UW-Madison IoT Lab Honing its Role Amid Campus Entrepreneurship Push

When a small group of University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty and staff launched a campus lab for developing connected devices just over a year ago, they weren’t sure what kind of response they’d get.

Turns out, students are just as intrigued by the budding “Internet of Things” movement as the business world.

In each of its first three semester sessions, the university’s Internet of Things (IoT) Lab attracted about 40 students working on more than a dozen tech projects, ranging from experiments with Google Glass and Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, to new inventions, like a “smart helmet” that uses built-in biosensors to detect potential concussions in real-time and send out electronic alerts to medical personnel. The lab’s end-of-semester demonstrations last spring and fall drew an estimated 450 people at each event, says Sandra Bradley, the lab’s research director for consumer and retail applications.

“It was a blazing success,” Bradley says of the first two sessions. “We can check off that box: there is interest.”

The question now is what the IoT Lab will become and what role it should play on campus. Currently in its third semester, it’s time to fine-tune the model, figure out the best ways to work with faculty researchers and potential corporate partners, and raise funds for operations, Bradley says.

The lab launched in early 2014 at a time of increased focus on entrepreneurship and innovation on UW-Madison’s campus and the surrounding area. The university ranks highly in patents and research spending, but doesn’t do so well in spinning out technology into new companies. To that end, entrepreneurship initiatives like Discovery to Product (D2P) and the Madworks seed accelerator last year were added to the mix of existing programs like the WARF Accelerator.

Right now, Bradley views the IoT Lab primarily as an incubator of ideas and experimentation, not necessarily businesses. She says it could function as a precursor to programs like D2P, which focuses on shepherding ideas from university faculty and students to the point of forming a company or licensing a technology.

“Eventually I would love to get more into cultivating these ideas” to the point of commercialization, Bradley says. “It comes back to staff and resources.”

The lab, housed in two small rooms on the third floor of the university’s mechanical engineering building, is run by a few faculty and staff members who volunteer their time. Bradley, for example, works for the university’s E-Business Consortium as practice director for Web and multichannel marketing.

The IoT Lab got off the ground thanks to some seed money from alumni and local companies, Bradley says. That covered purchases of technology for the lab’s participants to use, like Oculus Rift; cash prizes for students at the demo events; and pizza and beverages served at the lab’s meetings held every two weeks, where participants discuss their projects and get connected with resources, like local executives and officials from the university’s Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, which offers free legal services to startups.

Bradley thinks the organization can now make a case for academic grants and funding from philanthropic organizations and corporations.

The shape of collaborations with tech companies still needs to be worked out, but the basic idea could be that companies collaborate on IoT projects with students and companies from other industries, thereby keeping a finger on the pulse of new technologies and helping develop a pipeline of young talent. “How can they create relationships with students and learn from each other? We see an opportunity for companies to take roles in mentorship,” she says.

So far, the primary benefits for students have been giving them hands-on experience with cutting-edge technologies. They don’t get paid or receive class credit for their work, Bradley says, although a couple students have requested their participation be considered an independent study course. In the future, she envisions students getting paid by companies to work on research and development projects.

Students “really enjoy” working on IoT Lab projects, Bradley says. “I’m very impressed with the passion.”

Pete Chulick, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student, says he found the IoT Lab to be a worthwhile experience. In the lab’s pilot session, he teamed up with students in mechanical engineering and retail to develop a wearable device that can be programmed to vibrate and light up when it’s time for the user to take a medication.

Chulick liked having the opportunity to work with students outside of his major, which has been a big focus for the IoT Lab, Bradley says. “It gets kind of old being around all the same people,” Chulick says.

His team, dubbed Medcuff, built a functioning, albeit crude, prototype in about two months. They won a $500 prize at the end of that semester for being the project with the most potential impact. Chulick felt excited to build something that could help people, as opposed to completing a class assignment that only gets presented to classmates and a professor, and then “just sits on a shelf.”

Medcuff’s journey after the program, however, has not been easy and illustrates the challenges of student entrepreneurship. The team members incorporated the business and have spoken with local business leaders about next steps for commercializing the technology, aided by the exposure and connections from the IoT Lab. “They definitely gave us a lot of good advice and were able to put us in contact with some people that would be able to help us” move the business forward, Chulick says.

But it’s been slow-going for Medcuff in recent months. Dylan Mack, the retail major and co-founder who first pitched the idea of a medication reminder device, is no longer involved with Medcuff because he’s got a job lined up once he graduates in May, Chulick says.

Medcuff's prototype electronics. Photo courtesy of Pete Chulick.

Medcuff’s prototype electronics. Photo courtesy of Pete Chulick.

Meanwhile, Chulick and co-founder Katie Sullivan are exploring ways to repurpose or expand the capabilities of the original Medcuff technology, which wouldn’t be able to stand out in a crowded field of similar devices, Chulick says.

“I’m hoping that maybe some time in the next six months we could have a version two that actually solves a problem, besides something that just won a competition,” he says. “And then we’ll go from there. But we’ll see what happens.”

It’s also been difficult getting in front of people who understand the industry and could serve as resources, such as doctors, Chulick says.

“This is the first time I’ve tried to do anything entrepreneurial,” he says. “You have to go out and talk to people. It’s a much different hat you’re wearing. I’m enjoying it.”

One of the challenges for IoT Lab participants has been the short timeframe they’re given to complete projects. That’s why starting in the fall, the lab will switch to sessions that last a full academic year, rather than just one semester, Bradley says.

Another thing to keep an eye on as the lab matures is intellectual property rights. The students own their ideas, not the lab, Bradley says. As for potential research and development collaborations between students and companies, Bradley believes suitable agreements can be drawn up. “I don’t see it as a barrier, it is something to work through,” she says.

Jeff Engel is Deputy Editor, Tech at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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