Creating a successful business is no cakewalk, but the Fisher Innovation Challenge helps inspire students to take a walk on a road less trodden, a University of Wyoming representative said.
“We have found a lot of people to think about doing businesses that weren’t thinking about it beforehand,” University of Wyoming Wyoming Technology Business Center CEO Jon Benson said. “Basically, 40 percent of the people that apply came up with the idea because of the competition. I think we help create businesses that wouldn’t have been created otherwise.”
The business center created the challenge in 2016 with donations from Donne Fisher, an entrepreneur based in Denver. The challenge was designed to foster a competitive environment for students with start-up business ideas, Benson said.
While the challenge is a competition for entrepreneurs, the competitors are not the usual suspects.
“They are not competing against each other,” UW Wyoming Technology Business Center Assistant Director Fred Schmechel said. “They are competing against themselves.”
UW Wyoming Technology Business Center Assistant Director David Bohling said participants come to the challenge with an array of business ideas, so pitting them against each other for $125,000 pot of seed money would be ineffective.
“We don’t feel it’s valid to have them as first place, second place and third place, because they don’t all have the same product,” Bohling explained.
Nine finalists were selected in spring from a pool of 13 semi-finalists, which were selected from 57 applicants, Schmechel said. Each finalist received $2,500 in startup capital and a free office space at the business center.
On Nov. 2, finalists will make their closing pitch for funds from the seed money pot.
“Over the summer, they’ve spent time with their counselors, refined their pitches and started looking for potential customers,” Bohling said. “They’ve really started to think like entrepreneurs.”
The finalists are slated to pitch their business models, present research on their potential client base, request a set amount of the seed fund and justify the use for the funds, Benson said.
“This is an important process, because you give them the experience of how to raise money with investors,” he said. “It varies, but for the most part, they each receive about $20,000.”
While each finalist has a chance to qualify for the funding, the business center selected three for the Laramie Boomerang to interview as representatives of the challenge.
Fisher Innovation Challenge finalist Kennan Oyen created so much buzz around the lab with her creation for heating and cooling bees she decided to market the idea.
While researching at what temperature bee’s muscles stop functioning to determine what environments the insects could thrive in, Oyen developed a new method of heating and cooling her test samples.
“Most commercial (heating and cooling) systems use a big reservoir of fluid to achieve a hot or cold set point,” said Oyen, IoTherm owner and UW Zoology and Physiology Ph.D. candidate. “Our systems are essentially a flat plate, so you can just set the sample on top of the plate and let the plate do the cooling or heating.”
Because Oyen researches the effects of specific temperatures on bee anatomies, she said the conventional bath cooling system wasn’t effective.
“The benefit of these plates is you have the ability to measure the temperature of your sample,” Oyen said. “You’re not necessarily doing that when you put your sample in fluid (heating and cooling systems). You just have to assume your sample is going to eventually be at the same temperature as the fluid.”
Working with her adviser UW Associate Professor Michael Dillon, Oyen attached ceramic thermoelectric coolers to an aluminum plate, which allowed her to monitor the behavior of the test samples as they reacted to specific temperatures.
Founding IoTherm in March to produce the heating and cooling systems, Oyen pitched her business idea during the initial phase of the Fisher Innovation Challenge and was selected as a finalist.
While the product itself could revolutionize temperature-reliant research in lab environments, Oyen decided to apply her innovative ideas to naming her company as well.
“Io is a moon and it’s one of the colder moons, but it also has volcanic activity,” she said. “So the reference to Io, the moon, is basically just kind of a catchy reference to a place that is extremely hot and extremely cold.”
In addition to creating an observable surface for regulating heat, Oyen included thermocouples, or heat sensors, into the design and built the whole plate to be programmable.
“We needed precise control, but we also wanted the ability to control different samples — basically treat different samples on the plate differently,” she said. “So certain parts of the plate could be 10 degrees warmer than other parts. We can control the temperature of individual samples. So instead of looking at a single set point, we can observe bunches of set points at a single time.”
Wind turbines are becoming an increasingly common sight on the high plains, but Fisher Innovation Challenge finalist Chris Rumple said wind turbine research still has room for improvement.
“Our product is called an active grid and sits in a wind tunnel to produce turbulence,” said Rumple, a University of Wyoming mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate and co-founder of Turbulence Solutions. “As the air is pulled through the wind tunnel, the active grid can spin at different rates, changing the characteristics of the airflow.”
Using varying airflow characteristics, Rumple said researchers could match real-world wind conditions instead of relying on the static environment of the typical wind tunnel.
“Wind turbines experience turbulent inflow and up until this point researchers in wind tunnels didn’t have the ability to create turbulence so they could match what was happening in nature,” he said. “The importance of that is (by creating turbulence in wind tunnels), researchers can design and optimize for those types of inflows, which is important for the longevity of the wind turbine.”
After learning about the Fisher Innovation Challenge, Rumple worked with his adviser, UW Professor Jonathan Naughton, and Turbulence Solutions co-founder Margaret Perry to put together a business model for producing active grids to sell to research institutions.
“The active grid design has been around since the ‘90s,” he said. “But we’re now at the point people are starting to build them on their own.”
Because of his active-grid design knowledge, Rumple said a professor could hire him to design and build a grid specific to the type of research the professor is interested in. Rumple’s expertise in the field was produced more from necessity than a propensity for tinkering.
“Originally, I wanted to buy an active grid, but I couldn’t find any,” he said. “So, I had to build one.”
Although a market exists for the product, Rumple said one of his biggest challenges would be marketing to specific groups of researchers across the world.
“We want to prevent people from having to spend years designing and building their own just to research a certain condition when the research is the important part,” he said.
To the Corr Innovations
Hub failure can lead to serious problems for 18-wheelers on the highway, so Fisher Innovation Challenge Finalist Genie Corr set about researching ways to inform semi-truck drivers about hub problems on their rig.
“I own a diesel shop here in Laramie — Maverick Diesel Service,” said Corr, a University of Wyoming mechanical engineering student. “Just from watching the trucks come in, I’ve always been fascinated about spindles and the hubs on there and how they fail.”
So, with one business under her belt, the 29-year-old said she decided to start another — To the Corr Innovations — in April.
“I attended a class at the (UW Wyoming Technology Business Center) taught by Dr. Jon Benson and we had to come up with a problem and a solution,” Corr said. “The problem I picked was these wheel failures and the damage and fatalities they cause.”
The solution she devised was a wheel sensor and in-cab notification system that could allow a driver to react to a situation immediately, she said.
“I started off looking at potential existing solutions in class and doing a lot of online research,” Corr said. “I found a company in Canada with a similar design, but they don’t have quite as many features as I want. And another (company) … required the entire hub to be replaced instead of retrofitting what was available.”
The research made creating her product a little easier than starting from scratch, but she said she found a lot of room for improvement.
“It really validated that this is an issue that needs solved,” Corr said.
Armed with the knowledge a market existed, she set about creating a product.
“Our project that we’re focusing on is a hub system to detect failures in the hub,” she said. “So as far as fastener failure, wheel failure and bearing failure so duel (tires) on semi-trucks will stay on and drivers will be able to detect before they detach and eject into traffic causing highway fatalities.”
Her current model would provide in-cab notifications for the driver, but she said she would like to move to a phone app notification system in the future.
“A lot of drivers on the road are contractors, not owners,” Corr said. “So, an app would inform the owner (of hub failure) as well, making it less likely it would be ignored.”