Engineers to entrepreneurs
By Doug Livingston
An engineer’s idea is simple. It’s innocent. Isolated in academia, the idea is unscathed by bureaucracy and business.
But while four graduates from Washington State University cradle their hand-held invention, the key-sized prototype, weighed down by patents, investment capitalism and the unforgiving world of entrepreneurial business is becoming harder to handle.
“What does it take to make a company out of a product?” Robert Olsen, director of the Harold Frank Entrepreneurship Program at WSU, asks.
The program cultivates ideas, Olsen said. It pairs engineers with business savvy students.
Over the summer, the program connected two computer engineers, Jacob Murray and Paul Wettin, with an electrical engineer, Carla Heathman, and a business administration graduate, Jeffrey Sweeney.
“They knew nothing about entrepreneurship, probably didn’t even know how to spell it,” Olsen said, receiving a resounding laugh from the graduates.
But every great invention was once a good idea.
Sitting in Electrical Engineering 331 during his under-graduate studies, Murray awaited instructions from his professor. As the professor clutched his jump drive, neither he, nor the students, had a laptop to transfer the files.
Murray vividly remembers turning to Wettin, his roommate and colleague, and asking why it wasn’t possible to transfer files directly from one jump drive to another.
Murray’s idea was born.
“Engineering is never by itself. It always comes with people,” Heathman said.
Heathman is chief technology officer of their company, U2You Technologies — formed around their invention.
The USB device, like its predecessor, has the capability to store information but with an added feature: a built-in female USB port to connect to another USB device and transfer data files without the limitations of a computer.
“How do we make people’s lives better? How do we make it easier for people to do things?” Heathman said. “Your phones are also a camera. Why can’t your flash drive be a small computer?”
The product is simple and useful. And they are eager to manufacture it.
“I think we’re getting so close to the point where, when I do see it on the shelves,” Murray said in anticipation, “I’ll just find someone random in the store and be like, ‘You see that thing? I made that! I designed that!’ That would mean the world to me.’”
The grueling process of seeking investors and litigating patents muffles their enthusiasm.
“A concept can only go so far,” Murray said.
The group is seeking capital to design a microchip necessary for manufacturing.
When Heathman’s brother found out about their success, he offered his own money. Murray’s father did the same, pledging $5,000.
The group is wary of accepting money from family and friends who have always been emotionally invested in their future.
“That’s a line that gets real scary. What we’ve learned of business is that former friends and family lend you money,” Murray said. “Our families may not understand you might not see this money ever again.”
As the group seeks a possible cash award of $15,000 from the Collegiate Inventors Competition, the four are more determined than ever to take that simple idea and make it a reality.