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Engineering students take business plans to the next level

From left: Pareekshith Allu, Michael Camp, Travis Jones and Wladimiro Villarroel From left: Pareekshith Allu, Michael Camp, Travis Jones and Wladimiro Villarroel celebrate Nikola Labs' win in the Ohio State Business Plan Competition.Following in the footsteps of engineering students and faculty before them, two teams led by Buckeye engineers took top honors at the 2015 Ohio State Business Plan Competition.

Hosted by the Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Institute at Fisher College of Business, the competition looks at new technologies with the potential to create a business and positively affect a range of areas and industries. It aims to stimulate and nourish the entrepreneurial spirit in Ohio State University students. 

Open-track winner Nikola Labs won $15,000 and the $2,000 Clean Energy Award, sponsored by the university’s Office of Energy and the Environment. The team plans to charge wireless devices by harvesting the energy transmitted during data and voice communications as well as during Wi-Fi connectivity. Winning the undergraduate track and $5,000 was the GoDesk, a portable workstation capable of charging any USB device and supporting more than 30 pounds.

The teams follow in the successful footsteps of College of Engineering students and faculty who earned top honors in Ohio State Business Plan Competitions in 2013 (OncoFilter), 2012 (Core Quantum), 2011 (Genanosys) and 2010 (O2 Insights).

Nikola Labs

The Nikola Labs team started in the classroom as part of the Langdale Academy in Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization taught by Michael Camp. 

“My adviser said I should take this class in case I become interested in entrepreneurship,” said Travis Jones, mechanical engineering graduate student and team leader of Nikola Labs. “I thought it would be learning laws and how to file patents. Instead it was the complete business side.”

Jones’ team was paired with technology made by Chi-Chih Chen, a research associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Developed in the Ohio State ElectroScience Laboratory, the technology harvests the energy transmitted by cell phones during data and voice communications as well as during Wi-Fi connectivity to enhance battery life. Learn more via the team's promotional video.

Phone cases with extra battery life can be bulky and inconvenient, the team explained, so they decided to market a phone case armed with this technology. But that’s only the beginning.

“The big picture for the company is to replace all the devices that have batteries with our harvesting technology,” said Jones. “It can harvest the ambient Wi-Fi that is everywhere, which would be enough to power these small devices that don’t use much power anyway. People would never have to buy or replace batteries, saving energy and money.”

Nikola Labs also includes mechanical engineering student Pareekshith Allu and Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Clinical Professor Wladimiro Villarroel, as well as mentors John Bair, executive director of Ohio State’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence, and Will Zell, entrepreneur and co-founder of Nikola Labs LLC.

“I have a background in product development, business and industry experience,” said Villarroel. “I approached Dr. Camp to see if I could help or get involved and he suggested I participate in the class as a student. Our project has been heavily accelerated because the mentors liked it so much they started the company, and they want to start writing proposals to get sponsors and participate in competitions.”

Nikola Labs is not done competing. They will participate in the Rice Business Plan Competition, April 16-18, the world’s richest and largest graduate-level student startup competition. Hosted and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, it consists of 42 teams from around the world competing for more than $1 million in cash and prizes. Vote for Nikola Labs for the People’ Choice Award by 1:00 p.m. April 18.

Participating in the Ohio State competition not only taught the engineering team members more about entrepreneurship, it also connected them with incredible mentors.

“The opportunity to interact with the mentors has been unique,” said Allu. “Getting to know their life experiences and advice has been awesome.”

“I’ve met so many nice, talented people and making connections is important,” said Villarroel. “This program is great for students. When you are in engineering school, you are very focused on certain things. Learning about business opens a huge, new world.”

Only time will tell what is next for Nikola Labs and its team members.

“I definitely want to keep working on this because I see so much potential and I’ve already invested so much time and effort,” said Allu. 

GoDesk

Formerly known as the Flexidesk, GoDesk team members Ian Hansborough, an electrical engineering major, Greg Miller, a chemical engineering major, and a Xavier University student won the undergraduate track and $5,000 for their portable workstation idea.

After struggling to balance a laptop, notebook and coffee while studying on the oval, Miller came to Hansborough during the summer of 2014 to begin working on the GoDesk concept.

It provides a stable writing surface that includes a cup holder and a solar-powered charger that can recharge computers, phones and other devices. The GoDesk will also include a battery pack, transforming the simple computer tray into a charging station that can fold down to fit in a backpack. View the GoDesk in action via the team's promotional video.

Based on the original prototype created in a basement using wood, aluminum and 3-D printed parts, the GoDesk team is working with StudioMoya in Columbus to create a more polished design that will be manufactured in China.

“We have some interested investors, one of whom we met through the business competition,” said Hansborough.

The team hopes to have the desks manufactured and ready for sale by late August. They estimate the GoDesks will sell for around $50.

“Because of this competition, we were forced to think through every possible aspect of our plan, whereas before we didn’t exactly have a plan,” said Hansborough. “We had to flesh out the details, but we also got a lot of great advice from people who had been doing this for years. I feel really good about where we are and what our plan is going forward.”


Written by Jenn Shafer