KALAMAZOO (WWJ) — I’ll admit that by the end of most Tech Tours I’m usually pretty fried.
Nine or 10 days of sleeping in a different unfamiliar bed every night, eating road food, and driving darn near 2,000 miles will do that to you.
But it wasn’t a problem Friday, the 10th and final day of the 2013 Fall Tech Tour, thanks to a series of fascinating presentations at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. This onetime teacher college has evolved into a tech powerhouse in many scientific and engineering fields.
The day began bright and early with a 7:15 a.m. meeting (oh, all right, I made it by 7:20) at one of the best breakfast joints on the planet, Rykse’s on Stadium Drive. (Try the light breakfast sandwich — oatmeal bread, egg whites or Egg Beaters, ham and lowfat cheese. The Egg McMuffin has met its lower-fat match.)
With me was Dan Litynski, vice president for research at WMU, a retired Army brigadier general, research officer and professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He’s also served as dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at WMU, the school’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, and as an interim WMU president. He has bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic University and a master’s degree from the University of Rochester, and he’s been active for more than 25 years in research and teaching in electrical engineering, optics and physics.
Litynski leads a staff of eight in WMU’s Office of the Vice President for Research. The school reported $22.7 million in research and sponsored programs in its 2011-12 fiscal year, down from $35.7 million in 2010-11, $34.1 million in 2009-10 and $32.3 million in 2008-09.
But one big recent research funding success was my next appointment — a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish the Transportation Research Center for Livable Communities. WMU is the lead university among five that will be running this project — the others are Wayne State University, Tennessee State University, the University of Texas at Arlington and Utah State University. All told, 30 researchers will be involved from a wide variety of disciplines — 15 from WMU and 15 from the other institutions.
Jun-Seok Oh, professor of civil and construction engineering, and Osama Abudayyeh, professor and chair of civil and construction engineering, are running the grant. It seeks to improve public transit systems and alternative transportation, providing better and safer pedestrian and bicycle networks, and making transportation safer and more accessible for children, people with disabilities, older people and low-income populations.
“We will have a higher population percentage of seniors in the near future … and our transportation system is not ready to accommodate older people,” Oh said. “Also we have a lot of disabled. They are not in a good situation in terms of travel. This center will study those issues … Also, the public transportation system in the U.S. is mostly a fixed-route bus system, and that wastes money. We have the mapping technology, and so many people have smartphones — we know where the buses are, we know where the people are. We can make the system much more efficient,” he said, with smaller buses and customized routes depending on rider need.
Abudayyeh said the project will also study making getting to school safer for children, working with school districts in the area.
And Abudayyeh, a bridge specialist, said the study would also test accelerated bridge construction and pavement replacement techniques that minimize disruption and cost.
A conference will be set soon to get the researchers together and map out a strategy for the center. WMU staff in psychology, urban planning, and the department of blindness and low vision studies will all be involved.
“The beginning of the design needs to be with these (disabled) folks in mind, not design something and then realize it doesn’t work for the blind or disabled and try to fix it later,” Abudayyeh said.
Oh’s other research interests are intelligent transportation systems, including vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-road and vehicle-to-device communication, and Abudayyeh on new techniques to diagnose the condition of bridges without destroying parts of them, including ground-penetrating radar, infrared cameras and acoustic testing.
Next, it was off to another building at WMU’s Parkview Campus — a former cornfield that’s now a bustling tech and research park — and the new WMU Starting Gate student business incubator.
“Starting Gate was a dream of mine a couple of years ago, and we started getting more serious about it a year ago,” said Kay Palan, dean of WMU’s Haworth College of Business “We were fortunate enough to find a partner here who was able to provide some extra space for us, and we officially opened in the fall semester.”
Moh’d K. Albattikhi, who’s studying for his MBA at WMU and who has started three companies in his native Jordan, is director of operations at Starting Gate, and John Mueller, assistant professor in the department of management, is the faculty member most closely involved with the project.
Palan said Starting Gate is designed to “help student companies get the mentoring and the resources they need to they can more quickly launch a business, and we want them to learn how to do that in Michigan. Not every business student is going to want to be in this space, but we have a surprisingly large number of students with ideas who do want to develop them.”
Mueller organized WMU’s first-ever business pitch competition last year, and 32 teams made presentations after just two weeks of promotion. And 17 student companies applied for spots at Starting Gate, of which eight were selected. Four of those companies already have patents pending, Palan said.
I got a quick look at a couple of the companies in Starting Gate, like Daniel J. May’s Xcheapskate, a search engine that finds the best prices for food and drink in a given area.
“College students are always trying to bargain-hunt, but that’s a challenge for restaurants because you have to go through Web sites,” May said. “The only thing a user of my site has to do is put in what they have a craving for — a burger, a chicken salad, or a taco — and the price they want to pay, and Xcheapskate will give you a list of restaurants offering it in your price range.”
A version 2.0 of the site coming out soon will do combination searches for couples or groups who want to go out together.
Xcheapskate’s first market is Kalamazoo, with versions planned later for Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit. The site is free to diners and to restaurants who want to list on it, May said — “The only thing we will charge for is if restaurants want to communicate with individual customers.”
May is getting a double major in management and finance and a minor in economics.
I also heard from WMU student Matt Page about his Hogspots.com Web site.
“I’m a tech geek and a motorcycle rider,” Page said. “I found there was no electronic resource or smartphone app where bikers could locate businesses that are recommended for them. So I decided to develop the smartphone app and the website myself to motorcycle enthusiasts and riders can locate motorcycle and biker hotspots based on their GPS location — apparel, biker gear, bike dealerships, bars, restaurants, gas stations, repair places.”
The Web site is live, and the apps for Android and iOS devices are available free. Page has wrapped up his business degree at WMU and plans to enter its MBA program in January. One of his partners is in the MBA program already.
Albattikhi told me about the other businesses in Starting Gate, including Speechmaster Pro, a device to help people overcome speech impediments and accents; an innovative locking and tightening system for the chain tie-downs on truck trailers; a trash can designed to reuse plastic grocery bags; AM Andrews, an antimicrobial strip for shopping cart handles that contains advertising messages; a cat toy called Kitty Ninja that’s a carpeted roller on a stand with objects dangling down from it to tempt the cat to pounce; a fish tank management system with a remote-controlled fish feeder and webcam called Fish Ninja; and Personofy, an app that helps travelers find places that interest them in areas they’re visiting based on their responses to questions.
“What’s great here is the cross-collaboration,” Palan said. “People talk, they help develop each other’s ideas, they share mentors.”
Starting Gate follows the “lean startup” technique, under which startups develop a “minimum viable product” and show it to potential customers, and take that data to build a new product based on what the customers want.
Starting Gate won’t be spending much time in its featureless corporate box in the WMU tech park. It’s moving Nov. 1 to downtown Kalamazoo’s historic Haymarket Building.
“We wanted to be more in the middle of the entrepreneurship community that exists downtown,” Palan said. “We’ll have not quite double the space we have here, about 2,200 square feet.”
The space will also have a much higher cool quotient, with exposed brick walls and wood floors.
WMU’s entrepreneurial program has also started receiving corporate and community gifts for prizes and awards — including one of $10,000 for a company judged to have the best chance at significant economic impact in the region. The school is still developing criteria for that award, Palan said.
Mueller said Starting Gate companies have weekly meetings, where they outline their goals for the week and “own up to either doing it or not doing it. It’s all geared toward Demo Day, which this semester is December 4th, where they will talk to the community about what they have developed. If they do OK at that, they will go on to Investor Day December 16th, where they will present to a group of investors we bring in.”
Included are representatives from the Kalamazoo venture capital firm TGap Ventures and representatives from Grand Angels, Rick DeVos’ Start Garden and the Kellogg Foundation.
Start Garden also sponsors mentor meetup nights where companies are introduced to potential mentors.
Mueller has started a Kalamazoo chapter of Startup Grind. the San Francisco based startup meetup group that’s now at 50 cities.
“I see a lot of momentum here,” he said of the Kalamazoo entrepreneurial climate. “There are lots of wealthy people in Kalamazoo who are looking for ways to invest in startup companies. We’re putting together an angel group to work with Grand Angels so they can learn what it means to be an investor.”
Mueller’s research focus is entrepreneurship. He was hired a year ago by the business school, along with colleague Laurel Ofstein, who does family business research.
The business school is currently developing both an entrepreneurship major and a university-wide entrepreneurship minor that can be added to any major. Said Palan: “No matter what your major is you can benefit from learning to recognize opportunities and take advantage of opportunities. The minor requires some courses in business school. It will be ready to launch in the fall.”
Mueller said the entrepreneurship major includes a sophomore-level introduction course, then adds courses on entrepreneurial marketing, sales, small business finance, team-building and culture, and a capstone course in small business management, family business management, or a practicum involving actually starting a company. There will also be elective courses in technology, law, marketing, information systems and finance.
For my final visit, I was with my people — map aficionados in the WMU geography department, and WMU’s W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change.
The center is the product of a gift from Edward and Mary Upjohn Meader. She was a granddaughter of W.E. Upjohn, who founded the drug company that defined Kalamazoo for decades the way Kellogg defined Battle Creek. (It’s now part of pharma giant Pfizer.) Mary Meader is best known for an incredible 35,000-mile flight in a single-engine airplane over South America and Africa in 1937-38 with her first husband, Richard Light, in which she photographed unprecedented images of the terrain, from Peru’s Nazca lines to Mt. Kilimanjaro.
What her gift funded at WMU is a geographic information systems and remote sensing research center that has a unique niche in its equipment — and an entrepreneurial streak a mile wide, creating new products out of old maps — products that have won national and international awards. The center’s two GIS analysts, Margaret Spyker and Gregory Anderson, showed me around.
The center’s scanners capture incredibly fine-grained computer images of whatever’s on them. In the case of maps, those are the richly detailed topographic maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey of the entire country. These maps were fully surveyed by actual humans on the ground from the early 1960s to the early 1990s.
The best scanner is a 240-megapixel camera attached to a floating concrete pillar to minimize vibration, scanning objects placed five feet away on a laser-leveled table.
The center is in the process of scanning all 57,000 sheets of the most current releases of the USGS topographic maps of the country, an unprecedented project.
The maps are being sold as the Authoritative U.S. Topos. There are two series of maps being sold, Topographic Maps and a hybrid map group, on which the most recent topographic map is sold with the most recent detailed aerial map of the same area, called GeoChange. (The app lets you adjust the transparency of both the topo map and the aerial image, so you can lay one over the other and see both.)
Maps cost between 99 cents and $1.99 in the Topographic Maps series and $2.99 in the GeoChange series. They can be downloaded with a free PDF Maps app from the Canadian map specialist Avenza Systems Inc., at http://www.avenza.com/pdf-maps. About half the nation’s land area has been scanned so far and is available on the app. The center says the project should be done by mid-2014.
The regular topo maps can be used by the usual audiences that buy them — hunters, hikers, campers. Only now the map can live on your smartphone or tablet, and you won’t need an internet connection to get to it — it’s in the memory. That means they can be used in wilderness and offshore areas away from cell coverage — and can be used for navigation and location finding, because a blue dot on the map shows the user’s location, based on GPS data.
The GeoChange maps can be used by a wide variety of customers, from regulators to urban planners to academics. I saw demonstrations of using the time difference between a topo map and a recent aerial image to determine the extent of urban sprawl since the 1960s in Denver, Colo. — and the extent of urban implosion in Flint. (The topo map showed factories and homes in Flint that have since been abandoned, leveled and reclaimed by forest.) They can also be used to monitor changes in wetlands and watersheds.
Users can also collect information in the field and attach it — as well as photos — to any point on the maps.
The product won several awards at the International Map Industry Association (Americas) during its annual conference in Cambridge, Mass. in September. The association selected the Upjohn Center as the winner of its gold award for Best Digital Map Product of the year, as well as its Americas Award for the year’s overall most outstanding map product or service. The map product was also runner-up for the association’s global award, losing out to a giant atlas of the world that stands six feet tall, weighs 400 pounds and sells for $100,000. WMU won the awards over products from companies like National Geographic. (More about the association and its awards at http://imiamaps.org.)
Anderson said of the conference: “We’d never been there before, and we were blown away by how friendly everyone was. We’re flattered we’re even considered in the same league with some of these companies.” Spyker’s presentation at the conference, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” referenced the earlier efforts of cartographers that led to WMU’s award-winning products.
The Upjohn Center is working on a similar product for topographic maps of India, and has also produced fascinating overlays of historic maps of New York City with modern aerial images of the area. It’s also open to other commercialization ideas for the topographic maps, since its deal with Avenza is non-exclusive.
The Upjohn Center also has a fascinating display of Meader’s photographs of South America and Africa, which were unearthed through the research efforts of David Dickason, WMU professor emeritus of geography and the Upjohn Center’s founder and first director.
“It was the intent of the Meaders that the center should do all it can to protect and preserve the information contained in large maps,” Dickason said. “Google Books does not preserve maps. So we decided to.”
The eventual aim of the Authoritative Topo series, Dickason said, “is to capture all government mapping back to the time of Thomas Jefferson.”
My visit to WMU ended with lunch at Kalamazoo’s venerable Park Club with Dickason, Spyker, Anderson, WMU director of technology transfer, licensing and commercialization Mike Sharer, WMU geography department chair Benjamin Ofori-Amoah, and WMU news and communication specialist Mark Schwerin, who spent Friday morning driving me around.
Dickason had plenty to say about the entrepreneurial effort involved in the topographic map series,
And Sharer talked about WMU’s recent increase in spinout companies, including Micro-Laser Assisted Machining LLC, commercializing WMU’s research into shining a laser through a diamond cutting tool to improve tool performance in advanced materials; CompTherapeutics LLC, a company developing software to help treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder; and RecoverE LLC, a company that recovers trap grease from restaurants. Other commercialization projects in development for possible spinouts include a career guidance and assessment tool, new methods for evaluating the quality of green sand molds in foundry work, and a new tissue cassette for biological samples.
WMU faculty has also been making more invention disclosures — an average of 13 a year in fiscal 2006 through 2013, vs. an average of two a year for fiscal years 1978 to 2004.
And so, a little before 2 p.m., my day in Kalamazoo wrapped up. Many thanks to Cheryl Roland, executive director of university relations, who set the tour up, and to Mark Schwerin for taking the time. Maybe I was good luck — WMU’s new football coach finally got his first win the day after I visited.
Oh, and when I got back to Rykse’s to pick up my car, I also picked up oatmeal bread, a terrific sweet potato shepherd’s pie and some absolutely heavenly chocolate chip pumpkin pie to bring home. Great stuff!