Inspiring Future Environmental Entrepreneurs: Jesko von Windheim Means Business

October 7, 2012

Sarah Gillig Sunu, MEM ’14, Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM NC – For Jesko von Windheim, the lab is fun, but taking the technology developed in the lab to the rest of the world is even better.

Starting this fall, he’s bringing his expertise and enthusiasm for market development to Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment as professor of the practice of environmental innovation and entrepreneurship and director of the school’s new Environmental Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.

A big part of his focus will be working with students and faculty to help them identify markets and find novel applications for new technologies.

Ultimately, von Windheim hopes the new center and the Environmental Innovation and Entrepreneurship (EIE) Certificate Program he’s directing will give students the tools they need to understand marketing concepts and leverage that understanding into future jobs and product development. 

“What I like almost more than anything is when a student comes back and says, ‘Oh, I just got this job and I was really able to show what I knew because I learned about business development in your course’,” he says.  “That’s huge.”

Like many of the prospective environmental entrepreneurs he’ll be teaching and mentoring at the Nicholas School, von Windheim didn’t start out with a background in business. It wasn’t until he was earning a PhD in chemistry from the University of Guelph that his career focus started to shift gears.

“Even though I enjoyed being in the lab, it wasn’t as interesting to me as trying to find applications for what I was doing,” he recalls.  


A postdoctoral position with Jeffrey Glass, then a faculty member in electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, led von Windheim to a job at Kobe Steel and also to the MBA program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  It was there that he began to acquire the skills needed to create applications and identify markets for the technology he was working on in the lab.

“I got my chance to go out and see what I could do,” he says.

After that first opportunity with Kobe Steel, von Windheim continued to focus on business development.  He served in a leadership role in the start-up of a number of technology companies, including Unitive Electronics Inc., Cronos Integrated Microsystems, and Nextreme Thermal Solutions.

When his former mentor Jeffrey Glass joined the Duke University Pratt School of Engineering faculty in 2003 as  professor of electrical and computer engineering and the Hogg Family Director of Engineering Management and Entrepreneurship, von Windheim began teaching courses at Pratt and the Fuqua School of Business on marketing, entrepreneurship and startup operations.

In addition to his new role at the Nicholas School, he has been working with Nirmala Ramanujam, director of Duke’s Tissue Optical Spectroscopy Laboratory, to launch the Duke-based start-up Zenalux Biomedical and develop the Zenascope spectroscopy system, a technology that measures chemical and physical information in opaque samples. 

One of his goals for Nicholas School students is to give them opportunities to work with start-ups like Zenalux.

“When you’re in an entrepreneurial environment, there is no script written. You’ve got to work very hard to understand the value to the customer,” he says. But students can learn from experienced entrepreneurs so that they “get a real sense of hey, if I wanted to go out and do this on my own, if I had a little company, this is how I would actually go out and execute this.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the Nicholas School is a key asset in von Windheim’s view.

“I’m a big believer in diversity of thought, particularly if you want to find a way to create value in this world,” he says.  “If you go at that challenge the same way that everybody else is going at it, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to find something special. When you look at the thought processes that come through Nicholas, people are highly focused on sustainable practices and solutions to our problems, and I strongly believe that’s going to have a huge impact on the world going forward.”