Doug Smith is an alumnus of the College of Engineering and Applied Science with a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Doug about his vision to launch Catalyze as well as getting the inside scoop on his philosophy of being an entrepreneur in today’s fast paced business world.


From your experience being in the work field, how do you go about solving big problems?

Doug believes the first thing you have to do is understand what is going on. What is the true issue? Often having a firm understanding of the problem is the most challenging aspect in finding any solution. You get a lot of different perspectives from a lot of different people so not just accepting what initially seems obvious is the problem but really looking in deeper than that. Really identifying the problem from all possible angles is the most difficult piece because once you identify the problem and you know where you want to go, then you can figure out the steps in between.


What motivates you to solve those problems?

Part of what motivates Doug in solving problems is in his DNA as an engineer. That uneasy sense we feel when we’re aware there are problems means there is something out of balance. It’s un-nerving and trying to return it to stability just feels natural. Generally when solving problems you’re helping someone in the process and making sure you don’t hurt anyone else. Trying to do good and helping people is what Doug really enjoys about his line of work.


Do you feel responsible for solving problems in the world?

Doug believes having ownership of the problem itself is essential in coming up with innovative solutions. What Doug found as a differentiator was when you owned the problem and really cared about what was happening. “How closely do you identify with it, how much do you own it, how much of it becomes apart of you”; all are questions you need to ask yourself as an entrepreneur. There were times when Doug worked as a consultant in engineering on behalf of someone else where his obligations were to identify the solutions. It was up to his clients to decide the solution that they wanted and then he would help them implement it. But certainly there were times when he felt they were making the wrong choice and he would really advocate for what he felt was the right choice. That sometimes was good and other times bad. If he felt passionate enough about it, he would carry it through even if it wasn’t his job to do so. People tend to follow your leadership more and rally around the problem as a team when you are more attached to the problem. When Doug looks at hiring people to do things, if they really care about what they’re saying it helps him in choosing them to be part of his team. Doug chooses someone who is more passionate about a solution and an alternative then someone who is more distant and not engaged. Passion drives success and winning organizations.


Tell me how Catalyze was founded?

Doug and his team spoke to a host of schools to learn what they were doing and it was fascinating because whether it was USC, UCLA, CAL Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, Arizona State, and the University of Washington they all had their unique genesis. Some programs emerged from the business school another from Engineering, one was Social studies; Catalyze came from engineering and business. But as Doug and his team talked to them and had some perceptions from Brad Feld’s book they gained a sense of what they wanted to do. Last spring when Catalyze CU was initiated, it was vital to incorporate that business and engineering mindset into Catlayze’s core principles. This is a short blurb of Doug talking with Dave Cohen and Brad Feld in regards to the genesis of Catalyze CU;

“Do you want to build businesses or teach these students?” We want to do both. “Well you can’t do that” Well I think we can. “No, you cant do that. You can do one or the other but not both”.

After the meeting they took a step back and talked amongst themselves. It came clear that Catalyze is associated with the University of Colorado-Boulder so the mission is in one sense education. Catalyze wants to help take their businesses to next level but also want to enrich the student experience. It’s important that students grow as people and also that they grow an understanding of entrepreneurism, and if someone else hires them they’re going to be ready for it.


What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?

Try it! If you have an idea or see a solution, give it shot. Here is an example; were sitting in a restaurant and were wondering about our parking meter. Well I ought to have an app for that. It’s that kind of thing where you see and recognize a problem that exists in your everyday life and you come up with a solution. Well then pursue it and chase it down and get it done. It could be a social problem, it could be something in the lab that came up, or a problem that directly affects your everyday life, just get after it. Risk taking is the key to success.


What excites you about the next generation of entrepreneurs given the tools and resources you have built for them?

This next generation is still living and learning through experience like all generations before but they’re doing that much faster. Instead of saying you can only learn this much at this age, we are realizing that actually you can learn a lot more and so why not expose our young entrepreneurs to that. So I think what we’re seeing is a much less hierarchical, much less structured kind of business environment so that young people with great ideas can see them realized rapidly or fail quickly. Failure is a big part of this; but that’s great because they learn through the failure process. Whether these students are part of a startup or a big company, they are being exposed to real world activity, which significantly helps them to think outside the box. I remember being a younger engineer in a big company and thinking how lethargic and archaic it operated; we just weren’t in tune with our customers or what was going on. We were a legacy organization. Our students today are much better equipped because they have already gone through the innovation process, there is no mystery, and they get it. There is no secret sauce you have to have, its pretty straight forward. I’ve done it and I can do it here as well will be their attitude.

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