Fire and Rain
College of Science and Engineering students are empowered to use creativity and innovation in building businesses
It takes hard work and guts for anyone to transform a great idea into a viable business, but even more so if you’re a full-time student in a rigorous degree program.
Campus-born success stories like Bill Gates, who turned his passion for computer programming into Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, who was the brains behind the social network Facebook, are just two examples. Both were still college students when they began transforming their ideas into real businesses.
More college students today, including those in the College of Science and Engineering, are using what they learn in the classroom to follow their dreams and take control of their careers. Driven by a desire to find personal fulfillment along with a paycheck, these students have emerged with new ideas and business plans based on social responsibility and their own passions, interests, and ideals.
While many College of Science and Engineering students may have innovative ideas, often they aren’t sure how to get them off the ground. They needn’t look too far. Several programs at the University of Minnesota offer support and encouragement in helping to fulfill their dreams. Here are two of their stories.
When College of Science and Engineering students, Mac Cameron, Hunter Dunbar, and Charles Brown met more than three years ago in the University student group, Tesla Works—founded by Cameron and Brown—starting a company was something they didn’t envision. Their goal was to form friendships with other like-minded students who had an interest in working on projects with a technical twist. Since founding the group, they have not only started a company called Zmach, they have brought something new to the fireplace market—flames that move to music.
“We thought it was something that would dazzle people. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s awesome and cool. Most say they would like one of their own.”
— Hunter Dunbar
Fittingly named “FireWave,” the inspiration for the fireplace came from a classic experiment, known as a Rubens’ tube that Cameron, a senior majoring in physics, demonstrated for one of his physics classes.
Invented by German physicist Heinrich Rubens in 1905, the Rubens’ tube is an antique physics apparatus that graphically shows the relationship between sound waves and air pressure, like a primitive oscilloscope. Fairly easy to construct, a length of pipe is perforated along the top and sealed at both ends. One end of the pipe is attached to a small speaker, the other to a supply of propane gas. The pipe is then filled with gas and lit.
“As soon as you light the gas, you see uniform flames rising from the tube. When sound is applied through the speaker, pressure changes within the tube,” said Brown, who is also majoring in physics. “You begin to see the varying sound wave lengths created in the series of flames, creating a stunning effect. The flames literally move in time to tunes ranging from jazz to dubstep.”
Minnesota Cup offers more than prize
Things started falling into place soon thereafter. Thinking they could create something tangible for the Minnesota Cup competition, the Zmach team set out to build an innovative fireplace.
The Minnesota Cup, now in its ninth year, is the largest statewide new venture competition in the country, and has drawn more than 7,000 participants since it began in 2005. Divided into six divisions, the competition seeks out, supports, and celebrates Minnesota’s most innovative and promising young entrepreneurs and serves as an ideal launching point for ambitious innovators.
While other students were traveling abroad and taking a break from courses, the Zmach team spent most of the summer of 2011 fashioning a sleek, modern-looking fireplace out of sheet metal using the dancing flame technology.
“We thought it was something that would dazzle people,” said Dunbar, who has since switched majors from physics to engineering and management. “Everyone who sees it thinks it’s awesome and cool. Most say they would like one of their own.”
Zmach’s work and instincts paid off. The team received third place honors in the student division at the 2012 Minnesota Cup.
Scott Litman, co-founder of the competition, says that while winning the competition can net prize money, it’s a pretty minor reward, compared to the other benefits.
“More important are the opportunities for exposure, advice, networking, and investment that open up to the competitors,” he said.
“We’ve been able to network with some very influential people through the competition, people who have helped with legal counsel and business tips,” Cameron said.
Thus far, the team has secured a provisional patent and they are planning to commercialize the technology by licensing it to fireplace manufacturers and/ or selling it to retail stores offering novelty products.
The Zmach team says they’ve learned a lot in the process as they continue to refine the fireplace, which includes using color inserts that would add another novel dimension.
“The fireplace industry represents more than one billion dollars annually,” said Dunbar. “We’re optimistic that this blend of art and science in a simple design will deliver warmth and vibrant energy to any social or private space.”
“While school has been our number one priority, we’re doing all we can to make this a profitable venture,” said Cameron. “A little luck will go a long way to help align the stars in our favor.”
For more information about Zmach and the Fire Wave technology, visit www.zmach.com
When Sri Latha Ganti signed up for the Acara Challenge, she wanted to help change the world. The course and competition sponsored by the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment helps budding entrepreneurs develop practical business solutions addressing global, societal, and environmental challenges. After all, she had seen firsthand the problems of poverty, malnutrition, and poor irrigation methods, which face many subsistence farmers in her native land of India.
“I have always been passionate about helping people,” said Ganti, who received her master’s degree in electrical engineering from the College of Science and Engineering in 2011. “When I first heard about the Acara Challenge, it sounded so interesting. I felt it could pay off in many ways.”
Nearly three years later, Ganti and her business partner, Steele Lorenz, a 2010 Carlson School of Management graduate, are beginning to see the fruits of their labor, which began as a project in the 2010 Acara Challenge. Their start-up company, MyRain, which has been fully operational since June 2012, is starting to make money. The company offers agricultural equipment, including drip irrigation systems, to rural farmers in developing countries.
Creating a Business Plan
In 2010, Ganti and Lorenz were among five University of Minnesota students who were paired up with a team of students from the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee. Together the two teams developed a business plan for their Acara Challenge project—MyRain.
“I have always been passionate about helping people. When I first heard about the Acara Challenge, it sounded so interesting. I felt it could pay off in many ways.” — Sri Latha Ganti
Their objective was to help small subsistence farmers—those farming from one to five acres— in India improve their crop yields and make their farms more sustainable through a cost-effective, and simply designed drip-irrigation kit.
“In many parts of rural India, small-plot farmers rely on flood irrigation, an approach that takes so much precious water, strips nutrients, requires tons of fertilizer and often stunts growth and yields,” said Ganti, who now serves as chief operating officer of MyRain.
“By implementing drip irrigation, a system that efficiently delivers water directly to the roots of crops through perforated tubes, rural farmers can increase water and fertilizer efficiency by 20 to 50 percent and increase yields by 30 to 100 percent,” she said.
Drip irrigation was originally developed for large industrial farms. Recently, the systems have been scaled down and simplified for smaller farms. Although these scaled-down systems exist, the farmers aren’t benefiting because they lack awareness and accessibility. Plus, they can’t afford the product. The same is true for other agricultural products.
Launching the future
Lorenz, who serves as CEO of MyRain and is based in Madurai in southern India, has been working to launch the business since June of last year. Ganti works remotely for MyRain on a part-time basis, since she holds a full-time position as a software engineer at Seagate in Minneapolis. They also employ two full-time people in India, an operations manager and an office assistant. In the future, Ganti hopes to join Lorenz in India since most of her family still lives there.
One challenge MyRain has had to face is the way its product is distributed. Because of the foreign direct investment rules in India, the company cannot sell directly to farmers. So they sell through dealers, who could be any tradesperson in the community, from existing shop owners to a plumber.
“We’ve been able to develop an independent dealer network that empowers local entrepreneurs to sell to their friends and families," Ganti said. The company helps with training, works with local manufacturers, and helps farmers roll out the systems.
“We’ve seen a lot of excitement among the farmers who are using the drip irrigation system,” said Ganti. “Many are asking what additional technologies they can adopt, which opens up further opportunities for our company.”
In addition, they are using their Indian market knowledge to consult with organizations that have a product or product idea and want to expand to India. “We are currently consulting with a Minnesota-based company on marketing their water purification product,” Ganti said.
Even though the future looks optimistic for My- Rain, success is not guaranteed. Nonetheless, Fred Rose, executive director of the Acara Institute, says the lessons Ganti and Lorenz have learned are life changing. “Even if they don’t succeed, introducing the drip irrigation system has had a major impact on the lives of many small farmers in India, which they both can be proud of,” he added.
For Ganti, building MyRain has helped her gain new perspectives on what it takes to achieve a successful venture. “Thinking about all the aspects, it’s important to identify problems and needs,” she said. “Once you’ve done that, you can create solutions, which I think we’re doing with our company.”
For more information about MyRain, visit https://www.myrainindia.com