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One thing engineering students discover when the entrepreneurial spirit moves them is that they need to get out of the lab and into the world to find out what people really want. So says University of Arizona electrical and computer engineering doctoral candidate Xiao Qin.
“I’ve learned to ask questions like, ‘How am I going to make a product people will use in their daily lives?’” said Xiao, whose National Science Foundation and Startup Weekend Tucson teams both recently won first-place awards.
Xiao’s experiences with an NSF Innovation Corps training program last summer and Startup Tucson’s entrepreneurial marathon the first weekend in September not only helped him learn the business skills needed to introduce a product to market, they also helped the self-proclaimed shy guy overcome his uneasiness.
The NSF Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, is a series of activities that help foster the commercialization of select, NSF-funded, basic-research projects. As part of an eight-week I-Corps entrepreneurial training program, Xiao was required to interview potential customers for a market survey, a daunting assignment for the expert in embedded hardware and sensor networked systems.
“The first week of the program, three of us went out to survey people, and I was almost silent, just smiling and nodding,” he said. “By the end of the process, I played a much more active role. It was a big change for me. I never thought I could accomplish something like this.”
The NSF-supported research team has created a cost set-point thermostat that indicates how temperature correlates to heating and cooling costs, putting consumers in control of their home energy costs. The group was named Best Team out of 27 teams at the culmination of the six-month I-Corps program during a ceremony at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in August.
The cost set-point project, which also spawned the startup company Acomni, originated with UA electrical and computer engineering professors Jonathan Sprinkle, an expert in industrial control technology and embedded and autonomous systems, and Susan Lysecky, an expert in design automation and interface design. Manny Teran, a UA aerospace and mechanical engineering alumnus and successful Tucson entrepreneur, also is a partner in the company.
“I feel really lucky to be working with Drs. Sprinkle and Lysecky and with Manny,” said Xiao. “You never know when opportunity is going to come knocking, but when it does, you better be ready.”
For Xiao, it wasn’t long. From I-Corps he moved on to Startup Weekend Tucson. Startup Weekend began in 2007 in Boulder, Colo. Since then, the nonprofit organization headquartered in Seattle has helped facilitate nearly 500 of the weekendlong events in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
In addition to organizing the local Startup Weekend, Startup Tucson holds events throughout the year that help create a local economic development support structure, from the ground up, said Justin Williams, a UA College of Engineering alumnus and founder of Startup Tucson. The focus of the events, he said, is to bring together entrepreneurs throughout the creative community, whether they are computer programmers, graphic designers, accountants or marketing professionals.
Twelve teams were formed on the spot Friday, Sept. 7 for the second Startup Weekend Tucson. They had one goal: Create a startup in 54 hours. Shark Tank, the penultimate event of the weekend, is when teams make their final presentation before a panel of judges, most of whom are potential investors. Xiao’s team, Cheap Avocados, won the competition for their presentation of a grocery equivalent to the cheap gas finder.
The mobile phone grocery application, brainchild of teammate Forest Danford, finds the neighborhood store with the best deal for a shopper’s entire basket of groceries. Danford graduated from the University in 2011 with an agricultural engineering degree and now works as a research engineer at the UA’s Soft Tissue Engineering Biomechanics Lab.
“Most of us were engineers,” Xiao said. “If I hadn’t done the NSF program, we probably would never have been able to present such a valid business model.”
The Cheap Avocados team also included Frank Ventura, a UA biosystems engineering alumnus; Asher Caplan, a UA business sophomore; Charles King, an engineering student at Boston University; and Brian Volk, an engineering student at California Polytechnic State University.
For their efforts at the weekend event -- business model creation, coding, designing, and market validation -- Xiao and his teammates earned the opportunity to refine their project and present it to potential investors. They will attend a seven-week startup course, Lean Launch Pad; get free office space and expert guidance at the Arizona Center for Innovation, a business incubator program at the University of Arizona Tech Park; then pitch their idea to a screening panel of the Desert Angels investor group.