iTrek Provides Johnson Cornell Tech MBAs with Hands-on Startup Experience

The Johnson Cornell Tech MBA’s iTrek course is a three-month, intensive interaction with Israeli startups that cumulates with a 12-day group trip to Israel, where students deliver actionable solutions to their startup clients.

iTrek Provides Johnson Cornell Tech MBAs with Hands-on Startup Experienceinline-block

By Ted Goldwyn ‘90

Derek Cutting, MBA ’16, admits that he didn’t know much about Israel before starting his Johnson Cornell Tech MBA. He never dreamed that six months later, he would be presenting a startup marketing strategy to a roomful of venture capitalists, enjoying the Tel Aviv nightlife, and taking a dip in the Dead Sea.

“Every MBA program has an international component, but this one was totally different,” says Cutting. “It definitely exceeded all our expectations, but it was way more work than any other two-and-a-half-credit hour class we’ve ever had.”

That component: the iTrek, a highlight of the Johnson Cornell Tech MBA program and one of the most distinctive—and challenging—startup engagement experiences around. By mid-October of their MBA program, student teams are working with actual Israeli startup companies to solve real, specific business problems. Roni Michaely, the Rudd Family professor of finance at Johnson and lead instructor of the iTrek program, selects approximately 30 Israeli startup companies from an initial pool of nearly 100 applicants.

“Together with the companies, we identify a pain point, which can be a market strategy, product selection, or financial challenge,” says Michaely. “We give those challenges to the students, and they team up. Each team of three or four students can choose a pair of startups, and they commit to give each startup at least 100 hours.”

Over a span of two-and-a-half months, students have weekly Skype meetings with company executives, conduct background research, and develop recommendations.

This year’s companies represented a cross-section of the tech start-up world in Israel, from Dyadic, a cyber-security firm, to ClickTale, a website analytics company. The companies asked the MBA teams for help with diverse business challenges, ranging from entering new geographic markets to staying competitive in the face of increasing mobile platform adoption.

One startup, Mobile ODT, manufactures a specialized medical-grade camera (called a colposcope) that has been engineered to attach to a smart phone. The company sells the device in developing nations as an economical tool to diagnose cervical cancer, and is now exploring the potential of entering remote, rural markets in the U.S. The MBA team studied the market for such devices in the U.S., identified potential opportunities, and recommended strategic adaptations for the rural market.

Journey to the “start-up nation”

The iTrek course culminates in a 12-day trip to Israel in January. In 2016, the trip comprised all but one of the Johnson Cornell Tech MBA students, along with a handful of Masters in Computer Science students.

While in Israel, each of the 13 student-led consulting teams made two presentations to groups of venture capitalists and industry experts. Following a five-minute introduction from a startup company executive, the student groups had half an hour to present their solutions and take questions from the panel.

Students also participated in a one-day “hack-a-thon” design challenge sponsored by Sears Israel. The Johnson Cornell Tech MBAs collaborated with students from Israel’s Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art to “reinvent shopping.” They brainstormed ideas such as “Powderful”, a shampoo in powder form, and “Super Detective”, an interactive wearables-based game designed to keep young children engaged in the grocery store shopping experience. The top four concepts were developed into working prototypes by Shenkar design students.

In between the presentations and sessions, students attended daily lectures, and had the opportunity to tour Israel’s many sights, sounds, and tastes. Highlights included visits to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, enjoyment of Tel-Aviv’s nightlife, a camel ride, and an overnight stay in a Bedouin camp.

“It’s a beautiful country,” says Rachel Flynn MBA ‘16. “It was great to get a chance to actually experience the culture and get a sense for a little bit more of the business climate over there.”

Ready to Launch

Yet students gained much more than the enjoyment of a beautiful nation. For some, working directly with startups has encouraged them to think differently about their future.

“I think it provided me the preparation I need to work at a start-up,” says Cutting. “Working so closely to early stage startups across cultures, borders, and time zones; it’s been a really valuable experience to understand how to approach that.”

The intensity of the iTrek program, in confronting real problems and pitching to potential investors is a great benefit to students headed toward their own entrepreneurial ventures, Michaely says.

“If they want to start their own company, students have the opportunity to observe other people’s mistakes,” Michaely says. “They have over 12 days of interaction with 30 VC’s [venture capitalists]. They start to understand what VC’s think about, and what types of questions they ask.”

Companies enjoy tangible benefits from partnering with the MBA students, as well, Michaely says. Of this year’s 26 startup participants, at least 22 walked away with beneficial, actionable insights, Michaely says.

“When I meet with companies I tell them that my KPI [key performance indicator] is that they, at the end of the process, will gain something valuable,” Michaely says. “If they don’t get something out of it, this is not sustainable.”

Michaely notes that one of the objectives of the course is to bring some of Israel’s “startup nation DNA” back home to the U.S. With a population of just 8 million, Israel has become known worldwide for successfully incubating new startup companies, particularly in the technology sector.

For most Johnson Cornell Tech MBA students, the iTrek experience was the perfect culmination of their Johnson Cornell Tech MBA experience, as their May graduation approaches.

“With iTrek, I thought the MBA program really came into its own, because we actually took the lessons we learned in business strategy class, in marketing classes and in finance class, and we applied all of that to these startups,” says Karan Bir, MBA ’16.  “It definitely helps put the icing on the MBA cake!”

Ted Goldwyn is a freelance writer based in Corning, New York

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