaluated on the basis of feasibility, identified marketability, simplicity, and a reasonable design time. Upon selection, ForeFront provides the student with a four month full-time salaried position, a development budget, and access to ForeFront resources through the Engineering school.

This summer ForeFront developed a lecture series on entrepreneurship targeted at faculty and students, bringing speakers to the college to address issues such as small business resources, financing, preparation, intellectual property, and design protection. ForeFront hopes to draw on the expertise of successful alumni from the College of Engineering as speakers.

As ForeFront enters its third year of operation it continues to offer its original services of digital and desktop publishing. Two student design projects are in development, and so is the lecture series. ForeFront is also trying to promote and raise awareness of this project. Adopting a new mission statement, the company has tried to define its roles, goals, and plans for the future.

ForeFront enters the new millennium as a valuable resource center for students wishing to explore entrepreneurship, giving them a competitive advantage by providing them an environment to experiment. Although it started with a grant from an alumnus, ForeFront will strive to become financially self-sufficient, redirecting any profit into new projects and initiatives to provide more students with employment experience. ForeFront also hopes to become multidisciplinary, pursuing partnerships with colleges such as Commerce and Law. This information and resource sharing would help strengthen the educational experience for all students, learning from and teaching one another what cannot be learned in respective programs.

Over the past two years many Saskatoon professionals - in areas such as accounting, plastics and molding, intellectual property and patent law, manufacturing and distributing - have also become unofficial business and technical advisors to ForeFront Design, offering their expertise and advice on a casual basis. ForeFront Design is a small company with a bright future. The College of Engineering and one very generous benefactor deserve recognition for encouraging students to explore innovation and entrepreneurship and providing an environment to do so. ForeFront Design will create the next generation of entrepreneurs.