Last fall, Tyler Vartabedian ’19, an aerospace engineering major, was hoping for an internship for the summer between his sophomore and junior years. But then he attended a general interest meeting about a new “invention accelerator” offering on campus. Inspired by the New York City-based Invention Factory, Syracuse University was about to launch the program for the first time. “Five minutes in, I was totally sold,” Vartabedian remembers. “I really wanted the hands-on experience.”
The new program, Invent@SU, a collaboration of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the School of Architecture, and the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), provides students the opportunity to “design, prototype, and pitch” their own inventions. Accepted students (20 on campus, 20 at SU’s Fisher Center in New York City) work in pairs, receive $1,000 for materials, and have access to 3D printers, laser cutters, a machine shop, and professional machinists. In addition, they have personal guidance and help from expert consultants and evaluators. The students also receive a $1,000 stipend, and professional assistance with provisional patent applications. At the end of the six-week summer program, students make a final presentation to evaluators—first prize at each site is $5,000; second prize, $3,000.
College of Engineering and Computer Science Dean Teresa Abi-Nader Dahlberg was dean of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering at The Cooper Union four years ago, where two faculty members developed Invention Factory. Physics professor Alan Wolf, who is also a patent attorney, and mechanical engineering professor Eric Lima chose to partner with Syracuse University as the first step of their nationwide expansion of Invention Factory. The on-campus program is supported by SU Life Trustee Bill Allyn G’59 and his wife, Penny Allyn ’60.
Dahlberg was excited about introducing the program here, particularly because students and faculty learn so much through hands-on, day-to-day collaboration. “Industrial designers, engineers, and computer scientists all think about design, but we approach it differently,” Dahlberg says. “Some consider form more than function, some consider function more than form. So it has been an incredibly eye-opening experience for the students, but also for the faculty team to work together across disciplines.” After completing the Invent@SU program, students seek follow-on guidance from the Blackstone LaunchPad and the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship. This school year, the program is open to all Syracuse University students, thereby augmenting the SU entrepreneurship ecosystem.
For Invent@SU, Vartabedian and his partner, fellow aerospace engineering major Ryan Twombly ’19, invented a wind turbine designed to operate on the median of highways. “We did research about accidents in rural areas,” Vartabedian says. “We learned a lot of them happen because of poor lighting.” The team designed a turbine, called Lightwave, that would capture the gusts of wind created when cars pass by. The energy could be stored in batteries and then used for street lighting. The team took second place.
First place on campus went to mechanical engineering major Mina Diamantis ’19 and aerospace engineering major Niall Shannon ’20 for their Rockin’Rolla—a new kind of wheelchair. “Our goal was to eliminate tipping in wheelchairs, since it is the main cause of injury, and to increase mobility when traversing over curbs, gaps, or inclines,” Diamantis says. To accomplish this, the team assembled a wheelchair with a front and rear caster wheel and attached a linear actuator, a mechanical device that contracts and expands in a straight line, enabling one of the caster wheels to lift up.
At the Fisher Center, first place was awarded to aerospace engineering major Kayla Simon ’19 and bioengineering and neuroscience major Elizabeth Tarangelo ’19, who developed In-Spire, a bracelet that dispenses asthma medicine for someone experiencing an exercise-induced asthma attack. The bracelet would eliminate the need to carry an inhaler, and could also be used to deliver other liquid medications. Mechanical engineering major Ruby Batbaatar ’19 and Kalia Barrow ’17, a communications design major, collected second place with Pneu-Strength, a system that raises an elderly or infirm individual from a chair or couch to a standing position. The system consists of an inflatable pillow placed underneath the user, a support structure, and a hose connecting the two. The pillow is designed to provide stability and comfort as it lifts the user up and out of a chair, or back down into the chair. The support structure includes a pump to inflate the pillow, a structure that rests underneath the legs of the chair, and a handle for the user to grasp during inflation and deflation.
No matter how ingenious an idea, inventors need to communicate the problem they set out to address, and how and why the invention works. To address this reality, Invent@SU requires students to hone not just their inventions over the six weeks, but their pitches as well. Dahlberg says a key outcome of the program is that the students make great strides in their communication skills. “Watching a student progress from week one to week six is amazing,” she says. “It really is transformative.”
It is one of the most powerful forms of alumni engagement I have ever seen. It is a win-win. We bring in alums, people in industry. The students benefit from the advice they receive, and they also convey the tremendous talent we have at Syracuse University.
—Teresa Abi-Nader Dahlberg
The rigor of the program (invent.syr.edu) and the six-week format require students to focus and make progress each day. “The students are pushed to get to a prototype as soon as possible,” Dahlberg says. “They have to say: I have this image in my head. How am I going to bring it to a tangible thing?” Adam Johnson ’19, an industrial and interaction design major, enjoyed the scope of the program. “It gave us time to think creatively on a problem, and dedicated time to work on a project,” he says.
Professor Young B. Moon, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Professor James Fathers, director of the School of Design at VPA, and Tim Breen, workshop and project manager, who directed this year’s program, assisted the teams throughout the process, including reviewing pitches and asking probing questions that students might expect from evaluators. Volunteer evaluators, many of whom are SU alumni, visited campus Tuesdays and Thursdays to hear pitches and ask questions. Each student received feedback from 32 separate individuals. “It is one of the most powerful forms of alumni engagement I have ever seen,” Dahlberg says. “It is a win-win. We bring in alums, people in industry. The students benefit from the advice they receive, and they also convey the tremendous talent we have at Syracuse University.”
For Tarangelo, the experience was an opportunity to address an everyday problem—one that she would see and think, “Someone should do something about that,” she says. “But then you take the problem and look really deep into it, tackle it, and realize I can do something about that.” In addition to having dedicated time to invent a new product, Tarangelo appreciated the practice communicating about her invention. “I am not the best public speaker, but pitching so many times and so often with the pressure there has helped me build confidence,” she says. “I have grown so much through this.”