Turning student brainstorms into businesses

Danny Corcoran (clockwise from left), a senior in information studies, and Joe Murphy, a senior in psychology, have teamed up with architecture alum Steven Schneider and economics and theatre alum Veronica Sotelo-Munoz. Not pictured is architecture alum Chris Murphy. (Photo by Peter Jakubowski)

After working on research involving depression, psychology senior Joe Murphy created a game that not only could have some commercial value, but also could ultimately help thousands of people struggling with the condition.

Murphy hasn’t written a business plan or created a prototype yet. Instead, he entered his idea in Round 2 of UWM’s Student Startup Challenge (SSC), a campuswide competition for students that puts the focus on the earliest entrepreneurial stage – a product idea.

The competition’s second year is under way, with a deadline of May 31 for submissions at http://uwmstartupchallenge.com/. Ideas are accepted in two categories this round – devices and mobile applications.

Recent alum Monte Eady (from left) has pitched an idea to the Student Startup Challenge with teammates Nathan Spaeth, senior in computer science, and their friend, Lisa Simonson. Not pictured is alum Nathan Kluth. (Photo by Laura L. Hunt)

“I want to act on my ideas,” Murphy says, referring to the online game that engages people suffering from depression in interaction. “I don’t like just sitting on the sidelines.”

This year, a panel of expert judges will choose up to eight product ideas from two categories for the $10,000 prize that is earmarked for building prototypes and participating in workshops on business plans and marketing.

The aim is to ramp up the university’s entrepreneurial culture among students who could being running their own companies by the time they finish their degrees.

“We want to go into the student union or Spaights Plaza and hear students talking about ideas,” says Ilya Avdeev, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who directs the competition with Nathaniel Stern, professor of art and design. “Innovation begins in the coffee shop, in the research lab and in the library, where people actually innovate.”

Avdeev and Stern hope to expand the award categories to include freshwater technology and clean energy in the future.

Alumni also involved

SSC also is open to alums who have graduated in the last two years.

Monte Eady applied to the SSC with an idea that began forming while he was an undergraduate graphic design student. “I developed a mobile app in a class,” says Eady, who also works as a designer-educator at Milwaukee’s Discovery World. “Then I could see that it had the potential to be something more than just an assignment for a grade.”

Taking inspiration from their own enthusiasm for entrepreneurship, Eady and his team have formed U The Center, a new platform for collaborative learning that can make money through targeted advertising. The crowdsourcing tool allows student entrepreneurs to find each other, and university resources, within various departments to share and implement their ideas.

“There are almost 30,000 students at UWM,” he says. “And it’s hard to find what you’re looking for – especially other people – on the UWM website. No one should feel isolated.”

Three teams won in the inaugural competition held last fall. Winning projects included a wireless, deployable car-counting device that enables use of mobile parking apps in any geographic location; a 3D scanner that feeds dimensions directly into desktop 3D printers; and building blocks that contain sensors that link to Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, offering a collaborative modeling system. (Watch a video on last year’s winners.)