Thanks to new leadership and a donation from National Instruments, the Innovation Hub at Research Park is equipped to benefit its community.
Marc Ordoñez knew as a child he wanted to be an inventor someday. Growing up in El Paso, he frequented a local flea market to find things he could experiment with.
“I would go with my dad and buy all the old junk for like $5 and then take it home and tear it apart: ‘Look dad, look at this thing! Look at what I can do with this!' I wanted to take everything apart and learn how it worked and build from it,” said Ordoñez, a senior studying computer engineering. “I've always had ideas of how to do things.”
Robert V. Duncan, Texas Tech University's vice president for strategic research initiatives, said it's easy to identify young children with inventive and innovative minds by their natural curiosity.
“We're hell on home appliances because it's awfully hard to know how something works until you take it apart,” he laughed, only half-jokingly because he admitted to disassembling his mother's brand-new dishwasher. “I did, I took it apart. I was 5 or 6, maybe. It was even worse for the color television. They were fascinating. How can a really curious, interested and inventive kid see something as amazing as a dishwasher or a color television and not want to know how it works?”
These kinds of minds are highly sought after within the Innovation Hub at Research Park under new managing director Kimberly Gramm. And thanks to its new partnership with National Instruments, the Innovation Hub will have a leg up in attracting those scholars.
“National Instruments was co-founded by Jim Truchard, who we call Dr. T, and he started it in his garage with his cofounders. And now it's an 8,000-employee, $4 billion-a-year corporation,” Duncan said. “I think the fact that it was founded in an entrepreneurial way is really encouraging. National Instruments is an ongoing supporter financially and with their time and effort to developing our entrepreneurial culture.”
The company makes a program called Laboratory Virtual Instrument Engineering Workbench (LabVIEW), which is a platform for designing and programming electronics.
“It's a very simple way to bring up very complex systems to solve new problems,” Duncan said. “They also make a lot of modular electronics that you can implement on LabVIEW to do these things. They're providing a platform for the entrepreneurial makerspace.”
National Instruments recently donated to the Innovation Hub a variety of technology, including 20 myRIO units.
“It's a microcontroller,” Ordoñez explained. “If you wanted to build a robot, this would be the brain for pretty much anything you want to build.”
Each unit, which normally costs about $1,000, includes onboard devices, software and a library of courseware and tutorials. In addition to the myRIO units, National Instruments also offered a course in LabVIEW for 40 people at the Innovation Hub this week.
“National Instruments has brought this outstanding curriculum of LabVIEW Bootcamp to Texas Tech for free – normally people would pay $3,200 a person to take this training in Austin,” Duncan said. “Here, they come to us and they provide it free of charge because they want to see Texas Tech and our outstanding students, faculty and staff develop this entrepreneurial base and makerspace that LabVIEW can provide. It's an exciting opportunity and a great donation to Texas Tech.”
‘Flipping the classroom'
The entrepreneurial work being done at the Innovation Hub is a perfect example of a national movement Duncan said excites him as an educator and a scientist.
“That's the national movement toward makerspace, toward ‘flipping the classroom,' where you use your time away from the university to do what people normally do in lectures. You may use online tools or some other way to learn the vast amount of material you need to learn, and do that learning more on your own time,” Duncan explained. “When you come to the university, engage with groups that are creatively pushing the limits and trying to pursue their passion to develop things that really improve the quality of life for us all. That educational experience is vastly superior to the traditional academic experience.”
The idea is not to forego a traditional education but to complement it.
“If you move into science or engineering or any of our disciplines, there's a massive amount of knowledge you have to learn; if you don't do that you'll miss out greatly. But I like to say, freshman and sophomore year, answer all the questions. Junior and senior year, question all the answers,” Duncan said. “The idea is, if you see something and say, ‘Well, why isn't this done a little bit differently? It would be so much better,' then don't stop there. Follow that up with your passion.
“Say, ‘I can design something better than that. I can do something that would be useful to people and that would be adopted by the market,' and in doing so, you can go to a makerspace or the entrepreneurial programs at Texas Tech and really make that a reality. That way you're following your passion and you're making a difference to society.”
Dr. Annette Sobel serves as the executive for critical infrastructure protection and health security initiatives for Texas Tech and the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. She also is a human factors engineer, in which capacity she works on the development of novel, interactive learning and educational platforms.
“At the Innovation Hub, it's great to have all these companies here and that's very important, but you don't see many students here now and we need to change that,” Sobel said. “This is part of developing more experiential learning programs at Texas Tech and tying it in with the Health Sciences Center and getting the students so they're on the track to commercialize their ideas.”
Lee Sander, a senior computer science major from McKinney, has been working with electronics.
“I'm really big into drones because I think there's a big future in autonomous drones, specifically using vision sensors and light detection and ranging technology to make these devices smart and aware of what's going on, and then connecting those with the cloud to recognize things and do something useful,” Sander said. “I'm really interested in the vision aspect – using cameras and thermal imaging – and also radio frequencies and how we can send information over the air.”
Sobel said students' ideas could have a huge impact in the medical field after they're successfully tested in simulation.
“We're going to develop over time a series of ways we can look at patients out in the field, using sensors to do initial triage in an environment in which you don't have a lot of medical care,” she said. “That could be at a scout camp, in a rural community or even a football game when you don't have anybody there initially and you need to get an immediate idea of how injured someone is.”
Ordoñez is working to build a wearable sensor that sends data real-time through Bluetooth to an iPhone or Android device.
“It would take your data, graph it instantly, tell you what your data actually means, notify you, save it – tons of things,” he said. “I also built a portable generator that used 3-D motion to make power. I was inventing that myself and working on that, so hopefully that goes somewhere. I've done tons of different projects.”
The students' youth, Duncan said, is a benefit to their innovative potential.
“If it's not the people coming out of the degree programs that have the fresh perspective that can challenge the status quo and say, ‘Why do we keep doing it the dumb way? Why can't we do it a little bit better way?' – if it weren't for that, we wouldn't really advance at the rate we advance,” Duncan said. “I think this is just going to accelerate the entrepreneurial spirit and the technical position of the United States like never before.”
It's not only college students who get to use this new approach. Members of the Texas Tech International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team will take what they do this year into Frenship and Lubbock Independent School District campuses next year to help them develop high school iGEM teams. They are also developing an exercise for this fall that will test the innovation skills of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, who will work under the direction of student mentors from Texas Tech and the Health Sciences Center.
“We want to train Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts so they understand the basics of using this equipment and how it can be applied,” Sobel said. “The whole idea is to engage students in projects that are about innovation and solving real-world problems.”
Having a chance to work and learn in the entrepreneurial environment of the Innovation Hub helps students of all ages, Duncan said.
“It's wonderful for the students; it brings out your passion, right? If education is a passive process, sure, you'll learn a few things, but you don't get charged up and energized to go out and make a big difference,” Duncan said. “This certainly provides that. It also provides an outstanding improvement: you're growing your local tech base and your local business base for your greater society around you. The West Texas and Lubbock areas will experience substantial growth, as they have already, by the new companies that have been started based on the spinoffs of Texas Tech's intellectual property.”
Ordoñez said just being around other innovative people is giving him new skills.
“They teach me so much,” he said. “I'm actually going out and doing projects; I'm learning how to get these skills to do these things, plus the entrepreneurial experience I wouldn't have gotten since I'm an engineer. I'm accessing a lot of the business side also. In general, this place is a very good environment for ideas to grow from, and then it has the backing: the 3-D printer, the myRIOs, so many things accessible to the student base that eventually will help grow some of these great ideas.”
Sander said the benefits offered, as well as the growing population of innovative people at the Innovation Hub, will make others want to join in.
“I think it attracts a lot of like-minded people who have a passion for doing what they want and who know where they're going,” he said. “Stuff like the National Instruments training is great for not only being an entrepreneur, but also if I was going into the industry because a lot of the companies in the industry use this software and it'll make me more appealing to them. I'll have a head start on everybody else and be able to get right into doing what I like doing.”
It all combines into what seems to be a bright future for Texas Tech, which recently was named a Highest Research Activity university by the Carnegie Foundation.
“Texas Tech is emerging at a rate that's just astronomical,” Duncan said. “We're up 50 percent in restricted research expenditures in the last two years; we're up 113 percent in federal research awards over that same two-year period. This rate of growth is just unprecedented and it reflects that entrepreneurial spirit, the strength of the faculty and the enthusiasm of the students and staff. It's an exciting time.”