UW-Madison IoT Lab Honing its Role Amid Campus Entrepreneurship Push

When a small group of University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty and staff launched a campus lab for developing connected devices just over a year ago, they weren’t sure what kind of response they’d get.

Turns out, students are just as intrigued by the budding “Internet of Things” movement as the business world.

In each of its first three semester sessions, the university’s Internet of Things (IoT) Lab attracted about 40 students working on more than a dozen tech projects, ranging from experiments with Google Glass and Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, to new inventions, like a “smart helmet” that uses built-in biosensors to detect potential concussions in real-time and send out electronic alerts to medical personnel. The lab’s end-of-semester demonstrations last spring and fall drew an estimated 450 people at each event, says Sandra Bradley, the lab’s research director for consumer and retail applications.

“It was a blazing success,” Bradley says of the first two sessions. “We can check off that box: there is interest.”

The question now is what the IoT Lab will become and what role it should play on campus. Currently in its third semester, it’s time to fine-tune the model, figure out the best ways to work with faculty researchers and potential corporate partners, and raise funds for operations, Bradley says.

The lab launched in early 2014 at a time of increased focus on entrepreneurship and innovation on UW-Madison’s campus and the surrounding area. The university ranks highly in patents and research spending, but doesn’t do so well in spinning out technology into new companies. To that end, entrepreneurship initiatives like Discovery to Product (D2P) and the Madworks seed accelerator last year were added to the mix of existing programs like the WARF Accelerator.

Right now, Bradley views the IoT Lab primarily as an incubator of ideas and experimentation, not necessarily businesses. She says it could function as a precursor to programs like D2P, which focuses on shepherding ideas from university faculty and students to the point of forming a company or licensing a technology.

“Eventually I would love to get more into cultivating these ideas” to the point of commercialization, Bradley says. “It comes back to staff and resources.”

The lab, housed in two small rooms on the third floor of the university’s mechanical engineering building, is run by a few faculty and staff members who volunteer their time. Bradley, for example, works for the university’s E-Business Consortium as practice director for Web and multichannel marketing.

The IoT Lab got off the ground thanks to some seed money from alumni and local companies, Bradley says. That covered purchases of technology for the lab’s participants to use, like Oculus Rift; cash prizes for students at the demo events; and pizza and beverages served at the lab’s meetings held every two weeks, where participants discuss their projects and get connected with resources, like local executives and officials from the university’s Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, which offers free legal services to startups.

Bradley thinks the organization can now make a case for academic grants and funding from philanthropic organizations and corporations.

The shape of collaborations with tech companies still needs to be worked out, but the basic idea could be that companies collaborate on IoT projects with students and companies from other industries, thereby keeping a finger on the pulse of new technologies and helping develop a pipeline of young talent. “How can they create relationships with students and learn from each other? We see an opportunity for companies to take roles in mentorship,” she says.

So far, the primary benefits for students have been giving them hands-on experience with cutting-edge technologies. They don’t get paid or receive class credit for their work, Bradley says, although a couple students have requested their participation be considered an independent study course. In the future, she envisions students getting paid by companies to work on research and development projects.

Students “really enjoy” working on IoT Lab projects, Bradley says. “I’m very impressed with the passion.”

Pete Chulick, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student, says he found the IoT Lab to be a worthwhile experience. In the lab’s pilot session, he teamed up with students in mechanical engineering and retail to develop a … Next Page »

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Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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