Engineers have always developed breakthrough ideas. A little over a decade ago, however, UVA engineering students and administrators expressed greater interest in becoming effective entrepreneurs—to help turn their breakthrough ideas into solutions.
In response to problems that cried out for solving, they needed an entire entrepreneurial ecosystem of training, seed funds and mentors.
UVA engineers wanted to ensure that “the incredible research done here moves from the bench out into the marketplace to help solve societal problems,” says Liz Pyle, associate director for technology entrepreneurship and director of UVA’s Innovation Corps program. Managed by the school of engineering, I-Corps teaches entrepreneurial skills to graduate and faculty researchers in STEM fields.
The push for this comprehensive system gained momentum as engineering alumni began donating money to fund training on everything from idea generation to the nitty gritty of start-up operations.
Erik Quigg (Engr ’18) and Fritz Steuer (Engr ’18) are two beneficiaries of those efforts. The pair created Kestrel, a neonatal transport incubator that protects newborns from brain injury as they’re transferred between hospitals.
The two aerospace engineering majors adapted gimbal suspension technology—the same system that keeps a camera steady—to give infants a smooth, quiet ride. They won first place and $20,000 at this year’s UVA Entrepreneurship Cup, an annual three-part series of pitch competitions for UVA students. (Alumni Association COO Lily West (Darden ’12) coached them.)
Ashwinraj Karthikeyan (Engr ’18) led a team that won a different set of awards for Phoenix-Aid—a bandage that uses advanced materials to heal infected wound sites. Karthikeyan had developed the idea before coming to UVA and then used UVA expertise to turn it into a product to help people in developing countries who have diabetic foot ulcers. His team won the ACC InVenture Prize competition and the People’s Choice award, taking home a combined $20,000 prize.
The recent emphasis on entrepreneurship is vital to these successes. “There’s a gap between students learning in classes and being able to create something,” Karthikeyan says. “There’s not a lot of room for experimentation, because you run the risk of injuring your grade, and if you do it on your own, it interferes with your studies.”
As part of its evolution, the engineering school hired Alexander Zorychta (Engr ’13) as coordinator for student entrepreneurs. He looks for the students working long hours outside of class, the ones showing proactivity, perseverance, grit and an intention to blaze new paths.
Their products are important, he says, “but what’s really important is the elusive entrepreneurial mindset.”
The goal is to bring peers and mentors together to create a community that turns ideas into viable businesses. And the efforts are paying off. For the past three years, UVA engineering students have won or taken second place at the ACC InVenture Prize competition.
“As more people are brought into the opportunity space to try things, to tinker,” Karthikeyan says, “the number of entrepreneurial efforts will increase.”
Which can only mean the solving of more problems—starting from the eye of an engineer.