TITLE: Student Entrepreneurship -- and Prosthetics?
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: October 13, 2006 11:00 AM
Technology doesn't lead change.
This morning I am hanging out at a campus conference on
Commercializing Creative Endeavors. It deals with
entrepreneurship, but from the perspective of faculty.
As a comprehensive university, not an R-1 institution,
we tend to generate less of the sort of research that
generates start-ups. But we do have those opportunities,
and even more so the opportunity to work with local and
The conference's keynote speaker is Dennis Clark, the
an local orthotics and prosthetics company that is doing
amazing work developing more realistic prosthetics. His
talk focused on his collaboration with
Walter Reed Army Medical Center
to augment amputees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is an unfortunate truth that war causes his industry to
advance, in both research and development.
O&P1's innovations include new fabrication
techniques, new kinds of liners and sensors, and shortened
turnaround times in the design, customization, fabrication,
and fitting prosthetics for specific patients.
Dennis has actively sought collaborations with UNI faculty.
A few years ago he met with a few of us in computer science
to explore some project ideas he had. Ultimately, he ended
up working closely with two professors in physics and physical
education on a particular prosthetics project, specifically
work with the human gait lab at UNI, which he termed
"world-class". That we have a world-class gait lab here at
UNI was news to me! I have never worked on human gait
research myself, though I was immediately reminded of some
work on modeling gait by folks in Ohio State's
Laboratory for AI Research,
which was the intellectual progenitor of the work we did
in our intelligent systems lab at
This is an area rich in interesting applications for
building computer models that support analysis o gait and
the design of products.
As I listened to Dennis's talk this morning, two connections
to the world of computing came to mind. The first was to
understand the remarkable amount of information technology
involved in his company's work, including CAD, data
interchange, and information storage and retrieval. As in
most industries these days, computer science forms the
foundation on which these folks do their work, and speed
of communication and collaboration are a limiting factor.
Second, Dennis's description of their development process
sounded very much like a
a lá the
OOPSLA 2005 workshop
of the same name.
Creating a solution that works now for a specific individual,
whose physical condition is unique, requires blending
"space-age technology" with "stone-age technology". They
put together whatever artifacts they have available to
make what they need, and then they can step back and figure
out how to increase their technical understanding for solving
similar problems in the future.
The Paul Graham article I
emphasized that students who think they might want to start
their own companies should devote serious attention to finding
potential partners, if only by surrounding themselves with
as many bright, ambitious people as possible. But often just
as important is considering potential partnerships with folks
in industry. This is different than networking to build a
potential client base, because the industrial folks are more
partners in the development of a business. And these real
companies are a powerful source of problems that need to be
My advice to students and anyone, really, is to be curious.
If you are a CS major, pick up a minor or a second major
that helps you develop expertise in another area -- and the
ability to develop expertise in another area. Oh,
and learn science and math! These are the fundamental tools
you'll need to work in so many areas.
Great talk. The sad thing is that none of our students heard
it, and too few UNI faculty and staff are here as well. They
missed out on a chance to be inspired by a guy in the trenches
doing amazing work, and helping people as the real product of
Need leads change.
-- Dennis Clark, O&P1