Looking beyond the DotBomb: With the Internet Bubble Burst, Students Turn 'Back to Reality,' Building New Business Models Based on Hard Science

Article excerpt

As signs of the times go, this one was hard to miss. At Stanford's Graduate School of Business last week, nearly a third of the companies that had signed up to recruit graduating M.B.A.s at the annual Growth Company Career Forum didn't bother to show up. A few dozen GSB students wandered around a half-empty room at the Charles Schwab Center, the M.B.A. dormitory, poking through the rubble of the Internet economy. There wasn't much left: an anti-hacking software firm seeking product managers, an online publisher looking for a digital-content guru and one hardy dot-com, a Web site for expectant parents, with an opening for an experienced software manager. Even the recruiting trinkets had a downsized flavor: there were Hershey's Kisses, glowing balls printed with one company's logo and souped-up paper clips. "It was depressing," says student David Maltz. "The one company that I was interested in wasn't even hiring."

What a difference a year--and a few hundred points on the Nasdaq--make. At last year's Growth Company fair, more than 50 start-ups flush with venture capital rushed to the academic cradle of the New Economy to lure M.B.A.s with dot-com riches and fame. But for the class of 2001, last year's trendy business models have taken on new definitions: B2B stands for "back to banking" and B2C means "back to consulting." The class of 2001 entered the M.B.A. program in 1999, at the height of Internet mania. Now everyone, it seems, knows someone who worked for a dot-com that flopped--or who left grad school midcourse for a fistful of stock options. This year's class even includes a few "third-year M.B.A.s" who tiptoed back to Stanford after the market crashed. A larger than usual proportion of this year's 360 graduates have sought safety by going the traditional route--and with good reason. Starting compensation for Stanford M.B.A.s at top investment banking and consulting firms averages about $135,000 a year. For those determined to work on the next frontiers of business and technology, the path is riskier. "It definitely hit home that I will have to do some real searching," says Maltz, 33, who specializes in product design. "It is unlikely that a job is going to fall in my lap."

No single technology has emerged to rival the Internet as the next "new thing," but it's clear that a successful business model today is likely to be based on hard science or technology. In Prof. Charles Holloway's class, a workshop called "Evaluating Entrepreneurial Opportunities," student teams develop business plans they will audition before real-world venture capitalists at the end of the term. M.B.A.s used to team up with each other and present Internet marketing schemes. Now students are encouraged to include team members from other disciplines such as medicine, engineering and law. The resulting plans range from a service company that links customers to low-cost offshore tech support, to wireless Web applications, to a medical informatics company that will help insurance companies detect fraud. "I call it 'back to reality'," says Prof. Irving Grousbeck, who also teaches entrepreneurship. "Students want more tangible opportunities that are less ephemeral and dreamy and Internet-y."

Maltz, a student in Holloway's class, has decided to combine his M.B.A. with a master's in manufacturing systems engineering. He hopes eventually to carve out a career in nanotechnology: assembling objects at the molecular, even atomic, level. Nanotechnology is likely to have revolutionary implications for medicine (imagine a "nanobot" no more than a few atoms in size, programmed to deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to a specific cell). There are also major implications for computing. Molecular electronics involves building computer circuits that are a fraction of the size and millions of times faster than today's silicon-based technology. But profitable business models based on tinkering with atoms and molecules could be more than a decade away. …