An institution for innovation
Over the last decade, UW-Madison has built a suite of opportunities for students to develop their creativity and expand their business savvy.
“I want to be independent, work on major problems, and have more meaningful work,” says Sean Kelly.
A freshman biomedical engineering student, Kelly calls himself a “big-ideas person.” In less than a year on campus, he has pitched an idea to a group of angel investors, built a breathalyzer lamp for a 100-hour campus challenge, and entered ideas in two UW-Madison invention competitions. Kelly lives in a university dorm for entrepreneurs and daily seeks to rub elbows with like-minded innovative faculty, staff and students.
He’s not alone. Many of today’s students aim to be entrepreneurs, to start their own companies, and to solve problems that are both personally relevant and socially important. “They recognize that maybe careers aren’t as steady as they used to be in a lot of the disciplines, and that they may need to make their own way,” says John Surdyk, a faculty associate in the Wisconsin School of Business.
At UW-Madison, this trend has not gone unnoticed. Beginning more than a decade ago, university leaders began establishing a vast array of classroom and extracurricular opportunities that feed students’ desire to immerse themselves in innovation and entrepreneurship.
There are entrepreneurial student organizations, chat groups, peer-mentoring networks, lecture series, and smallbusiness and patenting advice resources. Undergraduates can major in entrepreneurship, while graduate students can choose it as a minor. In the works are cross-campus certificate programs in both technology innovation and entrepreneurship. More than a dozen campus departments offer courses on topics as diverse as product design and development, intellectual property, marketing, entrepreneurial finance, managing startup ventures, and e-commerce, among others. In Sellery Hall, there is an entrepreneurial residential learning community for undergraduates, while grad students can participate in a weeklong, highintensity entrepreneurial boot camp.
Myriad competitions reward students at all levels for creative ideas, outstanding prototypes, innovative product designs, best business plans, environmental solutions, computer software, and novel arts ventures.
The first such competition at UW-Madison is the Schoofs Prize for Creativity . Sixteen years ago, chemical engineering alumnus Richard Schoofs funded the competition, which provides substantial cash prizes to novel, marketable student ideas. A few years later, electrical engineering alumnus Peter Tong and the Tong Family Foundation established the Tong Prototype Prize to encourage students to build their ideas. Now both are part of Innovation Days, held annually in mid-February.
“The competitions are a great way to challenge your creativity in ways you don’t do with your schoolwork, and push your ideas forward to production,” says electrical and computer engineering senior Jason Lohr.
Lohr is a two-time, award-winning Innovation Days participant, and the kind of student who’s not necessarily into creativity for the money. In 2010, he and mechanical engineering senior Eyleen Chou and biomedical engineering senior Tyler Lark entered — and earned cash prizes for — a cooking stove that burns plant oils, rather than wood charcoal, for use in devastated or developing countries. Their business plan includes sharing the idea with residents of rural Haiti, who can manufacture, generate income, and cook with the coconut-based stove.
CEO of his own company, three-year Innovation Days participant Justin Beck says the competition gave him a venue to pursue his passion for inventing things. “We were always thinking, ‘Could we use this for Innovation Days?’” says Beck, who earned BS degrees in computer engineering and computer sciences in 2009.
He and teammate Daniel Gartenberg earned $10,000 in the 2009 competition for their iPhone application, Proactive Sleep Alarm Clock, now available for download via the Apple App Store.
These days, however, Beck and fellow computer engineering and computer sciences alum Andrew Hanson spend their time growing PerBlue, the company they founded in 2008 to develop Parallel Kingdom. People play the massively multiplayer role-playing game via GPS-enabled mobile phones. In February 2010, it logged more than 100,000 user accounts.
Beck credits Innovation Days for informing his role as PerBlue CEO. “I don’t think I would have had the experience and the exposure to business and innovation necessary to start PerBlue without the Innovation Days competition,” he says.
Mechanical engineering and business alum Chad Sorenson is among several Innovation Days participants to found companies based on their winning inventions. “It was really my start to pursuing an entrepreneurial career,” he says.
Sorenson eventually sold his company, Fluent Systems LLC, and with a couple of partners, founded Sologear Corp., which counts among its products the FlameDisk, an environmentally friendly alternative to charcoal grilling.
Now, with wealth of business experience under his belt, Sorenson also serves as a mentor for UW-Madison students who want to try entrepreneurship. In fall 2009, his weekly seminar series for Innovation Days participants covered everything it takes to transform a creative idea into a commercially viable product. The series was so successful that Sorenson transformed it into a forcredit course, now offered in fall.
Serial entrepreneur Matt Ogle says business knowledge helps scientists gain credibility in the business world. He should know: An engineer by training, Ogle worked in the medical device industry before founding Lumen Biomedical in 2002. His latest startup is Vatrix Medical, a company that develops technology to diagnose and treat aneurisms.
On campus, Ogle teaches Business for Engineers, a course for undergraduate and grad students from multiple engineering disciplines that debuted in fall 2008. From Ogle and guest lecturers, students learn everything from how to generate, protect and market their ideas to how to structure a company and navigate regulatory hurdles. “There has to be a marriage of understanding the technology and understanding the business,” he says. Based on a real technological idea, student teams ultimately write a business plan and present it to venture investors. One group from the inaugural course turned its business plan into Respicure, a startup company.