By its very nature, engineering defines innovation. To be an engineer is to have an innate curiosity and a desire to make things better, explore the unknown and create something no one has thought of before. The University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Engineering recognizes that and encourages its students to pursue innovation as soon as they arrive on campus.
Srinivas Gorty, a member of the College’s Board of Advisors, is founder and president of Verge Ventures, a boutique investment company that funds start-ups in the tech industry. He has worked with dozens of innovators and entrepreneurs in the past 20 years and is excited about everything that the College, and UTA as a whole, are doing to introduce students to innovation and entrepreneurship and to encourage them to pursue their ideas.
Gorty says courses in entrepreneurship, the Maverick Pitch competition, and industry partnerships with capstone design teams are all ways the College can get students excited about innovation and entrepreneurship and give them the necessary tools to get started.
“It’s exciting to see UTA making an investment in student entrepreneurship, because most students don’t realize that entrepreneurship can be a career option. It’s something they can begin working toward while they’re completing their degree, and there’s no better time to start a company than right out of school, before the pressures of life make it too difficult,” Gorty said.
Jeff Smith (‘04, PhD, Computer Science and Engineering, M.S ‘88) is also a member of the College’s Board of Advisors. He has started multiple companies and lives in a world of innovation and entrepreneurship.
He embraces the idea of the “art of the possible” – the fundamental understanding of technology and trends and the ability to look forward and anticipate possibilities that will broadly appeal to consumers.
“It’s important for young people to walk through the door and take advantage when a situation presents itself. To be an entrepreneur, you have to get out of the lab, talk to people, ask questions and listen their answers. One of the things that UTA has done well is to adopt the concept of locating makerspaces in common areas between disciplines so that technical people, creative people and business or marketing people can interact,” Smith said.
The College of Engineering works with students who have big ideas and helps them bring those ideas to fruition as a successful company or product. In tandem with UTA entrepreneurship initiatives, students have many opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship and immerse themselves in the start-up world.
An innovation ecosystem
Innovators and inventors from UTA were granted 23 patents in 2020, contributing to the University of Texas System’s overall No. 4 ranking in the list of Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted US Utility Patents in 2020. Engineering faculty have been awarded 21 patents in the past two years – 40% of all patents awarded to UTA in that time.
“UTA strongly prioritizes the public impact of its work,” said Teresa Schultz, UTA’s director of innovation and commercialization. “We partner with organizations and corporations at regional, national and international levels to transfer our innovative technologies to the marketplace.”
Engineering students participate in research at all stages of their academic careers, and the College celebrates their efforts each year during its Innovation Day.
Innovation Day encourages student participation in research, especially at the undergraduate level. In addition to showcasing the outstanding work of student researchers, the event is an opportunity for industry and the community to become more involved and aware of the quality of UTA’s engineering students as they prepare to enter the workforce.
“Innovation Day has been a great success. While it is a mechanism to help our students perfect their presentation and communication skills, it also provides the basis of an invaluable outreach tool to easily allow our stakeholders access to student work and allow some stakeholders worldwide to participate as judges,” Peter Crouch, Dean of the College of Engineering said.
Maverick Entrepreneur Program and Award Fund
The Maverick Entrepreneur Program and Award Fund encourages UTA students to explore and express their business ideas in a pitch competition. Winners can earn thousands of dollars in startup funds.
Bioengineering doctoral student Victoria Messerschmidt received US$45,000 in funding through the competition for her company, Cardis Health, which provides remote cardiac monitoring for rural areas. She is the most recent of several engineering students who have received significant funding through the program.
“UTA has really helped me with my future business endeavors. I thought, ‘I’m an engineer. I might not have the best business background,’ but people that I met with during the competition really believed in me and I think it’s a really good opportunity that UTA gives us,” Messerschmidt said.
FabLab and Makerspaces
The Central Library FabLab is an 8,000-square-foot space containing 3D printers, laser cutters, screen printers, kilns, sewing machines, shop equipment, and much more for learners from any discipline or experience level.
In addition, the College hosts three Makerspaces for use by engineering students who are making prototypes or working on senior design projects. The spaces are tailored to the needs of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Engineering, and Industrial, Manufacturing and Systems Engineering, with a mix of shop equipment, laser cutters, 3D printers, and electronics equipment. As demand increases, the College and departments are upgrading and adding new equipment to ensure that students have what they need to put their skills to use in developing their ideas.
Looking to the future
Engineering students spend their careers inventing and improving, but most don’t give a thought to striking out on their own and becoming entrepreneurs. Through the efforts of the College and the University, a seed is being planted that starting a company is a possibility, with the hope that many more future graduates will have the confidence to pursue that path. Gorty hopes that they will do so soon after graduation, before they are limited by a career and other responsibilities.
“Once you’ve been working for a while, it’s harder to give up that salary and the life you’ve created. Right out of school, you’re not tied to anything yet, and there’s a big upside to taking that risk and seeing it play out,” he said.