Innovation is Thriving at UConn: From New Cancer Treatment to Wearable Technology

School of Business, Partners Guide and Mentor Future Trailblazers

Over the years, I have often used entrepreneurship as a litmus test for the health of our School of Business and our University. Entrepreneurship is about creativity and innovation; it is about the grit and determination of our students. It fosters experiential learning and individual initiative.

We have continuously innovated and grown in how we support entrepreneurship at UConn over the last 30 years. We have been successful, and success has many parents. In this case, the “parents’’ range from the initial gifts from the Wolff Family to create a chaired position and a named competition in the 1990’s, to the support from the state for the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI). And it did not stop there.

In 2012, alumnus Keith Fox ’80 funded the Innovation Quest (iQ) competition and committed his time, talent, and Rolodex to bringing the right skill and support to the program. We enlisted professor Rich Dino as a faculty leader and created courses and formalized a program available to all students at UConn. A few years later, entrepreneur Peter Werth saw the value of the proposition, and gave a large gift in support of this effort across the campus, creating the Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and helping us move the entrepreneurial experience earlier in the academic lives of our students. A freshman was successful in the iQ competition this year, side-by-side with Ph.D. students. Most recently alumna Toni Boucher ’02 MBA doubled down on this history by renaming the School’s management department as the Boucher Department of Management and Entrepreneurship. Today the Princeton Review rates us a leader among entrepreneurship programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

Competition Brings Out the Best

On June 14, I had the pleasure of watching five student presentations from the iQ Summer InQbator program. This is an intensive, competitive, multi-week mentoring opportunity for the best competitors from the prior year. It has been my pleasure to participate for over a decade. I say participate, because there are opportunities to ask questions and explore exciting ideas presented by very thoughtful and well-coached students.

This year professor Kevin Gardiner assumed the leadership role, but neither Keith Fox nor Rich Dino stepped away from the program. All of them played a role in guiding and mentoring student teams along with an impressive cadre of alumni and friends. The summer program and the audience for Investor Day contained devoted groups of knowledgeable supporters, guides, and mentors.

In the best spirit of long-term commitment, a former iQ standout participant was there to report on his progress since graduation. He reported impressive progress in creating a viable, revenue-generating business. His message described the challenges and personal fulfillment of his work. He emphasized that you cannot listen to customers carefully enough. This theme was repeated by many presenters. Too many aspiring entrepreneurs see their idea as brilliant in the sense of, “if I build a better mousetrap, they will come.” But the message among these people was, “My goal must be to understand the pain points that my customers face. If I do not offer them solutions, I don’t have a viable product.”

Five Entrepreneurs Discuss Compelling Businesses

This year the five presenters were uniformly articulate and compelling. To illustrate the range of ideas offered and the range of talent in the investor/advisor audience I will mention each briefly.

The most technical was a breast-cancer intervention that involved using CRISPR technology to engage the patient’s own cells to create injectable agents to fight the cancer. As a reader, these simple sentences may seem like Greek, but in the room, there was ample expertise about CRISPR, and alternatives; there was ample expertise about the challenges the FDA-approval process offers, and informed conversation. The questions pushed these issues, and the answers assured us that the summer process and preparation was working.

A slightly (but only slightly) less technical proposal was to advance the state of the art for wearable sensor technology. Many of us today wear watches or other devices to measure effort levels, heart rates, or other bio markers. This company proposes an array of wearable products imprinted with electro-sensitive materials that will allow much more precise measurement of EKG and other markers that are often approximated by today’s technology. The innovation litany is better, cheaper, and faster and these proposals fit that model.

In the spirit of responding to customer needs, another proposal focused on mental health and facilitating connections between patients in need and service providers. At the University, the need for support for students in distress has never been higher, so this is both timely and relevant in response to an overwhelming need.

A first year Ph.D. student provided a consumer product idea. She started by pointing out that UGGs (boot-footwear) get dirty and are hard to clean and are not as warm or waterproof as they could be. Engaging her Mongolian roots, she envisions customizable warmer waterproof footwear, made to order without major inventory management needs. Her high-end, attractive product is slated for market this fall.

Our youngest competitor to reach this stage just completed her first year at UConn. In the spirit of wearable technology, she has designed an innovative mouthguard to detect concussions, internal bleeding, skull fractures, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTEs). As the evidence mounts on health challenges to athletes exposed to repetitive concussions and head injury, there is no question that this is a market need. She observed that it is common for athletes with possible head injuries to assure their coaches that they are fine, even when they aren’t, because they want to return to the game.

This awareness of human behavior and incentives is important in the entrepreneurial journey. The summer program includes attention to emotional intelligence. Successful entrepreneurs must understand their customers and the pain points they face. But they must also understand and engage the investing community and the multiple collaborators and partners with whom they will work.

Stay tuned! We will do this again next year and these great ideas will move forward and give back in the best UConn tradition.


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