Bringing Big Ideas to Reality
BY IT'S VERY NATURE, engineering defines innovation. To be an engineer is to have an innate curiosity and a desire to make things better, explore the unknown, and create something no one has thought of before.
Srinivas Gorty, a member of the College of Engineering Board of Advisors, is founder and president of Verge Ventures, a boutique investment company that funds startups in the tech industry. He has worked with dozens of innovators and entrepreneurs in the past 20 years and is excited about everything that the College of Engineering—and UTA as a whole—is doing to introduce students to innovation and entrepreneurship. Through courses in entrepreneurship, the Maverick Pitch competition, and industry partnerships with capstone design teams, the college is providing students the necessary tools to get started bringing their own ideas to reality.
“It’s exciting to see UTA making an investment in student entrepreneurship, because most students don’t realize that entrepreneurship can be a career option,” Gorty says. “It’s something they can begin working toward while they’re completing their degrees, and there’s no better time to start a company than right out of school, before the pressures of life make it too difficult.”
Jeff Smith (’04 Ph.D., ’88 M.S, Computer Science and Engineering) is also a member of the Board of Advisors. He has started multiple companies and lives in a world of innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Some of the best innovators I know are creatives from an entrepreneurial standpoint and are also good from an operational standpoint,” Dr. Smith says. “To be an entrepreneur, you have to get out of the lab, talk to people, ask questions, and listen their answers. One of the things that UTA has done well is to adopt the concept of locating makerspaces in common areas between disciplines so that technical people, creative people, and business or marketing people can interact.”
The College of Engineering has begun a major push to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship as an option for students who have big ideas—and to help them transform those ideas into successful companies or products. Combined with UTA’s entrepreneurship initiatives, the programs offer students many opportunities to learn about this topic and immerse themselves in the startup world.
An Innovation Ecosystem
Faculty members from the College of Engineering have received 21 patents over the past two years—or 40% of all patents awarded to the University during that time. Last year, UTA’s 23 total patents contributed to the University of Texas System’s overall No. 4 ranking in the National Academy of Inventors and Intellectual Property Owners Association’s list of the top 100 worldwide universities granted U.S. utility patents.
“UTA strongly prioritizes the public impact of its work,” says Teresa Schultz, director of innovation and commercialization. “We partner with organizations and corporations at regional, national, and international levels to transfer our innovative technologies to the marketplace. The Office of Innovation and Commercialization is proud to serve as the bridge for our researchers’ technologies and innovations to transition to industry use and become available to all humankind.”
Engineering students participate in research at all stages of their academic careers. Over the past four years, the college has recognized their efforts annually during Innovation Day.
Innovation Day celebrates and showcases the creative, transformative research and capstone projects produced by engineering students. The event was held online in 2020 and 2021, with posters and videos from each of the more than 100 entries being judged by industry partners, faculty, and alumni from five countries and several U.S. states. Future events will utilize a hybrid in-person and online format to allow continued participation by alumni worldwide.
David Wetz, a professor of electrical engineering, spearheads the event, which began in 2017 shortly after the arrival of Peter Crouch, dean of the College of Engineering. The dean launched Innovation Day because he felt strongly that it was important to give students at all levels, from undergraduate to doctoral, access to real research experiences.
In addition to showcasing the outstanding work of student researchers, the event is an opportunity for industry and the community to become more involved and aware of the quality of UTA’s engineering students as they prepare to enter the workforce.
“Innovation Day has evolved and has been a great success due to the efforts of an entire team of faculty and staff, as well as our student participants,” Dr. Crouch says. “While this is a mechanism to help our students perfect their presentation and communication skills, it also provides the basis of an invaluable outreach tool to allow our stakeholders access to student work and enable them to participate as judges.”
Launched last year, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Innovation (CEEI) fosters a vibrant and supportive atmosphere for UTA students, scholars, and researchers as they drive to innovate, commercialize new technologies, and pioneer new companies that will impact our North Texas communities and the global economy for decades into the future.
CEEI partners with the nonprofit startup incubator TechFW to present EpICMavs, a free entrepreneurship program that hosts weekly speakers leading discussions on topics such as business model canvassing, marketing, branding, and pitching to investors. EpICMavs also hosts a hands-on, seven-week mini accelerator called Deep Dive during the summer that allows a more intensive focus on launching startups.
The Maverick Entrepreneur Program and Award Fund was established in 2018 to encourage UTA students to explore and express their business ideas in a friendly and encouraging environment. The program consists of two phases. During Phase I, all UTA students are invited to submit a three-minute video pitch of a new venture idea. The best earn a chance to present a six-minute pitch to a panel of judges that selects final award recipients. The winners are invited to participate in Phase II, which involves mentoring, coaching, and access to other resources, along with the opportunity to participate in a second pitch competition.
Recent graduate Victoria Messerschmidt (’21 Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering) received $45,000 in funding through the competition for her company, Cardis Health, which provides remote cardiac monitoring for rural areas. She is the most recent engineering student to receive significant funding through the program.
“UTA has really helped me with my future business endeavors,” Dr. Messerschmidt says. “I thought, ‘I’m an engineer. I might not have the best business background,’ but people I met with during the competition really believed in me. I think it’s a really good opportunity that UTA gives us.”
FabLab and Makerspaces
In addition to academic resources, UTA also offers its budding inventors the literal tools they need to bring their visions to reality. The largest of these makerspaces is the Central Library’s FabLab, an 8,000-square-foot space containing 3D printers, laser cutters, screen printers, kilns, sewing machines, wood and metal shop equipment, and much more for learners from any discipline or experience level.
The college itself also hosts three makerspaces in Nedderman Hall and Woolf Hall tailored to the needs of mechanical and aerospace engineering; electrical engineering; computer science and engineering; and industrial, manufacturing, and systems engineering students making prototypes or working on senior design projects. They offer a mix of shop equipment, laser cutters, 3D printers, and electronic equipment.
As demand increases, the college and its departments are upgrading and adding new equipment to ensure that students have what they need to put their skills to use in developing their ideas.
Looking to the Future
Engineering students spend their careers inventing, but most don’t give a second thought to becoming entrepreneurs. Through the efforts of the College of Engineering and UTA as a whole, an idea is taking root among students: Starting your own company is possible. The hope is that many more future graduates will have the confidence to pursue this path.
Gorty, in particular, would like to see them do so soon after graduation, before they are limited by a career and other responsibilities. “Once you’ve been working for a while, it’s harder to give up that salary and the life you’ve created,” he says. “Right out of school, you’re not tied to anything yet, and there’s a big upside to taking that risk and seeing it play out.”