FLINT — Like several of the science- and tech-based schools in Michigan that I cover, I have a soft spot for Kettering University, where my fall Tech Tour visited Friday.
Maybe it’s the location, in that ultimate underdog of post-industrial towns, Flint. Maybe it’s the famously unique academic schedule, 12 weeks on campus, and 12 weeks at a co-op job related to your major, year-around, with a mere three-week summer, which gives its students both substantial income and substantial insight into the careers that will follow their education. Maybe it’s the history as the General Motors Institute, and the way the school has thrived since severing formal ties with GM in the 1980s and forging relationships with more than 600 co-op employers. Maybe it’s the extra attention to entrepreneurship and spinoffs, made obvious by the university’s Tech Works incubator offices in the Mott Engineering and Science Center and the Innovation Center incubator three blocks away at 1300 Bluff St.
But mostly, it’s people like Professor Mary Gilliam and Professor Susan Farhat, who are taking research into plasma and their applications in giving unique qualities to plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and lots more.
Gilliam got her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Missouri in 2006, then worked at a joint venture of GE and Bayer in plasma coatings for plastics. A colleague told her about an opening at Kettering, and she found the school a place “where No. 1, the students are very dedicated, and a place that really supports faculty research. They allow for flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit. I saw it as a great opportunity to work with really bright students and work with technologies that I thought had commercial potential.”
Similarly, Farhat a 2010 Ph.D. graduate in chemical engineering at Michigan State University, who says she “came here for a similar reason, I always wanted to teach, and I liked that Kettering had a focus on research and entrepreneurship and very determined students. I liked the small class sizes and the whole small university feel.”
The two professors have created 4S Innovations LLC, shorthand for Fourth State, since plasma is the fourth state of matter (after solid, liquid and gas). The company is working on a Web site and a couple of patent applications for its technologies.
They said 4S is working on technology that modifies the surface of small particles, allowing them to be dispersed in ways they can’t be under current technologies. That could give unique new properties to a variety of products. They said there are so many possible applications that it’s hard to pick just one. So keep your eye out for perhaps many great things from 4S.
My next visit was from someone I’ve been covering for years, an entrepreneur who’s learned how to roll with the economic punches. Rick Warner’s Parking Carma was supposed to be a big company by now, having developed technology to measure how many parking spots were available in urban parking lots and send that information to smartphones.
But then the Great Recession happened and the auto industry nearly collapsed and Parking Carma had to be nimble. Warner and his operations manager, Amanda Marcotte, told me they’re now working on using the company’s technology to solve a serious problem — a shortage of parking spots for long-haul truckers to take breaks in.
“The government has come to us to use our technology platform to help long haul truckers find parking,” Warner said. “We’ve won several federal grants to develop technology to help truckers park in a safer way. Little did we know that our urban parking approach to congestion mitigation could migrate over to long-haul truckers.”
Parking Carma is a subcontractor on a $5 million federal grant to analyze parking availability at 14 truck stops and six public rest areas on I-94 across Michigan, and publish that information on mobile applications, Web sites, and other application. The goal is to have it ready to show the world at the Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress to be held in Detroit in September 2014.
“We’ll use various sensing technologies to determine how full or empty is the truck stop, aggregate that and communicate it,” Warner said.
More at www.parkingcarma.com.
Next up was another Kettering professorial team, Patrick Atkinson, a professor of mechanical engineering who did his undergrad at Kettering, got his advanced degrees at Michigan State University and came back to Kettering to teach, and Stacy Seeley, a professor of biochemistry, who got her undergrad degree at Central Michigan and her graduate degree at the University of Massachusetts.
The two are working on a project to create an entirely new medical career called medical scribe — someone who follows a doctor from examination to examination, entering answers to a doctor’s questions immediately in electronic medical records software.
You can tell these two have been working together a while because they practically finish each other’s sentences, so that’s what the journalistic record of the interview is going to look like.
“We’re trying to get students into medical school, but the biggest missing link is clinical experience,” Atkinson said. “It’s dried up in hospitals because of liability and privacy issues. Hospitals don’t want folks just volunteering who they don’t have any control over.”
“Our problem at Kettering was having the mandatory coop experience, it was especially hard for these students to get clinical experience, because all year around they’re busy,” Seeley said. “They don’t have summers. And they all wanted pre-med type co-op jobs.”
“So what they would do was work in an implant device manufacturer or a pharmaceutical company,” Atkinson said. “So they learn about drug interaction effects or manufacturing of implants.”
“But it’s harder for them to get the clinical experience,” Seeley said.
“So what if we could find a corporate partner where the students would provide a benefit to that company?” Atkinson said. “Right down the street is Hurley Hospital, which has always had a mandate to treat a wide cross-section of the population…. and it is a teaching hospital for Michigan State. There’s also a mandate for paperless hospitals in the Affordable Care Act. This change is cataclysmic. The ultimate goal is to have medical records in the cloud. Hospitals are realizing that the use of an electronic device, a tablet or laptop, is needed in hospital room. But it will slow down interviews with patients and doctors, and put up a wall, because doctors will be looking into a screen, not at the patient. It also makes older doctors uncomfortable.”
What’s the answer? A “medical scribe,” someone who follows the doctor from exam to exam, entering into a computer patients’ answers to doctors’ questions, along with test results and other data.
“The idea is to have someone partner with the doctor,” Atkinson said. “A doctor would need to see one additional patient every three hours to cover the cost of a scribe. Most doctors would say that’s a low cost. A scribe can make them even more efficient than that. So it’s good for health care, good for the health care dollar, good for getting kids educated. Positive all the way around.”
So, Kettering has created an online course in “medical scribing,” giving the student an overview of how the hospital functions both as a business and a health care institution, covering professionalism, privacy and reimbursement mechanisms.
Kettering is halfway through the first semester of the scribing course, and has had its first student in that course accepted into the MSU medical school. We’ll see whether scribing becomes an accepted new career path for medical professionals ,or a stepping stone to a career as a doctor, or both.
Next up was an old friend, Neil Sheridan, director of Kettering’s incubator.
Sheridan had a new baby to show me — a new curriculum in entrepreneurship called Orbit being developed at Kettering under a Michigan Economic Development Corp. grant.
It’s basically a crash course in creating a new business out of a tech idea.
“It’s an eight-week session that takes people who are not familiar with how to start a successful high tech startup from ‘Is there a marketable idea here?’ to ‘How do I get financing?’ to ‘How do I take it to market?’ to ‘How do I develop an effective team?’ to ‘How do I manage it for growth?’”
Sheridan said he recruited venture capitalists, patent attorneys, sales experts and marketing experts to develop Orbit, and hopes to use it “not just for clients of our own, but to provide this training to other business accelerators and entrepreneurial training programs around the state.”
Sheridan said the goal is to have every site operating this program to come up with at least 25 “investable companies” a year.
Sounds good. Let’s get to work!
My next visitors were Billy Lindeman, a Kettering computer science senior from Sterling Heights, and Eric Barch, a Kettering computer engineering senior from Oxford, whose startup company, Lava, is developing software that will, in Lindeman’s words, “make your phone the remote control of your world.”
They see a day when a simple, cheap computer chip will be installed in every appliance to advise your smartphone about the status of that appliance — your clothes are dry, say, or the coffee is ready.
“We will go to manufacturers and offer to integrate this circuit into their designs, and we will offer the apps,” Barch said.
They’re also thinking about offering the chip to toy companies, giving inexpensive radio control cars the same sophisticated control technology as Parrot’s $300 AR.drone quadcopter.
Their other idea is to equip weightlifting dumbbells with accelerometers and radio communications that record how many reps you’ve done at which weight to an app that allows you to keep close track of your workout. Yes, it’s called the Smartbell.
They’re also looking at using smartphones to control devices like flat panel TVs that can drive you crazy trying to customize the picture.
Lava has an office at Kettering’s Tech Works and is working on a Web site.
And yes, both these young men learned their tinkering skills in high school through FIRST Robotics, as did an increasing number of Kettering students.
My final visitor Friday morning was an incubator client, Jack McGrath, founder and CEO of the two-year-old startup Zerebral. The former computer science and marketing student at Franciscan University in Ohio moved to Michigan six years ago with his father, and after working several jobs came up with his entrepreneurial idea, a social network designed for communication among parents, students and teachers in K-12 education.
“I was working at a private school and in talking with parents, teachers, students, realized there had to be a better way for everyone to communicate,” McGrath said. “Typically what schools have is a learning management system that they try to integrate social features into after the fact. We have a social network system at its core, with LMS as well. We’re trying to capture the information loop that the youth are accustomed to with Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.”
Students who use the system will earn points redeemable at local retailers.
McGrath noted that current LMS market share leaders Blackboard, Pearson and Moodle share only 30 percent of the market, and 48 percent of schools still have no student-parent-teacher portal, “so it’s a wide open market.”
The company is building its Web site, which will be zerebral.com.
“We will be selling to schools, primarily at the district level, private, public and charter school systems,” McGrath said. “Each school will have their own private entity within the site to maintain security. It will be cloud hosted. We will use third party vendors for hosting so can scale faster.”
McGrath is doing some of the development work through a firm in Belarus.
“We developed a prototype, tested it, went back to the drawing board, found out what works and what didn’t,” McGrath said. “We’re starting more development next week and hope to finish the enterprise level solution by spring to roll out next school year.”
McGrath said Zerebral has received $115,000 in funding so far from friends and family. He said that after getting its first few customers, it will start looking for venture funding.
My tour stop ended with lunch with a bunch of terrifyingly sharp students, all with a great business idea launched through their participation in professor Art DeMonte’s Business 372 class, Innovation and New Ventures.
All these young folks came off as brilliant and ambitious and made me feel about 1,000 years old and a lazy slug besides.
Check out these business ideas:
* Jessica Furmanczyk, a senior mechanical engineering student from Fenton, presented The Supermarket Saver. It;s a grocery shopping app that optimizes prices, coupons and even gives you the most efficient route around the store to pick up what’s on your shopping list. It’s born out of her personal pet peeve of wandering around unfamiliar supermarkets. She plans both low-cost and high-end versions of the system.
* Logan Thompson, a Union City, Ohio mechanical engineering major, presented Sun Charge, a small solar charger for smartphones that would work like the small solar charger on many calculators.
* Paras Sethi, a senior mechanical engineering major from Bangkok,Thailand, is working with Gilliam and Farhat on 4S. He offered more detail on how plasma technology could benefit everything from cosmetics to drugs.
* Daniel Garrett, a mechanical engineering studetn from Midland, is working on Strand Technologies, a rapid prototyping machine that can work with carbon fiber instead of the most common materials 3D printers use today, resins.
* Tyler Robinson, a sophomore business student from Flint, sold me completely on Q Dot Thermostatics, a thermostatic mug that will keep drinks hot or cold through embedded thermoelectric technology and a battery that can be charged through an outlet or through a car charger. The device will keep liquids hot or cold for up to eight hours. Robinson said his research has shown that the mug can be manufactured for around $15 and sold for $25.
And so ended my visit to Kettering University, a true tour de force of both technology and entrepreneurship. It made me feel great about Michigan’s tech and business future regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Heck, I think these kids would be successful even if we elected freakin’ Cthulhu.
So, stay tuned in upcoming Mondays for Tech Tour visits the next few weeks with the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.