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.