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Startups, Start Here: UCF Students and Faculty Team Up to Commercialize Their Invention

July 20, 2016

FeynmanNano logoFeynmanNano is a student-run, B2B startup company that creates nanostructures originally designed to make solar panels more efficient in producing energy. This technology was developed at UCF by two of the company co-founders – UCF associate professor Jayan Thomas, Ph.D. and engineering student Brandon Carpenter. UCF graduate and mathematics major Jonathan Wachob is the third co-founder. The team has used several of the entrepreneurial resources available at UCF, including the Blackstone LaunchPad, the I-Corps program, and the Office of Technology Transfer.

Earlier this year, Feynman was selected as one of four finalists in the Cade Museum Prize for Innovation, an annual competition for early-stage inventors and entrepreneurs in Florida.

Carpenter is Feynman’s Chief Operating Officer and he shared his experiences as a student entrepreneur and what he has learned through his startup launching journey.

What is your background? (i.e., education, business experience, etc.)

I had an aerospace/mechanical engineering dual major. Recently, I decided to just stick with mechanical engineering, just because there are not enough hours in the day.

All the business experience I’ve received has been from failing in the real world, learning the hard way, and having mentors telling me when I’m wrong.

How did this startup launching process begin for you as an entrepreneur?

When I first came to UCF, I was connected with the Blackstone LaunchPad, a few months before it opened, through the [former] associate director, Pam Hoelzle. She worked with us one-on-one, with me and my co-founders—not for Feynman, but for another venture that I’m still involved in [Fourier Electric].

We met with her to go over what it takes to even think about starting a company, because all we had was an idea. Within the first three meetings, she completely changed everything we were doing, just by asking us the right questions.

We worked with her for about two years. We went from knowing nothing about business and only having an idea to securing our first round of investment and having four or more partnerships with hospitals including Florida Hospital. After working with Pam, she offered us jobs—so I actually work as one of the coaches at the LaunchPad.

The Blackstone LaunchPad taught us those fundamental skills that we needed. They also opened up a lot of opportunities for us in terms of getting connected into the industry, networking, and meeting VC groups. They even helped with our first introduction to Florida Hospital.

What technologies have you licensed from UCF? What stages of development are they currently at?

It’s a polymer nanoimprinting method. Basically, it’s an economical way to build plastic nanostructures. It’s been demonstrated in the lab; however, taking it to an industrial scale can be done very quickly as long as we can get the necessary funding.

How was it determined that creating a startup was the best way to get these inventions to the marketplace? Walk us through the process of creating a startup company.

Ultimately, Dr. Thomas, myself, and our third co-founder—we all decided to license the technology to our company because of our experience and connections in the industry. We wanted to see the project through. We wanted to take it from its infancy to where it’s out in the real world doing something.

What are three (or more?) ingredients for success when it comes to launching a startup?

  1. Coffee.
  2. A solid team.
  3. Mentors.

In addition to the mentorship we received from Blackstone LaunchPad, we also received mentorship through the UCF I-Corp program. It was an intense program in terms of the amount of work, but through their mentorship on the importance of customer discovery, we used customer feedback to pivot from marketing the technology to solar panel companies to the medical industry. We realized the solar panel companies weren’t interested in having another coating, but we identified another use for the nanotechnology in medical device applications. This was an important transition for us and we wouldn’t have gotten there without the guidance of the I-Corps team. They helped accelerate our company to where it is today, as well as connected us with people in the medical industry that have helped us grow our business.

Was there anything about starting a startup that you found to be intriguing, ironic, or surprising?

I could probably write a book to answer that question. First, I’d say it was surprising how hard it actually is, compared to how it’s portrayed. You have to quickly learn how to be resilient in the face of constant rejection—meaning that for every one success, you have nine failures that follow. But it’s that one success that can keep you going. You also have to learn to be able to take criticism constructively and to not get easily discouraged.

How do you see startups that use university technology different from other types of startups?

One key distinction is they would have a clear advantage because they would have the university’s weight behind them. Even if you’re talking with investors, pitching a funding proposal—when you’re able to say that UCF, one of the largest universities in the US, has their hand in the honey pot, it makes a difference as far as credibility, especially if you’re a student.

As a student, what do you think makes UCF unique in how they approach entrepreneurship?

I have friends all over, attending different universities, and UCF is definitely unique in the aspect that there’s so much research here. Also, the entrepreneurial ecosystem has really been growing here over the last two and a half years. Everything’s [the entrepreneurial resources] becoming more streamlined and consolidated, and departments on campus are working together to really push this. So because of that, there are students that are going through these [entrepreneurship] channels and becoming successful.

If there is one piece of advice that you would give a student entrepreneur, something you wish you had known before you launched a startup—what would that be?

Almost all of the most important lessons I’ve learned was through making mistakes. Feynman and Fourier were not my first two startups. There were probably two or three earlier projects that were terrible, unspeakably terrible. But if anything, they serve as learning tools. From those failure experiences, we were able to learn enough where, once we had mentorship, we were able to actually go and be more successful.

Student-founded companies like Feynman Nano utilize UCF innovations to impact industry and the world. To learn more about startup resources at UCF, contact Julia Roberts.


Monitoring the Stress on Bridges, Buildings, Dams, and Tunnels Can Prevent Tragedy

July 11, 2016

When we wake up in our homes, travel down highways in our cars, and arrive at work or school buildings, we expect these engineered structures to be sturdy and strong to keep us safe. We usually don’t think twice about the integrity of these structures until they start to show wear and tear, such as when we drive over a pothole or when a bridge collapses.

Structural integrity risks and failures are a result of incremental changes over time. Monitoring these slow changes can prevent fatalities and catastrophes. Associate Professor Hae-Bum “Andrew” Yun, Ph.D., in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering at UCF, has created a new system that monitors these incremental changes that can cause structural failure, before they become fatal. You can read more about Yun’s research and background in this month’s Faculty Feature.

Only counting dams and bridges, there are millions of structures to monitor within America’s infrastructure. For example there are:

  • 75,000+ dams
  • 600,000+ bridges
  • 4 million+ miles paved roads
  • Approximately 3.8 to 5.6 million buildings

Phenomena such as cracks forming in walls and ice forming on roads occur at a slow, seemingly imperceptible rate, but other environmental factors such as temperature and precipitation can hide these slight changes, hampering efforts to effectively monitor important changes. Yun’s structural health monitoring method is able to cut through the “noise” of the other environmental factors to effectively detect and monitor these subtle changes more accurately, using fewer sensors, leading to better maintenance and incident prevention.

These small changes that can lead to big problems occur in patterns, so this technique uses an auto-modulating pattern (AMP) detection system. This method can be used on bridges, buildings, dams, and tunnels whose structural behavior is significantly affected by the ongoing changes in the immediate environment, including changes in the mixture of temperature, climate, humidity, etc. The motivation of AMP is to detect tiny but important changes in sensor readings, which is directly related to structural health. It can be used independently, or it can be used within a larger detection unit to trigger alerts for when a structure is at risk of failing.

Within this system, several types of sensors can be used such as acceleration, displacement, slope, strain, temperature, and velocity to measure the risk of structural stress using various important factors over time. Detection of small changes can be improved by the collection of raw signals from these sensors over time, to identify changes in hidden patterns.

In order to get to market, this technology needs you. To learn how to either start a company or add this technology to your product line, contact Raju Nagaiah.


Startups, Start Here: Student Entrepreneurship at UCF is on the Rise with the Blackstone LaunchPad

June 29, 2016

Logo Blackstone LaunchPadCreated in 2013, the Blackstone LaunchPad at UCF is a part of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL), the university’s campus-wide academic entrepreneurship center. The Blackstone LaunchPad enterprise, which now includes 20 elite research universities, began at the University of Miami in 2008.

We spoke with Cameron Ford, Ph.D., the executive director of CEL, to learn more about the LaunchPad and student entrepreneurship at UCF.

What services does Blackstone LaunchPad provide?

We offer free, confidential one-on-one coaching for students who are interested in exploring whether their ideas might be worth developing into startup proposals.  We also offer frequent workshops that present startup skills, industry insights, and startup successes to further educate and inspire our student starters.  Finally, we connect students to just-in-time resources that can help them take their next steps. For example, when students find themselves gaining enough positive feedback about their proposal that they need to develop a logo and informational website to portray themselves professionally, we offer free design services staffed by students from the School of Visual Art and Design. We also connect students to mentors in the community who can offer advice and other support.  Obviously, students need to earn these resources by investing in their own proposals, but we want to support their journey any way we can.

Are there any requirements for using Blackstone LaunchPad?

There are no requirements for using Blackstone LaunchPad other than being a current UCF student or a recent alumni. You can be from any discipline. You can bring any idea—we mean, literally, any idea. We are there to help students learn how to make judgments about their ideas and how to elaborate them into rigorously developed proposals.

How many students use the LaunchPad on an annual basis?

We have about somewhere between 1200 and 1500 students working on ventures, meaning they are registered and made appointments. Last year, we had about 3500 appointments. We also have about 5000 total attendance at our workshops and other events.

Which students/companies have been the most successful clients? Are there any commonalities between them? (e.g., type of company, type of student)

We have a handful of companies featured on our website, cel.ucf.edu. One venture who has gained considerable attention is O’Dang Hummus. They had a successful appearance on SharkTank and their charismatic founder, Jesse Wolfe, has become a prominent spokesperson for the Blackstone LaunchPad program. His products can be found in Publix and Whole Foods, and I understand that he has other deals in the works.

One of our emerging companies right now was founded by an engineering student and a liberal arts student—Rope Lace Supply, which sells shoelaces. They’ve generated quite a following and I hear good things about their early revenue.

There’s a company called Teeps, an app development company. They’re doing extremely well. I believe they recently hired their 20th employee.

One really good success story: a student who won our business plan competition last year with a company called Talent Simulations. He’s an engineering graduate student who went through the senior design program as an undergrad. What he developed for his senior design project—he actually never did sell that. But he designed his whole business around that solution. He found another company that made basically what he was going to make, and he just partnered with them. He’s now an exclusive distributor for their product. His is more of a service company. He’s like a systems integrator of a video simulation system. He just installed a virtual reality gaming setup in the new CaddyShanks interactive sports bar opening across from UCF.

The types of students and ventures we serve are very diverse. You might think we have mostly business students, but the Blackstone Launchpad clients are about 35 to 40 percent business students, about 30 to 35 percent are STEM students, and another 30 percent are students from all over campus.

Where do you see student entrepreneurship at universities headingin the future? Has there been a rise in this particular area of entrepreneurship over the past few years?

One really interesting challenge we’re trying to figure out is how to align entrepreneurship curriculum with extracurricular activities, so that students who pursue their venture ideas very aggressively don’t put themselves in jeopardy of failing out of school. What ends up happening is that once you get to a certain threshold of your venture, the venture starts pulling you: you’re pushing for a while, and then it’s rolling downhill and gaining momentum.

So that’s an interesting trend that I want to see happen—this melding of theory and practice through the students’ startup journey. They use their own startups as a vehicle, almost like a giant case study in an integrated fashion through their college experience.

Student entrepreneurship at UCF is not only stimulating Central Florida’s economy, but also provides students with an invaluable educational experience outside of the classroom. To learn more about CEL’s initiatives, contact them here.