NJIT Nurtures Student Innovators and Entrepreneurs

Design studio teams are inventing technologies and forming start-ups to improve the quality of life for millions.

Working in teams and pooling their talents, NJIT students are inventing technologies that could improve the quality of life for millions.  They are also forming start-up companies to market their potentially revolutionary technologies.

The teams belong to the Interdisciplinary Design Studio (IDS), a new program that transforms students into innovative entrepreneurs.  Starting as freshmen, the students take specialized classes that hone their technology and management skills.  The IDS students work collaboratively – usually in teams of four – and use NJIT labs to do their research. Professors and industry advisers ensure that the students’ technologies are commercially viable.

The students get funds from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, a nonprofit group, and the Albert Dorman Honors College, whose interim dean, Atam Dhawan, founded IDS.  Dhawan launched IDS in 2011 with six teams of Honors College freshmen. This year Dhawan formed six more IDS teams from the freshmen Honors College class. Though it’s a new program, three IDS teams have already filed invention disclosures for NJIT patents.

Technology Improves Life:

One team, for instance, is developing a glucose meter for diabetics – a noninvasive meter that doesn’t prick the skin.  A second team is designing an interactive toy to help autistic children, while a third is inventing fuel cells that convert organic waste into electricity.

The teams have students with different majors, so they bring different specialties to their projects. They are guided by an advisory board of business people from companies such as Forbes.com, IBM, Siemens, Summit Place Financial Advisors and Capital One Bank.  One advisory board member, Michael Smith, Chief Digital Officer for Forbes Media, said the students are learning invaluable skills.

"Teaching students how to found start-ups and become entrepreneurs while they are still undergraduates is very impressive," said Smith, who is also an NJIT graduate (‘95 B.S., Electrical Engineering).  "And the work they are doing is excellent.”

Winning Teams:

In addition, IDS teams are winning local and state-wide recognition. The fuel cell team recently won two awards at a contest sponsored by the New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs. The interactive toy team also participated in the contest and was recognized for its technology.

Two IDS students also won first and second place in the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge, a student entrepreneur contest. Kevin Ly, a biology major on the glucose team, won first place while Asim Zaman, a civil engineering major from the fuel cell team, won second.  During the contest, students from local universities presented their business plans to a panel of Capital One bankers, investors and venture capitalists.

For winning, Ly and Zaman each received $3,000 fellowships from Capital One Bank. The fellowships will pay for their teams to do research at NJIT’s Enterprise Development Center. The EDC is a business incubator that houses 90 start-up companies. Two other IDS teams have also partnered with two companies at the incubator. One company designs Emergency Response Systems and the other designs hydroponic systems, a way of growing plants using mineral solutions. The companies are sharing their technologies and their managerial skills with the students.

But what is perhaps most impressive about the IDS teams is this: they are just undergraduates, freshmen and sophomores, yet they are developing technologies with the promise of commercialization.

The Promise of Success:

Take, for instance, Ly’s team. The small glucose monitor they are designing clips onto a diabetic’s ear and uses infrared light to measure his or her glucose levels. Current glucose monitors require diabetics to puncture their skin often throughout the day. The team’s device is painless and bloodless, offering hundreds of millions of diabetics a better way to monitor their glucose levels.

Atam DhawanThe team’s invention stems from research conducted by Dhawan, the Interim Dean and Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering who directs IDS.  Dhawan is the ideal person to lead IDS, in that he is a successful inventor. One of his inventions, the Nevoscope, is widely used by doctors to scan skin lesions and detect skin cancer. The glucose monitor team is calling upon Dhawan's optical imaging research to develop its device.  

Zaman’s team, the one designing fuel cells, also has a promising technology. The team is made up of two biology majors and a mechanical engineering major; all who work on different aspects of their project.  Zaman focuses on the structural aspect of installing the system in households; the mechanical engineer designs the mechanics of the conversion system, while the two bio majors develop catalysts that break down organic waste and convert it into electricity. It’s a forward-looking technology, but the team already has a patent pending for it. 

The toy team is also making progress with its technology -- one that could help doctors better diagnose and treat the estimated two million autistic children in America. The students are creating a teddy bear that will talk and interact with autistic children. The bear looks soft and cuddly on the outside. But its inside has pressure sensors and a CPU that will collect data on the child’s physical and cognitive abilities. The data will be sent by Bluetooth to the child’s doctor, who will use the data from the toy to develop a therapy plan for the child. The team is working with an outside company to develop its technology and aims to have a prototype ready by the spring of 2012.

“What’s new  about our technology is that it will help doctors develop individual treatment plans for autistic children,” says Mariam Selevany, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering. “Current methods of autistic treatment lack an individualized approach for each child that is imperative to treat a disorder such as autism.”

Innovators and Entrepreneurs:

Amira Esseghir, a sophomore, says developing the interactive toy has given her myriad opportunities. It’s not only taught her about autism and how to help children diagnosed with it, but it is also teaching her to be a self-sufficient researcher and entrepreneur. 

“My IDS project has taught me how to develop a research project and how to improve my leadership and my management skills,” says Esseghir, a biology major.  “It’s taught me both how to research a technology and how to form a business to market that technology. These days, you can’t be successful unless you know how to do both – research and market your research – since one depends on the other.”

(By Robert Florida)