TITLE: Student Entrepreneurship -- and Prosthetics? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 13, 2006 11:00 AM DESC: ----- BODY:

Technology doesn't lead change.
Need leads change.

-- Dennis Clark, O&P1

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 regional industry. The conference's keynote speaker is Dennis Clark, the president of O&P1, 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 Michigan State. 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 scrapheap challenge 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 discussed yesterday 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 solved. 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 his company. -----