UD students part of winning teams in global venture competition

Ask any professor in the College of Engineering, and they’ll tell you the University of Delaware attracts some of the most talented students in the world. However, just a few weeks ago, one professor had the chance to prove it.

Associate Professor Jenni Buckley is a favorite among students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. A firm believer in the irreplaceable value of experiential learning, Buckley has been recognized as an exceptional educator and changemaker in engineering education during her 10 years teaching at UD, including as co-director of The Design Studio, the department’s primary training ground for engineering students, equipped and staffed to support a variety of design projects, including automotive, aerospace, medical devices and robotics, just to name a few.

Last year, Buckley learned of a new competition that hoped to bring together the most promising student engineers from around the world to compete in a “design challenge,” a multi-day event where students are divided into teams to solve specific technical problems presented by company sponsors. For example, an app developer wanted to create a mobile platform for on-demand personal security, sort of like an Uber, except bodyguards. A battery manufacturer hoped to optimize and automate its inspection process. Stuff like that.

The teams that return the most feasible designs are declared the winners, but every student walks away with hands-on design experience and new professional connections.

“It was fun,” said Buckley, who encouraged numerous students to apply, of which nine were selected to compete. “We are a very good engineering school, and our students just killed it. They blew the doors off.”

Beyond book learning

The name of the event is Global Venture Catalyst, which was co-founded last year by Ikhlaq Sidhu​, chief scientist and faculty director of University of California Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, and Mike Grandinetti, a former Silicon Valley engineer who served as a C-level executive at eight successful tech startups and now teaches innovation, entrepreneurship, design thinking and marketing at several prominent universities, including Harvard, MIT, Brown, and Rutgers.

The idea behind Global Venture Catalyst, said Grandinetti, is to help engineering, data science and computer science students build technical skills by working on real-world projects while also networking with top students from other universities.

“When I first brought this idea to Jenni’s attention, she was very enthusiastic,” said Grandinetti, who connected with Buckley through UD alumnus Jon Stevenson, formerly the chief technology officer of Stratasys, Inc., a world leader in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, to see if she would be interested in coaching one of the teams. “With students more or less locked out of campus, they were really hungry for opportunities to engage in collaborative project work and put their skills to the test.”

Grandinetti quotes for inspiration the motto of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “mens et manus,” which translates from Latin as “mind and hand.” When people learn with their hands, he said, that knowledge is instilled more deeply than learning only from a book.

“The logic behind it is to facilitate the use of people’s skills in a highly practical, hands-on way, so that it sticks,” he said. “Rather than just work on random projects, why don’t we work on real projects for real companies. A real project that the company has strong interest in seeing successfully executed.”

The design challenge

Over four days, 40 teams of students, living on every continent except Antarctica, took part in the Global Venture Catalyst design challenge. Each team had one professional mentor, two or three student engineers, who focused on the innovation and design aspects of the challenge, and one MBA student to bring in a level of industry experience and focus on connecting to the market.

The most interesting part of the project, recalled UD junior and mechanical engineering major Sealani McCall, was coordinating across time zones with team members in Jamaica, Spain and Kenya. “Being able to work together and learn from people from different backgrounds was one of the most valuable experiences.”

Despite holding meetings online, she said she was still impressed by the real-world impact of their project, which was to automate an inspection process for graphite crucibles, which are used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries. Their solution was to design a robotic arm outfitted with various inspection tools.

Although McCall’s team did not make it to the finals in the design challenge,the project sponsor was so impressed by her design acumen, she was offered a manufacturing and engineering internship in her hometown of San Diego.

Erin Potter’s team, with members from Spain, Germany and Hong Kong, was sponsored by a clean-tech startup to show a product’s carbon footprint through a green labeling initiative, sort of similar to nutrition labels.

“Our project focused on the relationship between the meat industry and its effect on global climate change,” said Potter, a UD junior majoring in mechanical engineering. “We saw that the public lacked knowledge on the energy input for certain types of food,” such as how much water and land are required for raising cattle.

Their solution was to design a color-coded, and therefore easy to understand, carbon footprint label to briefly explain the resources consumed for each product, along with QR codes that consumers could scan to find more information online. For this, their team came in third place.

“This was my first time doing a design sprint type of competition,” said Potter, adding that the program helped her develop her thinking about product design. “I was a little nervous going in, but it allowed me to make so many new connections and show how talented we are here at UD.”

The youngest of the UD cohort, sophomore Nikki Pilla, was placed on a team that was asked to design an app interface called Security@Go, an Uber-like app for personal security. Bodyguards on demand.

“I had never done anything like this before. I learned new software in one day and spent the next week cranking it out,” said Pilla, a major in mechanical engineering with minors in computer science and cybersecurity. “It really boosted my confidence to know that I was competing not only with juniors and seniors, but also against students from top-ranked schools.”

The project so impressed the judges, that Pilla’s team came in first place, claiming victory over engineering programs like MIT or the University of California, Berkeley.

“The energy and enthusiasm from their cohort was just off the charts,” Grandinetti said. “And the University of Delaware students really distinguished themselves.”

For their success, the UD cohort credits the dedicated faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “They really care about the students,” said Pilla. “Dr. Buckley didn’t have to reach out to me, but she did, and it had a huge impact.”

 | Photo by Evan Krape |