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.
Cutting, MBA ’16, admits that he didn’t know much about Israel before starting
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
gained much more than the enjoyment of a beautiful nation. For some, working
directly with startups has encouraged them to think differently about their
“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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Johnson Cornell Tech MBA students, the iTrek experience was the perfect
culmination of their Johnson Cornell Tech MBA experience, as their May
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