On the last day of school before his students went home for the holidays, Nariman Farvardin began his freshman engineering class with a couple of questions. Why, he wanted to know, was the heart of last decade's technology boom on the West Coast? Why are so many more companies founded there? Why is Silicon Valley in California and not someplace else?
His University of Maryland students, anxious for Christmas vacation, greeted him with silence. So he answered himself.
"There is a culture there in that part of the country," he told the class. "A culture of entrepreneurship."
Washington has its own culture of entrepreneurship, one that led to its own technology boom in the 1990s. But Farvardin said the alchemy of technical brilliance and the willingness to risk a business upon it differentiated Silicon Valley from all other technology centers in the country. It is a culture he wants to create around Washington.
Farvardin, the dean of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering, has crafted an ambitious plan for his tenure as dean, to turn Maryland's school of engineering into an engine of cultural change that will fill students with the "fire in the gut," as he calls it, to take the ideas gleaned from their schooling and build companies.
"Nariman has this vision of his engineering school becoming a major force in the region to transform the fruits of research into commercial enterprises," said David Barbe, a Maryland professor of electrical and computer engineering involved in other entrepreneurial programs. "Creating a culture where these technology students can learn how to move their ideas forward is extremely important."
Barbe is also faculty director at Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities, a program that encourages undergraduate students to start businesses. It also runs a special dorm for business and engineering students with those interests. As dean, Farvardin is using a number of existing programs at Maryland as a foundation for his goals. The school already had an incubator program for companies started by faculty members, boot camp sessions where venture capitalists and technology executives critique student business plans and the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute,s founded in 1983 to encourage collaboration between the university and industry.
These efforts were initially slow to take root in the academic culture at Maryland. "There was initially a certain amount of caution at the beginning. I think there was a wait and see kind of attitude that many people had," said Herbert Rabin, an associate dean at Maryland's Engineering Research Center and director of Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute. "Now they actually see that it works, and it's considered very much part of the landscape."
Farvardin, 46, does not idly preach of the entrepreneurial spirit. Last year he founded a company with three of his PhD students. He has raised $16 million from local venture capital firms. The start-up, named Zagros Networks Inc. after a mountain range in Iran, where Farvardin was born, develops computer chips to help networks run faster and more efficiently.
"He went to Stanford and some other places and he saw companies being formed out of universities and he became bound and determined that he was going to make one of those happen out of his work in Maryland," said Mike Sheridan, a venture capitalist who invested in Zagros.
Peppering Farvardin's talk of the future of Maryland's engineering school is talk of Stanford University's past. In the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford is an integral part of that region's technology economy. And the rise of Stanford as an entrepreneurial center is widely credited to a former dean of its engineering school, Frederick Terman. Farvardin's colleagues in both academia and business are quick to draw comparisons between Farvardin's goals at Maryland and Terman's legacy at Stanford.
"Dr. Terman, much like what Nariman is doing by promoting entrepreneurial activities, was a major contributor," Rabin said. "Deans, of course, are very influential in being able to do that because they have the resources behind them."
Farvardin came to Maryland in 1984 as an assistant professor in electrical engineering. He left Iran in 1978 in the midst of revolution to continue his studies, always with the intent of being a teacher. He taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he got his advanced degrees. He rose quickly through the ranks after arriving at Maryland, before being offered the job of chairman of the department of electrical and computer engineering in 1994. Administrative work suited him, and when the dean of the engineering school left six years later, he pursued that job.
But he still teaches one class each semester -- a one credit, weekly freshman engineering class called "Dialogue with the Dean," where he tries to bring his entrepreneurial message to some of the university's newest students. At the end of the last class of the fall semester, two dozen pizzas were delivered and Farvardin hovered around the front of the class, mingling among his students in a dark gray suit, a blue shirt and a conspicuous gold terrapin lapel pin.
He talked about his own company and the notable successes of some local technology business owners, although eventually, the conversation drifted to advanced placement credit, chemistry classes and a first semester at college; the day-to-day work of a college dean. For nearly an hour after class ended he stayed in the room, eventually helping clear away discarded pizza boxes and Dixie cups. Early the next morning he left for a week in Japan to cement research agreements between the university and Japanese companies.
The frenetic pace is reminiscent of a story Farvardin sheepishly told about raising money for Zagros Networks. He met one afternoon with a venture capitalist in Baltimore but had to politely cut the meeting short because he was getting married in Washington that night.
"All in the same year he decided to get married, was offered the position of dean and started his own company," said Tom Scholl, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist involved in Zagros. "The amazing thing about Nariman is that tremendous energy. It's just mind-boggling."