By Donita Naylor, Providence Journal
Posted Jan. 16, 2016
SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Assigned to make cat toys, seven engineering students stepped into a future where a college education prepares students for more than filling their parents’ jobs. Instead, they’re learning how to create their own jobs.
With some traditional jobs succumbing to automation and outsourcing, the University of Rhode Island College of Engineering is trying something new — teaching students to be entrepreneurs. It established a minor in engineering entrepreneurship and offered one of the first classes during the winter break, a 12-day intensive course.
Rajesh M. Nair, an engineer and entrepreneur who works for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was chosen to teach the class. Instead, he installed an incubator of sorts, one that nurtures creativity, encourages risk, mines gems from failures, creates buzz and attracts mentors and investors.
By the end of the 12 days, the students had produced not only cat toys but a remote security guard for university laboratories, a robotic hand to assist people in wheelchairs, and an app that shows students which parking lots have open spaces. Two other prototypes were made but not pitched as commercial products — a rural mailbox drawer that would put the mail within reach of residents seated in their cars, and a pet feeder programmed to dispense food.
Nair divides his time between MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the institute’s Asia School of Business, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Every two weeks, he spends 24 hours flying from one to the other. He suspended his schedule for the URI class at the invitation of ocean engineering associate Prof. Gopu R. Potty, who happens to be from the same town in India as Nair, although they met in Boston.
Nair was so effective at re-orienting mindsets that even the co-teacher, URI ocean engineering Prof. James H. Miller, also an entrepreneur, found his outlook changed. “Every problem I see around me, I think: ‘I could form a company,’ ” Miller said Wednesday, just before the students demonstrated their products.
The cat toys included a vehicle, equipped with a laser pointer, that senses the cat’s approach and darts off. Another toy was an origami paper ball that swung from a remote-controlled arm. Miller made one, too, a Ping-Pong-ball launcher.
Next, the teams had to find a problem and build a device to solve it. By Wednesday, the final day of the course, each team had a prototype, a business plan and a pitch, which they made to an audience at Gilbreth Hall that included College of Engineering Dean Raymond M. Wright and Leo Mainelli, a member of the advisory council that had recommended the innovative course.
Sensors that could replace a security guard for university laboratories fit into a little black box, built by a team called EK² because it was made up of two Kevins and a woman named Eilish (Finneran, 22, a senior from Narragansett who is majoring in civil and environmental engineering, with multiple minors). Components in one box could detect changes in temperature, humidity, sound and motion, as well as any electrical failure that could threaten the lab’s equipment. Another box received the data and could send text alerts when the lab or its specimens were in danger.
The team estimated its potential sales at 361,700 sets, for between $200 and $300 each.
Team member Kevin Lapierre, 20, of Woonsocket, a junior majoring in civil and environmental engineering and minoring in entrepreneurship, said that before he started the class, “I had never touched wires and never soldered anything.”
“We never thought we could do anything like this,” Finneran said.
Team member Kevin Stabinsky, 21, of Ellington, Conn., a senior majoring in ocean engineering, said he had always thought he would create a product someday, “but I never had any business background and never knew where to start.”
Sarah Visich, 22, a junior in ocean engineering who grew up in South Kingstown, pitched the Handy-Can, a robotic hand that she and Adam Mazzantini, 21, of Cheshire, Massachusetts, a junior in civil engineering, designed to pick up dropped objects. She explained that her mother, who is in a wheelchair, would drop her phone and then drop her mechanical grabber, leaving her “with two things on the ground.”
Visich and Mazzantini made the “finger” pieces with a 3-D printer and attached them to strings driven by individual motors. They said they envision a design that would attach to wheelchairs so the hand would always be at the ready.
The Hurry App counts cars entering and exiting parking lots and tells students which lots have spaces available. It was the brainchild of Joe Saccoccia, 24, of Newport, a senior in mechanical engineering; and Taylor Campbell, 19, of North Kingstown, a sophomore in ocean engineering. (Campbell, Lapierre and Finneran are the first three students to minor in entrepreneurship.)
The hardware, which would cost 90 percent less than models already on the market, they said, would be cheap enough to give away to U.S. universities, where an estimated 17 million students commute by car. By consulting the free app, users would not have to waste time and gas looking for a lot with open spaces, the students said.
“How would you make your money?” Nair asked. Selling ads on the app would more than pay for the free hardware, they said.
Saccoccia’s evaluation of the class: “I can’t even walk into a restaurant or store,” he said, without seeing problems that could be solved by an entrepreneur. He said the course should be offered to underclassmen.
“When kids are coming into the engineering program, it would hook them.”
This article originally published by the Providence Journal.