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Engineering an Entrepreneurial Path for Student Success

Engineering alumni Chris Szczur (second, left) and Scott Matthews (fourth, left) gifted USD Trustee Darlene Marcos Shiley (middle) with their project, Trek. At right, Tom Lupfer and Venkat Shastri.Engineering alumni Chris Szczur (second, left) and Scott Matthews (fourth, left) gifted USD Trustee Darlene Marcos Shiley (middle) with their project, Trek. At right, Tom Lupfer and Venkat Shastri.

Ryan Hayes and Kheperah Ray caught the bug for engineering — and entrepreneurship — early.

“It’s the classic story, really,” recalls Hayes, a mechanical engineering student in the University of San Diego’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. “As a kid, I played with Legos, took apart a motorcycle and whatever else it is that makes you feel mechanically inclined. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be an engineer, but it definitely puts you on the path.”

Ray, a senior electrical engineering major who graduates this December, stimulated his entrepreneurial spirit in Chicago. “We didn’t have much. I learned if I wanted something, my parents weren’t going to do it so I needed alternative ways,” he recalled. “I was a video gamer and I really wanted a PlayStation 3, so I developed a small contracting business, mowed lawns and painted to raise the money. Then, when I wanted a camera, I got a job at a hardware store. There I found I liked building things and working with my hands, but I also put in the effort to get the camera.”

Entrepreneurship Engineering Thrives

Today, both USD students are the latest examples of the engineering school’s thriving entrepreneurship program. The Renaissance Initiative is a resource to help engineering students develop their entrepreneurial skills and ventures.

“What pushes me now,” Ray said, “is that I see how coming out of school it can be really hard to find a job. As an entrepreneur, I know if I can solidify my own business, I can have my own job solidified through something I’ve created.”

Hayes, who joined the Army out of high school, first as a medic and later as a member of the Green Berets, developed Precision Metrics this past year. His product is a weapon-mounted shot timing device that collects data related to the axis orientation, angular velocity of the weapon system and in critical moments before and after the trigger squeeze. The senior design project involved fellow engineering students, Mark Mollica, Clay Rivetti, Brenna Thomas and Computer Science major Julia Cassella.

Hayes wanted to bring his idea to fruition, but it did alongside guidance and learning from a business prospective. “The business side of this is foreign to someone who’s just going to engineering school. It’s been unchartered water for me, but day by day, I’ve been learning the business part of the venture and it’s really interesting.”

Ray, a serial entrepreneur, joined forces with fellow students Radiylon Mina, Ryan Robbibaro and Jasmyn Sosa-Houston, to create Hive Soundz, the first portable speaker that gives users the ability to play one unified audio signal via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi by connecting multiple Hive speakers over Wi-Fi or auxiliary.

Ray came up with the idea based on two things — his parents, both DJs, who could utilize portable speakers to amplify sound, creating a surround-sound effect. His other inspiration came while watching a documentary on honeybees and he noticed the cohesive hexagon shape that held more honey. Thus, all Hive speakers are hexagon-shaped and can hold more sound.

“An entrepreneurial mindset is a skill that differentiates engineering graduates and is highly valued in our growing entrepreneurial economy,” Chell Roberts, PhD, Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Dean, said. “This skill is not only valuable for those who’ll become founders of new companies, but to infuse broader innovation thinking into any company or organization our graduates join.”

Trek’s Success

Engineering’s interest in an entrepreneurial pathway for student projects gained strength during its 2015-16 senior design curriculum. The Trek Modular Camera Slider System was done by mechanical engineering students Chris Szczur, Scott Matthews, Sarah May, Alex Benson and Tyler Lagomarsino. Szczur and Matthews continued on and launched Trek publicly as Dyno Equipment, Inc., with support from Dr. Subramian (Venkat) Shastri and Clarity Design President/USD Adjunct Professor Tom Lupfer. Trek is the world's first portable, app-connected modular camera slider system designed for cameras, smartphones and GoPros.

The duo began selling the patent-pending product in October 2017 and raised more than $160,000 on a crowdfunding campaign. They went to Las Vegas in January for the annual Consumer Electronics Show and met various company representatives, including Apple, who invited them to a follow-up meeting at its headquarters.

"It was an incredible experience," Szczur said. "It's amazing to go from being school engineers to having a business meeting on the Apple campus. We're excited to see where it goes."

In March, Szczur and Matthews presented Trek to USD's Board of Trustees and gave Darlene Marcos Shiley, Board of Trustees Chair Emerita and engineering benefactor, her own Trek.

The entrepreneur symbolism was palpable. Szczur and Matthews said Trek’s origins came from time spent in "Donald's Garage," a Loma Hall space named for Marcos Shiley's late husband, Donald, who co-invented the Bjork-Shiley prosthetic heart valve and had worked on inventions in his own garage.

"The fact this is emanating from Donald's Garage is very important to me," Marcos Shiley said. "I can't tell you how proud I am. This is why people give money to schools and education — you get to see the process roll out. Kids learn, they get an idea and go forward. Thank you."

Trek has been followed by other engineering entrepreneurial ideas: Darroch Medical Solutions, Inc., has a device to aggregate data from multiple medical devices and secure the transfer of information across information systems; Cherry Tree Cover, a low-cost, physical cover for cherry trees, displaces rainwater that can devastate crops; Trash Tracker, a waste-tracking system that weighs trash, recycling and green waste on a per-household basis; and Simple Seat, Better Lives which sought to alleviate physical limitations of those without full use of their lower extremities to use a pit latrine. Some ideas have been entered into USD’s entrepreneurship competitions, Venture Vetting (V2) Pitch Competition and the Global Social Innovation Challenge, and have received seed funding as a result.

Looking Ahead

As much entrepreneurship activity as there has been to date, Shastri knows there’s more to teach to USD students. “I think entrepreneurship is pervasive across the university, but I think we’re just scratching the surface. We have competitions, but not the training,” he said.

That is changing. USD is now home to a Small Business Development Center. The School of Law has entrepreneurship legal clinic services. A certificate in engineering entrepreneurship launches this fall with courses available during a student’s junior and senior years along with the senior design project. Courses include law, marketing and finance for practical experience building an idea, doing customer market research and gaining business experience.

“This will provide our engineers an entrepreneurial experience, whether or not they become entrepreneurs or launch a startup,” Shastri says. “Students not only know how to engineer a product, but now think about it. What’s the market? What customers benefit and why? This can help them build a foundation as a leader and gain more experience.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Trek video is courtesy of Dyno Equipment, Inc.

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