Is the role of a university to turn ideas into inventions; to support students with their start-up dreams; or to provide solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges?
If it’s the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia (UGA), then the answer is yes, yes and yes.
Innovation is a top priority at the birthplace of public higher education in America. In 1785, Georgia became the first state to charter a state-supported university. And so began UGA’s game-changing role of providing higher education to the masses, transforming the lives of individuals and communities alike.
Fast forward to today and this cutting-edge streak lives on. In 2017, the College of Engineering led UGA’s effort to receive designation as an Innovation Corps (I-Corps) site through a grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This public–private partnership helps develop scientific and engineering discoveries into useful technologies. The program connects academic researchers and students with the technological, entrepreneurial, and business communities at the local, regional and national level.
With little to no experience, student innovators usually have a hard time transforming solutions to commercialised products. But through the five-year, US$500,000 grant, up to 30 teams each year receive both an introduction to the start-up world and funding for critical, early-stage customer-discovery work. This includes an intensive, six-week Accelerator to help teams make sure their business model meets the needs of customers, as well as granting them access to a co-working space, a product development and prototyping lab, and up to six months of business and product mentoring.
This university-wide commitment to foster a culture of innovation can also be seen through the entrepreneurial education efforts in multiple UGA colleges and the Office of Research’s successful Innovation Gateway program (which administers I-Corps).
“Our goal is simply to help UGA faculty and students move their ideas to market, in whatever form that may take,” says Derek Eberhart, Director of Innovation Gateway.
“It’s right there in our name—we are a gateway, and there are many different ways you can walk through that door.”
It’s a strategy that’s paying off. So far, students have received support for their novel solutions to real problems, including drones that detect illness in cows, sensors to improve blueberry harvesting, improving the flexibility and breathability of ballistic vests, identifying where potholes will form before they appear, and improving inventory management for scientific labs.
Start-ups founded by UGA students and faculty and students are similarly off to a great start. From food delivery to potentially life-saving medical technology to sustainable industrial chemicals, these start-ups first received their training, knowledge and skills from UGA’. Now, they’re generating economic impact of US$531 million across the United States, including US$322 million in the state of Georgia.
One example is Katherine Shayne (BS Environmental Engineering ’16, MS Environmental Engineering ’18). Shayne, who concentrated much of her studies and her graduate thesis on the end of life for materials, particularly ocean-bound plastics, has since launched the Can I Recycle This (CIRT) system. CIRT provides prompt, localized answers to specific recycling questions sent to CIRT via social media.
Her advisor was Jenna Jambeck, a professor in the College of Engineering who is internationally recognized for her research on plastic waste in the ocean.
“It is really exciting to see ideas from our research group be put into practice as a company and to have a former student be so successful at running it,” Jambeck explained.
Another former student, Brian Crow, who co-founded smart grid data analytics firm, Verdeeco Inc (which was acquired by Sensus in 2015) can attest to the business acumen that comes with a UGA degree.
Crow, now Vice President for Analytic Solutions at Sensus, said: “If I boiled it all down to one point that has the most impact, there is no doubt that the engineering program provided a foundation in solving problems. The ability to approach anything with a logical process and methodology has time and again proved to carry me through very difficult business situations.
“I have worked with a lot of scary smart people who lacked the ability to make decisions and solve problems. I think this fundamental skill is more important than the specific area of engineering study.”
One more way UGA ensures its research is tied directly to society’s needs and priorities in the marketplace is through its collaboration with other research universities and industry partnerships.
The University of Georgia New Materials Institute, housed in the College of Engineering, recently became a member of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites, or CB2, an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC).
As a CB2 site, the New Materials Institute (NMI) is working to engineer more sustainable packaging that is compatible with current industrial manufacturing systems. Committed to preventing waste through the design of materials and systems that adhere to green engineering principles, the Institute designs materials that are bio-based, fully biodegradable, or completely recyclable and safe for people, animals and our planet.
“The field of new and sustainable materials has quickly become one of the University of Georgia’s research strengths as we look for innovative ways to leave a healthier planet for future generations,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research. “This CB2 award fits with our strategy of developing effective partnerships with colleagues in both academia and industry to move this critical field forward.”
The new CB2 site also perfectly matches the College of Engineering’s goals for training of its graduate students. “Students learn how to effectively bridge the academic and industry communities, which is a tremendous asset in their future careers,” states Larry Hornak the College Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies and former Program Director in the NSF’s IUCRC Program. “The greatest asset of CB2 and centers like it, are their students.”
Meanwhile, several College of Engineering faculty members in UGA’s Regenerative Bioscience Center are working to transform the manufacturing of cell-based therapeutics, in collaboration with a multidisciplinary consortium, called the Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies, or CMaT, an Engineering Research Center (ERC) of the National Science Foundation. The CMaT consortium consists of more than 100 members working in universities, industry and government agencies.
Student and Faculty researchers are developing tools and technologies to help clinical facilities reproducibly manufacture efficient, safe and affordable cell-therapy products. Examples of these highly promising therapies include T cell-based immunotherapies for blood cancers. The team aims to treat cancer by producing a virus, extracting a patient’s T-cells, infecting the T-cells with the virus and then infusing them back into the patient to act as “warriors” against cancer cells. By taking an engineering tact, scientists are researching production and replication methods to achieve reproducible and effective cancer treatment options.
This all-in approach to innovation, in and outside of campus gates, is perhaps why former student Russ Fortson, now an engineer with NASA contractor Science Applications International Corporation, says the university does a great job of preparing students for “all aspects of engineering”.
“UGA develops the whole engineer with leadership skills, technical skills, and interpersonal skills. UGA offers a great balance between real world applications and theory. I don’t think I’d be where I am in my career today without that program and how it was structured with a holistic approach,” he concludes.