E-Days 2023: Bert Vermeulen on technology entrepreneurship
Interview by Russell Dickerson, April 10, 2023
Among the senior design projects presented at this year’s E-Days showcase, some student teams also pursued projects that combined technology with entrepreneurship. These proposals received up to $5,000 in venture funding to develop their ideas into a business while designing their product or process.
Engineering instructor and project advisor Bert Vermeulen sat down with Engineering Source to discuss the projects, the business and technical challenges, and how it might affect a student’s future career.
How interested are students in the business side of engineering?
This year there are seven entrepreneurial senior design projects, out of the nearly 100 total projects at E-Days. In addition, some engineering undergraduates decide to also get a business minor or an entrepreneurship minor. Even if you add up all of the students in these two programs, it is still only a small fraction of the engineering students. There are many more students who have an interest, but aren’t currently combining engineering and business.
What do you and the students want to get out of the projects?
There are two main results.
First, what’s really cool is that a minority of the projects actually do turn into businesses. For example, one of the projects from last year is now a part-time business for two of the three mechanical engineering students who came up with it. These students came up with a needed solution for a type of off-road motorcycle racing called “hard enduro,” in which motorcycles are ridden trails over rocks and everything else. This team developed guards that go around the swing arms. They were able to fully develop their product and start selling it by E-Days, and they’ve continued to sell it. They have ended up with the premium product in their category, and a great reputation in a small market. So that is one very cool outcome. We have engineering students whose goal was to become entrepreneurs as quickly as possible. It’s likely that we’ll have similar success stories this year again.
The second main result is for engineering students to learn about business. In my surveys, about half of the students expect that at some point they’re going to be in a business management role that would require them to have business knowledge. This is a great opportunity for students to do that for a business idea that they would like to pursue.
When you consider other senior design projects, how much extra work does something like this include?
There is extra work, but students also get extra credit for it. At least one member of each entrepreneurial senior design team is required to take the technology entrepreneurship course (ENGR 422). This extra work is to go beyond understanding the technical challenges of developing something, to also understanding the market and financial challenges of turning that product, process, or service into something that is actually successful. Business success is more than just invention and design. For example, if we look for examples of what percentage of patents actually become products in the marketplace, that percentage is very low. It is probably less than 10%.
One of those reasons might be that it was very cool technology, but who cares? And will the marketplace care enough to pay for it? So we work on the “who cares?”
Let me just give you a little example. We have a senior design team that came up with the idea to break down plastic bottles, which are made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), back into the components that are used to make that PET. You can biologically engineer bacteria to produce enzymes to break down those bottles. They wanted to do that because we need this for environmental reasons.
So, this team started with a big picture vision. The technical challenge for turning that vision into reality was to work out: “will these enzymes actually work?” and “Can we demonstrate these enzymes breaking down the plastic bottles?” That’s all part of the technical requirements for their senior design course.
But that in itself doesn’t tell us if this could be a successful business. So this senior design team also worked on understanding the economics of this process. How much does it cost to make these original components that can then be turned back into bottles? Is it worth it, given the fact that you have to go sort those bottles, collect them, and do everything else? This turns out to be a very interesting set of questions because this economic analysis showed that, , for this to be a viable business, there must be subsidies.
One of the students worked through the political aspects of this as well. When talking to people who are involved in providing community landfills, he received a very enthusiastic response. They’ll probably be able to come up with a presentation that shows that, yes, this business idea is on the verge of making sense. They are also learning how they could implement this if they chose to continue.
This year’s entrepreneurial senior design projects include:
- The Enzymatic Recycling Project is developing a process that uses bio-engineered enzymes to convert plastic bottles, made out of polyethylene traps (PET), back into the original chemical components. Those can then be used to make new PET bottles and other products (chemical and biological engineering students).
- SensiSwab is developing a lateral flow assay to detect peanut allergies (chemical and biological engineering students).
- The Open Insulin Project started by identifying a process for making insulin that avoids the current patents to reduce cost. The project appears to have come up with a way to make insulin storable without refrigeration (chemical and biological engineering students, mechanical engineering students).
- Sniftek has developed a low-cost internet-connected alcohol breathalyzer for a client that provides alcohol addiction recovery services (biomedical engineering students also pursuing degrees in chemical, mechanical, and electrical/computer engineering).
- Project Pitter Patter is developing a low-cost process for making dynamic response prosthetic feet for residents of middle-income countries (mechanical engineering students, biomedical engineering students also pursuing degrees in mechanical engineering students).
- Course Rover has developed a lightweight and low-cost golf wheeled golf carrier for casual golfers (mechanical engineering students).
- Ruck Moto has fabricated an electric utility motorcycle they plan to take to market (mechanical engineering students).