Start me up!

UWM program stokes student entrepreneurial spirit

Engineering undergraduate Jesse Depinto displays some of the plastic objects that a 3-D printer has made at his store 3D Creations at the Grand Avenue. He and partner Matt Juranitch hope to start another business with the Student Startup Challenge Award they’ve won. (Photo by Troye Fox)

Jesse Depinto knows what it feels like to work a full-time job that is suddenly downsized. “My experience led me to consider starting a business of my own,” says the 23-year-old engineering undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

Depinto, who already owns a small company with two partners, is ready to pursue another thanks to a UWM program designed to stoke the entrepreneurial spirit on campus. The Student Startup Challenge (SSC) is making it possible for students like Depinto, who have an idea for a sustainable product, to graduate not only with a degree, but also their own company.

“The Startup Challenge is hands-down the biggest boost for my business plans,” Depinto says. “It’s really unusual to encounter that kind of investor at this early stage.”

Beginning this semester, the SSC is awarding three teams of UWM students and recent alumni $10,000 each to spend the next year building prototypes and participating in workshops on business plans and marketing.

“The intent is to transform our campus into one with an entrepreneurial culture,” says Ilya Avdeev, engineering assistant professor and director of the SSC. “The program takes advantage of innate student creativity in order to ramp up the state’s pool of young business owners and serial entrepreneurs. It also gives students the opportunity to apply their education immediately.”

The winning teams and their product ideas are:

  • 3D Creations – Jesse Depinto and Matthew Juranitch
    This team already operates a business that sells and services 3-D printers. Now the two engineering undergraduates are developing a tabletop 3-D scanner system that uses white light from a common LCD projector to generate a 3-D model. The product will produce a safe, inexpensive and accurate scan of parts of the human body. The team will investigate medical applications, such as use in creating custom orthotics.
  • WiPark – Michael Schulze, Matt Helenka and Nick Wessing
    This all-engineering undergraduate team will develop a car-counting device that will be wireless and deployable. The hardware will be able to “talk” to a parking mobile app based on the number of spaces available at any location. Milwaukee-based TAPCO has become a strategic partner of this team, which has garnered early interest from parking officials from the City of Milwaukee.
  • Clever Blocks – Bryan Cera, Kavi Laud, Dom Amato, Cat Pham and Rob Zdanowski
    Comprised of undergrads, alumni and a graduate student, this team is creating a product that resembles Lego blocks except each block contains a sensor that allows it to interface with Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. The result is a quick and easy collaborative building and modeling tool. As the blocks are used to build, the CAD model is automatically and simultaneously executed. The team will also be exploring the product’s use as a teaching tool in schools.
“Business plan competitions have no substance unless a sustainable business concept is driving them.”
– Thomas Schuster
Wisconsin Early Stage Fund

A combined effort of the College of Engineering & Applied Science (CEAS), the Peck School of the Arts and the UWM Research Foundation (UWMRF), the SSC is loosely modeled on programs offered at Babson College, a top-tier private business college near Boston. But UWM’s program is distinct from similar competitions that stress business plans.

Instead, the SSC focuses on the product idea first, with the ultimate goal of actually launching the companies.

“This is the way it happens in the real world,” says Thomas Schuster, a partner in the Wisconsin Early Stage Fund who served on the review panel. “Business plan competitions have no substance unless a sustainable business concept is driving them. And, as in real life, students must develop their business using the resources they have readily available to them.”

A competition held last spring semester attracted 77 UWM students on 46 teams, who submitted 61 product ideas. A committee consisting of mostly outside reviewers chose the final three based on the likelihood that a successful company could be built around their ideas. The university will not own any part of the team ideas or any resulting intellectual property.

“Through the Student Startup Challenge, we are able to support the business end of these student enterprises,” says Brian Thompson, UWMRF president. “Student entrepreneurship and faculty innovation go hand-in-hand, so it’s a natural extension of the work the foundation already does to help faculty commercialize their ideas.”

Another inspiration for the SSC came from a CEAS-sponsored, product-realization course that brings interdisciplinary teams of students and local industry together to design products, says Avdeev, who co-teaches the course with Nathaniel Stern, professor of art and design.

The SSC encourages interdisciplinary teams and is open to UWM students and alums who have graduated in the last two years from any discipline, says Stern. This year’s winners include students from art and design, engineering and architecture. Each team will also be matched with a business student.

Plans include scaling up the competition in the next several years, including adding a category for mobile apps in 2013, he adds. Rules for the 2013 competition will appear on the SSC website by end of the semester. Deadline for the next round of submissions is June 1.

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