Stoking UWM’s Student Entrepreneurial Fire

The Clever Blocks team (top row from left): Joe Cera, Bryan Cera, Cat Pham, (bottom row from left): Kavi Laud, Dom Amato and Rob Zdanowski

Stoking UWM’s Student Entrepreneurial Fire

Enterprising students at UWM are getting a boost from a new program that encourages them not only to learn, but to find commercial applications for their knowledge. The university is offering financial backing for students’ promising product ideas, meaning they could graduate from UWM with a degree and a company.

When Jesse Depinto’s full-time job was suddenly downsized, he began to dream of starting a business of his own. Depinto, a 23-year-old engineering undergraduate who already co-owns a small company, is now pursuing another thanks to UWM’s Student Startup Challenge (SSC). The SSC is energizing the campus entrepreneurial culture, giving students with sustainable product ideas the chance to finish their degrees while they also launch their businesses.

What makes the SSC distinct from most other business competitions is its focus on the product itself. Three winning teams each received $10,000 to spend a year building prototypes and participating in workshops on business plans and marketing. “This is the way it happens in the real world,” says Thomas Schuster, a partner in the Wisconsin Early Stage Fund who served as an SSC judge. “Business plan competitions have no substance unless a sustainable business concept is driving them.”

The top products in this inaugural competition were chosen based on the likelihood that each would translate into a successful company within a year. The university will not own any part of the students’ ideas or resulting intellectual property. The winners include:

  • Clever Blocks may look like toys, but each one contains a sensor linking it with Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. The result is a quick and easy collaborative building and modeling tool. As the blocks are used, the CAD model is automatically and simultaneously executed. The team will be exploring the product’s uses in teaching and practice.
  • Parking Unwired is creating a wireless, deployable car-counting device that will unleash mobile parking apps from their current limited use in parking decks. The hardware has the capability to “talk” to a mobile parking app based on the number of spaces available at any geographic location. The idea sprang from a classroom discussion with leaders of Traffic & Parking Control Inc. (TAPCO).
  • 3D Creations is developing an affordable 3D scanner for use with desktop 3D printers. (A 3D printer creates an object by depositing ultrathin layers of plastic, one on top of another.) The device uses white light from a common LCD projector to produce a safe, inexpensive and accurate scan. The team will investigate medical applications, such as the creation of custom orthotics.

The SSC was a combined effort of the College of Engineering & Applied Science, the Peck School of the Arts and the UWM Research Foundation (UWMRF), and this year will expand links with the Lubar School of Business. Students from any discipline can participate, along with recent alumni. “The program takes advantage of innate student creativity in order to ramp up the state’s pool of young business owners and serial entrepreneurs,” says Ilya Avdeev, engineering assistant professor and director of the SSC. “It also gives students the opportunity to apply their education immediately.”

UWMRF’s founding investment made sense. “Student entrepreneurship and faculty innovation go hand-in-hand,” says Brian Thompson, UWMRF’s president. In the last four years, the foundation has helped five faculty members establish companies. “So it’s a natural extension of the work the foundation already does to help faculty commercialize their research ideas.” For UWM students, the SSC offers a rare quick-start opportunity. “The Startup Challenge is hands-down the biggest boost for my business plans,” says Depinto of 3D Creations. “It’s really unusual to encounter this kind of investment at such an early stage.”

Parking Unwired team (top photo from left) : Nick Wessing, Michael Schulze and Matt Helenka. 3D creations team (bottom photo from left): Jesse Depinto and Matthew T. Juranitch