The Road to Diversification Runs Through Here

At UNLV, a program adapts creatively to hard times—and creates some pretty cool stuff

Andrew Hardin oversees UNLV’s Center for Entrepreneurship on a $50,000-a-year budget, every penny of it from the private sector. He has a vision for Nevada, and he’s been able to sell it to enough private donors to keep the center buoyant in the economic storm. Hardin believes the state’s economic development must come at least in part from within, and he’s convinced the center can help. Why not grow companies right here and show the world UNLV and the city has the smarts to diversify its own economy?

Hardin thinks the first step is to bring engineering and business students together to create marketable new products. Since 2010, he has worked with Nick Fiore of the university’s Mendenhall Innovation Program, and Rama Venkat, the engineering school’s interim dean, to get the smart kids together. The effort is already paying off: Student collaborations took four of the first five places in the Southern Nevada Business Plan Contest in January, and first and second prizes at April’s Governor’s Cup, a statewide business plan competition.

The $20,000 first prize was taken by Scuba Solutions, which offers a wheeled tote device for scuba equipment. The company has formed an LLC and gone through various consulting and business development phases.

The $10,000 second prize went to the MAD Sensor, presented by Rebel Technology Associates. Hardin describes the project, an accident location device, as the “On-Star for Motorcycles.” Adam Jackson, a member of the Rebel Technology team, estimates that even 1 percent market penetration of motorcycle riders will create a sizeable company. On May 25, the Scuba Solutions and MAD Sensor projects move on to the regional championship.

The collaboration between business and engineering students has resulted in markedly better projects over the years, says Betty Kincaid, a longtime real estate professional who was an early donor to the Center for Entrepreneurship and is now a business-plan judge. “We’re seeing a lot more projects that are real stuff,” she says, “where in the past it was more lifestyle businesses.”

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The fruitful marriage of business and engineering at UNLV was in part a creative adaptation to recent hard times, which laid bare the Valley’s need for entrepreneurialism and invention. But the ground was prepared by planning and good fortune during the long Vegas boom.

In 1999, when Venkat had $500 left over from a research project, he re-invested it with his students—particularly those doing their senior-year research project. It turned out to be the best $500 he ever spent. He called it an innovation contest that year, and it caught the eye of Fred Cox, a California-based entrepreneur, who, the next year, donated $1 million to the college of engineering for future prizes, and the Senior Design Contest was born.

Now, each semester about 20 research teams, mostly from the senior design courses, collaborate to solve the world’s technical or practical problems and build prototypes of their ideas. The contest is judged by faculty and industry professionals, with $15,000 in prizes awarded to winning projects. (This semester’s contest, featuring a Smell-O-Vision system, a solar-powered moped and other shades of the future, takes place at Cox Pavilion from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. May 13.)

“In the past 10 years, the quality of the projects has become very high,” Venkat says. “Some of the prototypes look like the students went to Best Buy and bought the item.”

Meanwhile, in 2006, Las Vegas Paving CEO Robert Mendenhall donated $1 million to create the Mendenhall Innovation Program. Nick Fiore, who now oversees the program, calls the space “essential” to the collaboration between engineering and business.

Even when a Senior Design Contest prototype doesn’t make it to the business plan stage, there still may be a market for the design: It’s often simply a case of marrying the right business students to the right technology. Past inventions that could have market potential include: bamboo-reinforced concrete technology, a patented .22 rifle magazine, a solar water purification system that won a $5,000 award from the United Nations Technology Challenge and a car alarm system that alerts parents if they leave their child in the automobile.

“Our college is named after Howard Hughes—if you look at his background he was an entrepreneur with an engineering bent,” Venkat says. “What this college is trying to do is create engineers with an entrepreneurial bent.”

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With jobs in demand, and established businesses still in a holding pattern on hiring, entrepreneurship is a hot topic across the nation. Bill Aulet, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says his program is “the most desirable show in town” these days. MIT alumni start some 200 to 400 businesses a year, Aulet estimates. Of course, this is MIT—the combined revenue of the existing businesses started by MIT graduates would make up the world’s 11th largest economy.

And that statistic is not lost on UNLV’s Hardin: He’d like to emulate MIT’s success, and he’s not bashful about saying it. “It’s where we’re headed,” he says. “That’s what we want to be.”

The MIT center’s budget ranges between $500,000 and $1 million a year, not a big stretch to find from private donors, alumni contributions and the many professional firms like law offices seeking sponsorship opportunities.

Entrepreneurship centers tend to focus either on establishing startups or on education. The University of Arizona’s McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship is an example of the latter focus, with an added interested in forging university-industry partnerships that cross multiple disciplines.

“We’re looking for an environment where sophisticated, complex, high-promise ideas can be cultivated,” says Sherry Hoskinson, who directs the center. “You get the strongest learning outcomes, new venture outcomes, from blending two fields. Complex problems almost always require a broad range of backgrounds.”

Hoskinson gives an example of a university-developed scent-detecting technology used by Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson. The technology can now be applied to medical applications, even oncology. The effort involves the school of medicine, law, engineering and private industry.

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Although UNLV’s Center for Entrepreneurship operates on private funds, the professors whose students cross paths in its ventures are paid by the state. So concerns loom over how a budget cut involving tenure-track professors might impact the center. Early estimates had the business college cutting $2.4 million from its $13 million budget and engineering $2 million from its $11 million annual spending. The cutbacks could impact the future professorial pool, which in turn could impact the college choices of talented students.

And it’s those students who both foster the program’s vibrancy and carry its lessons with them into the business world. Perhaps the ultimate compliment for the center comes from Curtis Weinstein, part of the team behind the award-winning Scuba Solutions project.

“I’ve saved a bunch of my homework and textbooks,” he says. “I’m going to need them.”

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