The University of Central Florida has spawned some notable entrepreneurs over the years, from O’dang Hummus creator Jesse Wolfe ’15 to Luminar co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jason Eichenholz ’95MS ’98 PhD and Kismet Technologies founder Christina Drake ‘07PhD. However, the vast majority of these savvy businesspeople are UCF graduates who have turned their ideas into impactful and innovative solutions on their own.
To further tap into the hidden gems of research produced by faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, UCF is initiating a new program backed by the National Science Foundation with mentoring from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The $6 million, NSF-funded interdisciplinary project, led by Ivan Garibay, an associate professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems, will create a UCF Venture Lab that supports budding entrepreneurs through the commercialization process and establishes a newly organized research umbrella at the university.
The funding for the UCF Venture Lab is provided through NSF’s Accelerating Research Translation (ART) program, housed in the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships directorate. UCF is one of 18 U.S. universities to receive funding through this newly established program.
“NSF endeavors to empower academic institutions to build the pathways and structures needed to speed and scale their research into products and services that benefit the nation,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a release. “The Accelerating Research Translation program in NSF’s new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) Directorate identifies, and champions institutions positioned to expand their research translation capacity by investing in activities essential to move results to practice.”
The UCF Venture Lab will train and enable faculty, graduate students and postdocs to identify and launch viable businesses based on their novel research. It will provide guidelines on business development, match UCF researchers with relevant industry partners and, for a select few, provide funding through the NSF ART grant. The entity will be modeled after the business startup program at Georgia Tech, which will provide mentorship during the development phase.
“UCF’s world-class faculty are preparing students to work and lead in the industries of tomorrow, and we are grateful to the NSF for their support in enabling us to speed up research, discovery, and entrepreneurship,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “Working with Georgia Institute of Technology, which will serve as a mentoring institution, we look forward to expanding pathways for ideas, products, and programs that make positive impacts on society and keep pace with the speed of innovation.”
Garibay says after comparing notes with Georgia Tech, the project team realized they would benefit from a Venture Lab dedicated to the commercialization of UCF research.
“We plan to create that infrastructure here at UCF and hope to accelerate the growth of these businesses,” Garibay says.
Community and Societal Impact
Georgia Tech will serve as a mentoring partner for UCF’s Venture Lab development. Keith McGregor, the founder of the Georgia Tech VentureLab, will serve as one of the mentors to the UCF team, which includes co-principal investigators Carolina Cruz-Neira, a professor in the Department of Computer Science; Cameron Ford, an associate professor in the College of Business Administration, Svetlana Shtrom, the director of the Office of Technology Transfer; and Winston Schoenfeld, interim vice president for research and innovation. The University of Florida will also collaborate on the project, providing input that will help UCF adapt Georgia Tech’s model to the Florida ecosystem.
Locally, the program is expected to have a positive impact on the Orlando area.
“Central Florida is mostly a service-based economy,” Garibay says. “Our median salary is below the nationwide average. The UCF Venture Lab will foster creation of technology companies, which will generate high-paying jobs and will attract a lot of growth to this area.”
The program will also provide pathways for local industry to partner with UCF researchers. Organizations such as DeepWork Capital, the Entrepreneurs Alliance of Orlando and the National Security Innovation Network have already agreed to mentor the UCF entrepreneurs and to participate in the ART project advisory board.
ART Seed Translational Research Projects
Multiple seed translational research projects will be selected for funding through the ART program. The first project, led by Professor Guifang Li of the College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL), will establish a prototype receiver capable of high-speed space-to-ground laser communication that resists atmospheric turbulence. Once the prototype is developed, Li and his team plan to test the project at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. Potential clients for the receiver include Blue Origin, OneWeb Technologies and SpaceX.
The second project is led by Center for Research in Computer Vision Assistant Professor Yogesh Rawat. He plans to develop a prototype software that can detect human activities shown in live video streams while ensuring that private information isn’t exposed. The software would be used in surveillance systems to identify emergency situations or potential threats to public safety so that law enforcement or first responders could act quickly to prevent harm.
Other seed translational research projects will be selected through a university competition that will commence next August. UCF researchers from all disciplines will be encouraged to apply.
Education Through Action
UCF graduates like Wolfe, Drake and countless others were able to launch their businesses with the aid of the skills they developed at UCF as well as the encouragement they received from UCF researchers and business development programs. To keep the pipeline of Knight-trepreneurs flowing, the NSF ART grant will enhance UCF’s educational offerings in entrepreneurship.
The College of Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Business Administration courses already offered in this topic would expand to allow graduate students and postdocs to take the courses, allowing for a greater diversity of knowledge, skill and perspective in the classroom.
The goal is to instill an entrepreneurial skillset in the next generation so they can better qualify for jobs in changing industries or launch and grow their own business ventures, says Ford, who is also the executive director of the Blackstone LaunchPad and the director for the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.
“The careers that our students are going into are dynamic,” Ford says. “We’re seeing a lot of changes and disruptions to the industries they work in, so our students need to be adaptable and resilient. They can add value to the companies they work for if they can learn to solve novel problems and execute initiatives. It’s not enough to innovate solutions – the goal is to deliver innovations to those who need them, improving social and economic wellbeing in the process.”
Garibay says that, for engineering students in particular, learning about entrepreneurship can change their whole mindset.
“I think it’s life-changing,” Garibay says. “Entrepreneurship is something we’ve done for a long time and the feedback that I get back from students is that it’s transformative.”
The NSF ART program doesn’t just allow UCF to create a business hub and enhance graduate education – it also establishes a new research umbrella for the university called UCF Innovate. This enhanced infrastructure will bring together the Office of Technology Transfer, the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the Business Incubation Program along with the developing Venture Lab. UCF Innovate will be overseen by Schoenfeld, who leads the Office of Research.
“UCF has been consistently ranked as a leading technology-generating institution with a strong entrepreneurial spirit among faculty and students,” Schoenfeld says. “The NSF ART program leverages this to drive new levels of technology translation that ensures strong societal benefit from the innovation across UCF.”
Shtrom says that through the ART program, the Office of Technology Transfer will strengthen and enhance the university’s commercialization infrastructure to transform promising research results into products that solve pressing problems and improve people’s lives.
“The NSF funding will allow us to dedicate resources toward cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset and culture at UCF, increasing the number of startup companies launched to commercialize university technologies, and growing funding and licensing revenue to support and expand the research enterprise,” Shtrom says. “UCF is committed to nurturing and sustaining this virtuous cycle of research and innovation to maximize impact for UCF, Central Florida, and the nation.”