BY CARINA BONASERA & LINDSEY TAUB
John Ochs is the founder and director of Lehigh University’s Master’s of Engineering in Technical Entrepreneurship (TE), and has directed its Capstone program since 1996. He assisted in launching three startup companies and has been a consultant to more than 300 others. Ochs has been honored with the American Society For Engineering Education (ASEE) curriculum innovation award, the 2006 Olympus Prize for Innovation in Teaching, and the Newcomen Society Award for his work in promoting free enterprise. Ochs took a moment to update the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on his journey as a founder blazing a trail in entrepreneurship education.
“There are a thousand reasons why most startups fail. With a proper education and supportive environment, young entrepreneurs can improve their odds for success.”—John Ochs
So how did your career come to be?
JO: I started my professional career in Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and over the past 40 years progressed from engineering design, to new product development and then to technical entrepreneurship. From 1985-95 I did extensive industry consulting and was involved in the startup of three companies; two were flops and one that is still running today – but running much better without me. I love to build things: widgets, products, organizations and programs. These activities fulfill my creative needs. I also love to help others “learn by doing,” or what we in the Technical Entrepreneurship program at Lehigh call “learn by launching.”
I’ve taught capstone design projects for the past 26 years. In its current form Lehigh’s Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) capstone is an interdisciplinary requirement for undergraduates from engineering, business, and arts with more than 300 students participating each year. In 2018 we had 31 student teams working on 25 projects from 20 companies. We classify these companies as 1) established, 2) local startups, and 3) student startups. In 2012 the TE capstone program was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering as one of the top schools in the nation to provide students with real-world hands-on experiences.
In order to give our student-startups a fully immersive opportunity to learn by launch, in 2012 I started Lehigh University’s Masters of Engineering in Technical Entrepreneurship. Since then we have had 128 graduates with a full 50% going to work in their own or in other recent start-ups and the other roughly 50 % going to work in established companies or working in support of the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
JO: I distinguish between “entrepreneurial mindset” and “entrepreneurship.” Entrepreneurship is the process of turning a problem into an opportunity to create personal, societal and business value through establishing and sustaining new enterprises. The entrepreneurial mindset is defined as personal attitudes exhibited in behaviors that show: a. a reawakening of creative curiosity, b. the ability to pursuing collaborative connections, c. the ability to create personal, societal and business value.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve gained from your years of experience working with and starting businesses?
JO: There are a thousand reasons why most startups fail. With a proper education and supportive environment, young entrepreneurs can improve their odds for success. However, nothing beats dumb luck but I also believe, paraphrasing Pasteur, “luck favors the prepared.”
How have your professional activities changed the landscape of entrepreneurship?
JO: Over the past 20 years I have worked to grow the I&E ecosystem at Lehigh and across the USA. I helped start the I&E subdivision of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). In 2014 in recognition of this effort, I was awarded the Engineering Entrepreneurship Pioneer awards by the Journey of Engineering Entrepreneurship. Through multiple grants from state, federal and private foundations I have been able to develop Lehigh’s ecosystem including the establishment of Lehigh’s Baker Institute for entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, Lehigh’s entrepreneurship minor and Lehigh membership in Kern Family Foundation’s KEEN initiative.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
JO: I could have taken Lehigh’s Masters of Engineering in Technical Entrepreneurship. While I know this sounds self-serving, I have created a team dedicated a curriculum to help students from any background to learn how to launch their own enterprise. TE masters includes all the materials that I wished I had known before I started my own ventures. The curriculum is a collection of what we all have from our multiple failures and successes.
What is your professional and personal mission statement?
JO: Cash is king. Over my career, I have been on several startup boards and I created a sign that I flip up many times during almost every board meeting. It says: “This does not sound like an income generating activity.” Without cash, you are not in business, you do not employ people and you do not impact the economic well-being of society. I believe in “free enterprise,” that is, the freedom for anyone to create their own for profit, not for profit, or charitable enterprise. This is much more important than “capitalism,” which I define as the creation of wealth through the investment of money. Without free enterprises, there would be little in which to invest your capital. The same is true in academia. I have been given the title of “thought leader” by a previous Lehigh president. I have learned to make fun of that title because “I too “thought” I was a “leader” until I realized that without resources of people, funding and space, your impact on students, faculty and the I&E ecosystem is severely limited.
What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
JO: In my 2012 article in on the tenets of an entrepreneurial mindset (, May, 2012), I stated that it takes a team, and leadership of that team to succeed at the high-risk business of startups. Entrepreneurship is a team sport. In my opinion the most important quality of team leadership is “…a track record of ethical behavior that leads to trust and faith in your ability to lead and deal with the inherent risks associated with new ventures.”
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
JO: Most, if not all, of my challenges have been with fellow travelers. From my mother I learned to believe and trust in Karma. You know, you reap what you sow. What goes around comes around. If you do what you believe is fair, right and just in your dealing with people, it may cost you in the short term, but it will work out in the long run.
What does “success” look like for you?
JO: Personally, my biggest successes are (in order of importance): 1) my marriage of 48 years to my wife, Anne, 3) the personal and professional success of our three sons and their lovely wives, and 3) my seven grandchildren. Professionally, I get great satisfaction in creating, developing and growing programs and enterprises that have positive personal, business and societal impact.
What’s been your proudest and darkest moment of your entrepreneurial journey?
JO: Key high: watching student startups grow. Key low: being sued by former partners over what in the long run turned out to be really stupid issues
How do you apply your entrepreneurial/business experience to being a professor at Lehigh?
JO: It informs every aspect of my professional life.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day?
JO: I believe in a work-life balance. I rise at 7:00, arrive at 9:00, eat lunch at my desk, work until 5:00 or 6:00, try to have dinner with my wife, an after work swim and a nightly game of scrabble. I also try to play golf at least twice each week. I find the concentration needed for golf, clears my head and helps me focus on what is truly important in my work day.
What do you want your legacy to be?
JO: Personally, my sons and grandchildren. Professionally, a program and ecosystem dedicated to help students “learn by launching.”