UWM program aims to create entrepreneurial students

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Student Startup Challenge

In its second year, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Student Startup Challenge has grown significantly.

Now out of its first year “pilot phase,” the number of student winners more than doubled, going from three to eight, as a second track for software and mobile applications was added to accompany manufactured products, said Ilya Avdeev, assistant professor of engineering and founder of the Student Startup Challenge.

“This year, we raised the bar,” said Avdeev.

Two grants that the Startup Challenge received have paved the way for the bar to be raised. The program received a three-year, $275,000 grant from the UW System Growth Agenda For Wisconsin Program, which is state money given to UW System schools with the goal of increasing enrollment, increasing their economic impact on Wisconsin and improving the job force, all of which the Startup Challenges touches on, said Avdeev.

Graduate student Alex Francis tests a device called E-Trap. Francis has won backing from UWM to refine the tool, created by Jorg Woehl, UWM associate professor of chemistry, and bring it to market.

The challenge also received a $35,000 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovator’s Alliance (NCIIA).

“What these grants allow us to do is not only focus on manufactured products, but add a software track and focus on mobile applications as well,” said Avdeev.

The founding partners in the challenge – the college of Engineering & Applied Science, the Peck School of the Arts and the UWM Research Foundation – have now been joined by the School of Information Studies and the UWM App Brewery to provide the software track.

Recent UWM alum Marcia Silva and current doctoral student Tom Hansen have created a hand-held portable sensor that detects bacteria in water quickly and accurately.

For the students, the challenge is an extracurricular activity, not part of a class.

“The goal of the program is to create entrepreneurial students,” said Avdeev. “We want to give them an opportunity to start their own business.”

The four student winners with startups developing manufactured products receive $10,000 that is put toward a one-year program where 75 percent of the funds go toward developing a prototype and 25 percent go to developing a business plan and doing a marketing assessment. Software-related winners receive $5,000, with less money required to create a digital product.

In total, $60,000 in funding is going to eight student businesses. But, said Avdeev, “that’s just the money they have control over.”

“There’s a framework around the team – faculty members, networking with angel investors, expertise on product, plugging into the entrepreneurial framework in Milwaukee, etc.,” he said. “It also gives them access to what’s available at UWM.”

The four winning startups in the challenge producing a manufactured product come from a wide range of fields.

“The key is that students in this program are coming from all colleges,” said Avdeev. “This can break the silos that exist from one college to the next.”

The four winning startups in the challenge producing a manufactured product are:

  • LEVEL Camera Products, developed by engineering student Kyle Ilenda, is a portable camera mounting system that weighs less, costs less and is more versatile than models currently available, said Avdeev, who added that this product is one that is “ready to go to market.”
  • Aquasensor, from Tom Hansen and Marcia Silva at the School of Freshwater Sciences, is a handheld device used to detect bacteria in water in a matter of minutes, as opposed to taking a sample to a lab, which can take 24-48 hours.
  • E-Trap is mechanical engineering graduate student Alex Francis’ commercialization of an “electrostatic trap” that was patented by UWM associate professor of chemistry Jorg Woehl. The prototype developed can be used with microscopes to “attract a particle to a particular spot in space, and keep it in a given space indefinitely,” which is of use to “everybody doing research with particles and cells,” said Avdeev.
  • Augment H, developed by nine physical therapy students in the College of Health Science, is “smart tape” (athletic tape with sensors) that measures posture and detects spinal movements, which is then able to transmit that information to the cloud where it can be analyzed.

The winners from the software track range from elementary school education to social interaction in developing nations:

  • Mesmer is a college course selection mobile app developed by Andrew McConville of the School of Information Studies that taps into the four different databases that UWM uses to select courses, aiming to streamline the process.
  • Abacaus is an adventure game for elementary school students that doubles as a tool for teachers – it uses the state of Wisconsin testing system to teach math. This, too, is “ready to go to market,” said Avdeev.
  • Agogo Network is a mobile app developed by executive MBA student Ogechi Chidebell, that is like “Yelp for the Nigerian market” where everyone has a cellphone, but Google is not as ubiquitous, said Avdeev.
  • Sale Cou.Pair is a product that digitizes the couponing process, replacing paperwork with a mobile app that combines several coupons into one that would be used at check-out.

Rounding out the fall semester, the winners are presenting their prototypes and business plans, and next semester, the work to refine the ideas will continue.

In addition to providing an entrepreneurial avenue for students, the Startup Challenge is also making waves in academia. Avdeev and other UWM leaders in the Startup Challenge made a presentation on the central stage at the NCIIA annual conference that received a good response in a community that included many of the nation’s top tier universities.

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