March 4, 2013 – Union Tribute

 Cathy Pucher, executive director of the Zahn Center for Engineering Innovation, listens as student Ben Yeoman explains design changes to the prosthetic hand that his team Reach Health Technologies is making through the SDSU program. The Zahn Center is an incubator on campus that seeks to help students and professors turn innovative ideas into companies.

Cathy Pucher, executive director of the Zahn Center for Engineering Innovation, listens as student Ben Yeoman explains design changes to the prosthetic hand that his team Reach Health Technologies is making through the SDSU program. The Zahn Center is an incubator on campus that seeks to help students and professors turn innovative ideas into companies. — Don Boomer

In the Industrial Technology building at San Diego State University, there’s a room equipped with desks, white boards and perhaps most importantly, a coffee pot that is always on. It’s there to fuel the creative endeavors of students and professors seeking to start their own businesses.

From dawn to dusk and back again, these entrepreneurial spirits can be found using this space — formally known as the Zahn Center for Technology Innovation — as a business incubator to nurture and hatch their fledgling ideas into revenue-generating endeavors.

This month, the center marks its first anniversary on campus.

No company has turned a profit, but there are 13 early-stage teams pursuing ideas ranging from digital portfolios to personal-training apps. One team is developing a portable balance board that could be used by athletic trainers to figure out if an injured athlete is OK to return to the field. Another hopes to license its idea for a prosethic hand that could replace the metal hook.

Thirty others are still in the idea phase and have not yet been accepted into the incubator.

“To apply, what they need to have is an idea, they need to understand what problems they are solving and who benefits. They need to be able to articulate their product or idea, the uniqueness of it and how it can stand out from the competition,” said Cathy Pucher, the center’s executive director.

Once they are accepted into the incubator, a range of services are available.

Teams are paired with mentors and can get legal help from attorneys working pro bono who help with possible patents and legal questions and who can help companies to incorporate. They can seek out marketing advice or help with market studies from business school professors and students.

If students or faculty members develop a company based on intellectual property that was created or came from the support of the university, the team would have to negotiate a license with SDSU. Teams try to determine those issues before they launch a business, Pucher said.

“We aim to have very open discussions so that everybody is going into it with their eyes open,” Pucher said.

They are given access and expertise to university equipment such as a 3D printer that can be used to create prototypes. The center also hosts social events, guest speakers and helps identify interns and potential investors. All support provided by the Zahn Center is free and there is no obligation to pay anything back, even if the company launches successfully.

“We are doing this to give them the experience of what they learn in the classroom and applying it to real life and we are hoping that they will be successful and create jobs.” Pucher said. “We are hoping that even if they are not successful now, the things they learn here at the Zahn Center will help them to be successful later.”

Emerging companies

Here are the 13 concepts accepted into the business incubator at SDSU. Most are student-founded but some also include non-students and faculty.

• Acuo Fitness is developing a direct-to-user fitness program that seeks to provide individualized functional-fitness workouts.

• BraceMe is focused on developing a unique back brace.

• Cystic Fibrosis Imaging is developing a clinical tool that can be used as an alternative or to supplement to lung MRI or CT scans.

• Epsilon seeks to provide alternative techniques and equipment in the biotechnology marketplace to scientists, universities and research facilities.

• Grow Energy is planning to patent a process by which algae is grown and converted into clean energy.

• Repeat-station Imaging would service the aerial mapping and national security industries by using patent-pending airborne image collection and processing technologies that allow rapid creation of image sets at a lower cost than traditional methods.

• Jobioz is developing a comprehensive digital portfolio for recruiters and job seekers that studentscan use to get hired after college.

• Mobile Network Innovations is developing a wearable, wireless electronic device that can provide more intelligent networking by identifying potenital partners for personal or professional relationships through intelligent profile matching.

• Pathgeo is focused on analyzing the Internet and social media to strengthen marketing research for products, services and other applications.

• REACH Health Technologies hopes to improve the lives of amputees by creating a prosthetic hand with greater function, comfort and aesthetics.

• Sauron Energy is working on a product that will produce solar energy using a small particle solar receiver that uses a cloud of smoke to capture concentrated sunlight and convert it into heat.

• SDSU X-Prize Team is a group of graduate students trying to build and deploy a hand-held medical diagnostic scanning device. The team is competing in the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize, a global $10 million competition of more than 220 teams from corporations and biotech startups around the world.

• Sport Tracking System is working on developing a portable balance board to assess recovery from concussions.

Some of the teams have received private funding or grant funding to support their endeavors. One has already pulled the plug and is going back to the drawing board to come up with a new idea.

Pucher said one of the closest to launching is Joboiz, a digital portfolio that can be used by recruiters and job applicants that allows students to upload multimedia galleries and projects they’ve done in school and internships as they look for work opportunities.

“Really what we are trying to do is take the resume to the digital age,” said Gregg Anderson, one of the company’s founders.

Anderson said he and other students on his team spent the past year working on redesigning the platform. Their goal is to initially get 1,000 students and at least 100 employers signed up and in the next year branch out to Orange County or Los Angeles.

Zach Stratton, a MBA student in his final semester, is developing a balance board that could be used by athletic trainers. He’s working with a SDSU professor in exercise and nutritional sciences, Dan Goble, on a product that would help athletic trainers assess head injuries in athletes by using the portable board. The product is designed to help trainers to determine whether an athlete can get back in the game or if they have suffered a concussion.

Stratton, 28, said he’s not only working to make the idea a viable business but is using the experience for his culminating project for his MBA program. “It is not ready to go to market right now, but hopefully soon,” he said.

Students involved in the ventures say they work at the incubator for long hours, day and night and weekends. “When we are not in classes, we are here. Every Saturday, every Sunday,” Anderson said. “Its not glamour at all but having other students around you that are going through that same process, you have comeraderie with them.”

Jessica Wooding, a senior who is the Joboiz’s creative director, said fellow students were thrilled when a refrigerator and microwave were added to the center. “I really do feel like I live here,” she said.

The 1,500-square-foot Zahn Center was created by a $700,000 donation by Irwin Zahn. Zahn founded General Staple Company in 1954 in New York City, which created bottom stops for zippers, and later grew it into a global electronic interconnect company named Autosplice, Inc.

Zahn lives in San Diego and had relocated his business here before it was acquired.

Through his charitable foundations, Zahn and his son, Peter, have funded similar incubators at City College, City University of New York and at UC San Diego, which is called the Moxie Center.

“I grew the company because I was a risk taker and I wanted to really incentivize and encourage risk taking,” he said. “I think universities could be made better instead of just teaching a couple of dry subjects but by putting them together and actually doing something. Getting dirty fingernails.”

Zahn said the center’s first year has exceeded his expectations — and he’s thinking bigger for the future.

“I can see we are going to have wonderful problems,” he said. “We are going to need more space. And other problems are: How can we fund these young entrepreneurs? How do we take them to the next step where they can get a product completed?”

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