Engineering Entrepreneurship: An Engine for Innovation

4/1 DukEngineer Magazine

Duke Engineering’s new “EngEn” initiative serves as a catalyst for the creation of high-impact products and cutting-edge technology

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Engineering Entrepreneurship: An Engine for Innovation

“I have an idea!”

These well-known words have been exclaimed by innumerable engineering students hoping to build products that will grow to be the next Microsoft or Apple. A new initiative to develop lifelong innovators, Duke Engineering Entrepreneurship (EngEn), serves as a catalyst for the creation of high-impact products and cutting-edge technology. Best described by Associate Dean of Entrepreneurship Ken Gall, “EngEn is an engine for innovation—driving the cycle of problem identification, solution development and the robust launch of new ventures.”

The program is spearheaded by talented engineers, successful entrepreneurs and renowned professors working together throughout the entire life cycle of an idea. EngEn integrates entrepreneurial education, needs-driven design experiences and startup resources to support fledging student, staff and faculty inventors. In the prior fiscal year alone, EngEn assisted in some of the 132 invention disclosures, 37 issued patents, 49 sponsored research agreements and 54 spin-off companies originating in faculty research.

Four men standing at a white board with drawing on itDuke EngEn currently sponsors 15 unique programs and resources while partnering with 12 peer initiatives and organizations. Undergraduate educational initiatives, such as the A. James Clark Scholars Program and the Student Founders Program, offer coaching, skills training, workshops and a supportive entrepreneurial community.

Filip Bartel, a junior majoring in civil engineering, highlighted the mentorship and community of EngEn as a major draw toward the program. “Being mentored by professors who are entrepreneurs themselves has been valuable, since they share mistakes to avoid and tips for success from their own experiences,” said Bartel.

Meanwhile, paths like the Entrepreneurship & Founders Track of Duke’s Master of Engineering Management Program or the Master’s Certificate in Medical Device Design are popular with graduate students focused on expanding their entrepreneurial skillset.

A key component of EngEn is fostering innovation within the Pratt student body, both undergraduate and graduate. Mentored by Gall, three engineering undergraduates founded Protect3d, a company using 3D modeling technology to produce custom-built protective devices for athletes. Protect3d went on to win the NFL’s 1st and Future Innovation Competition, netting $50,000 to invest in the company.

Four men standing with a giant checkAnother start-up founded by Duke students, OptiML Solutions, received support from EngEn to develop a portable imaging device and a machine learning model that can diagnose eye diseases quickly and cheaply.

Besides providing support for start-ups, EngEn is fostering a diverse and inclusive community of inventors who work together with a common goal of improving society. Marcellus Jordan, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, says, “Since my first day as a Black engineering student, Pratt entrepreneurship has been very inclusive and even helped me arrange a study abroad in South Africa to work at a tech startup.” In hopes of combating the inequalities of public education, he plans to invent an affordable robotics kit that allows underfunded students to gain exposure to STEM.

In response to the emergence of COVID-19, EngEn responded by helping to create the Duke COVID-19 Engineering Response Team. Collaborating with the Innovation Co-Lab and Duke MEDx, among others, the team aims to increase Duke Health’s inventory of vital protective gear and medical equipment. Among other projects, the team has developed a custom powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) system and shared the design with over 80 institutions, manufactured more than 30,000 reusable 3D-printed face shields (with a goal to produce 75,000 units), and built 200 hand sanitizer dispensers to aid the reopening of Duke research laboratories. The work closely reflects the notable Duke Design Health program, which connects engineering and business graduate students to medical trainees with the goal of developing needs-based solutions for the medical field.

A line of women in scrubs wearing face shieldsEngEn also has plans for expanding the scope and breadth of the programming they offer. Opened in November 2020, Duke Engineering’s new Wilkinson Building provides two additional spaces for entrepreneurship, mirroring EngEn’s comprehensive problem-to-design-to-launch process. A Center for Innovation will empower founders to investigate and uncover societal needs as well as develop and validate unique tech solutions. A Center for Entrepreneurship will support founders who are launching new products, services and companies. In addition, anyone can schedule one-on-one consultation meetings at these centers to converse with experienced advisors about potential ideas.

Bill Walker, the Mattson Family Director of Engineering Entrepreneurship, emphasizes a focus on values embedded within EngEn’s approach and teachings. “Values build us up as people and allow us to build organizations that are meaningful. I want students to be curious, open to ideas, resilient, ethical, focused on impact, diversity-valuing, empathetic and aware of the world around them,” he said.

EngEn isn’t just building great innovations to address societal needs in health, defense, climate change and more—the initiative is building great people, students and leaders.

Philip Liu is a junior studying mechanical engineering, economics, and I&E.