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Published September 16, 2019
Two faculty members from the University of Wyoming’s Department of Mechanical Engineering recently were appointed to a team professorship designed to create entrepreneurial solutions for a number of technical businesses in the region.
Carl Frick, professor and department head, and Ray Fertig, an associate professor, were appointed to the nonendowed professorship -- funded by Snaptron Inc., located in Windsor, Colo. -- July 1. Unlike traditional professorships that are often related to a specific research area or degree program, Fertig and Frick will use the five-year appointment to establish synergistic relationships geared toward product innovation and entrepreneurship. Their primary focus will be to foster economic opportunities between technical businesses and UW.
So far, the two have met with several regional companies as they work to identify a common theme among businesses that share similar product solution needs in advanced manufacturing and materials engineering. The long-term goal of the professorship will be to create two to three startup companies, which will develop tangible products for engineering and technology-related businesses. While the two have not yet selected the companies that will participate, Fertig and Frick will meet with at least 30 companies that potentially fit within the team’s parameters within the first year.
Before their appointments, both professors previously worked in the entrepreneurial field for several years. Frick founded the startup Impressio Inc., a company that develops improved protective materials within athletic helmets.
More recently, Frick participated in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant program. I-Corps allows engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and accelerates their startups, such as Frick’s, so the companies can move toward commercialization of their products or solutions.
Frick’s participation in the grant allowed him to develop and test a hypothesis for each individual component of his business model. He commends the program and says I-Corps helped prepare him for the professorship by making contacts with various stakeholders related to his product solutions.
“I gained invaluable knowledge through the I-Corps program to help prepare me for this professorship,” Frick says. “What we want to do now is interface with companies; ask them about their largest problems; identify a common theme; and then take the large expertise at UW to find a synergy and economic opportunity where we can derive a product or solution that can be used by many.”
Before joining UW, Fertig spent several years developing a modeling approach to predict failure and lifetime of composite wind turbine blades for Firehole Technologies, a UW spinoff company that was later acquired by Autodesk.
Fertig plays a significant role in the professorship through his expertise in federal fundraising and computational theory. He describes the professorship with Frick as a complementary approach to both professors’ research interests, with Fertig’s focus on predicting and optimizing the performance of a wide range of material structures without creating expensive, full-scale products.
“We solve similar problems from a different angle,” Fertig says. “I work primarily in modeling and optimization, while he tackles the same problems from the angle of fabrication, testing and characterization.”
Frick also mentions the partnership’s benefit for cost-effective solutions in long-term research.
“Ray’s experience in modeling can help the companies we’ll work with from making million-dollar mistakes,” Frick says.
UW’s new Engineering Education and Research Building also plays a major role in the team’s ability to collaborate with other facilities and faculty on campus. Frick describes the state-of-the-art facilities, including the expanded Student Innovation Center makerspace, as critical components of the professorship team’s success.
“We now have a facility that puts us on par with other top-tier universities,” Frick says. “We feel more comfortable engaging in this activity, because we can leverage both the expertise and cutting-edge facilities. It’s almost undoable without that.”
Fertig also looks forward to collaborating with other faculty throughout the professorship. Other departments in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, such as the Department of Computer Science, will be able to help provide expertise in fields not normally available to some of the companies the team will work with.
“It’s infrequent that midrange businesses can afford to have a permanent research and development team on staff and, as a consequence, it can be a challenge for them to derive new innovative products to remain at the forefront of their industry,” Fertig says. “We have a broad contingent of experts across the university who can help us with expanded disciplines such as machine learning and mathematic modeling. And it’s a great way for us to plug in with these projects.”
The professorship team initially has hired two UW graduate students to help facilitate interactions with other businesses. Geoffrey Buck, of Lacombe, Alberta, Canada, and Matthew Jones, of Eureka, Calif., are both UW mechanical engineering graduate students eager to be part of this unprecedented experience. The scope of their involvement is designed to allow students to uniquely engage with real-world industry experience while building their graduate theses.