Tech student starts culture of innovation with help of faculty team
By Kory Riemensperger
Three years ago, chemical engineering professor Holly Stretz asked her freshman class for volunteers to promote innovation and entrepreneurship on-campus.
For Enis Cirak, ‘16 chemical engineering, the call to action would be the beginning of an entrepreneurial lifestyle. As the first University Innovation Fellow, he traveled to California to study with with representatives from Google, Stanford University and Citrix.
“The environment in Silicon Valley was incredible,” said Cirak. “The average student I met was full of passion and ambition, they were managing a nonprofit or starting a company, doing something to chase their dreams.
“It was a wake-up call.”
After six weeks of training, all fellows are assigned a project. On paper, Cirak’s was simple: create positive change by bringing that spirit back to campus and spreading it.
To start his project, Cirak and some friends started the Social Entrepreneurship Society, a student group that tried to mimic the adventurous culture he experienced in Silicon Valley.
“It can be tough to get students to understand what an entrepreneurial lifestyle is like,” said Cirak. “The traditional path of earning a degree is the first thing students think of. I wanted to show students another side of education.”
To promote creative thinking and an entrepreneurial lifestyle on campus, the society hosted a number of events, including TechX, an event modeled after the popular TED talks. Though it took place during a finals week, over 200 people showed up to hear from a diverse crowd of scientists and thinkers.
“There’s something about how these highly motivated kids work,” said Stretz. “An event like that would have taken faculty and administrators six months to a year to set up. The SES kids did it in a month.”
The chemical engineering professor’s interest in entrepreneurship stems from her involvement in the TTU Pathways to Innovation Program team. This group of faculty and administrators was started by Stretz; Vahid Motevalli, associate dean for Research & Innovation; Steve Canfield, mechanical engineering professor; and Mohan Rao, mechanical engineering professor.
“We were never charged with forming the team,” said Stretz. “No administrator came to us and asked us to start this. It’s been grassroots from the beginning, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to make such a large impact.”
According to Stretz, to promote innovation and entrepreneurship on campus, the team focuses on five pillars: the University Innovation Fellows program, the Eagle Works competition, the iMakerSpace, the creation of an I&E certificate and new Tech course offerings.
The iMakerSpace is located in Tech’s iCube. The iCube is a shared venture, located in the Volpe Library, between the College of Business, College of Engineering and the Office of Research and Economic Development. It was created as an opportunity for students to work on interdisciplinary projects with faculty and regional businesses.
When the space was first proposed, the SES team was invited to provide input about the layout of the space and what equipment would be necessary. Now, students rely on the space to use 3-D printers, meet with their teams and receive advice from staff with real-world experience.
I&E certificate + course offerings
At the academic level, the university has created an I&E certificate and expanding current course offerings. College certificates are a good way to obtain some expertise in a field without investing several years for a diploma.
The team is also pushing for additional classes. For example, Melissa Geist, nursing professor, and Robby Sanders, chemical engineering professor, have developed a course where nurses and engineers form teams, do rounds at Cookeville Regional Medical Center and develop a pitch for a new healthcare innovation or product.
Cirak’s latest venture as an entrepreneur was born out of a Tech competition called Eagle Works. This annual event encourages engineering and business student teams to design, develop and pitch original inventions.
After falling short of first place his junior year, Cirak resolved to gather a team of innovators he knew since his freshman year and win the competition.
“We learned a lot of lessons from our first time in the competition,” said Cirak. “The second time, we were able to focus on designing something that would truly succeed.”
Their idea was a mobile app named Gigamunch. Cirak compares the barebones of the app to Esty, a popular e-commerce website. Users who download the app can browse local cooks and order food, then either pick-up the food or use a delivery service. An approval process vets all cooks who want to list their culinary creations on the app.
The team started work on the app in December 2015 and released a version for Nashville users in June. At the time of publication, they have 30 or so cooks and anywhere from 100-500 users online at any given time.
“Seeing those first few sales alongside the diverse varieties of food our cooks offered was huge,” said Cirak. “It got the whole team motivated to keep moving forward.”
Looking back at the journey he’s taken since freshman year, Cirak recognizes the steps he’s taken have set him up to chase his calling.
“Sometimes entrepreneurship has a bad connotation,” said Cirak. “Some people look at it and see a snake oil salesman in the uncertainty.
“The real picture is that it’s a life of your own design – it’s a lifestyle where you rely on your creativity to get you through the day.”
And the professor who got him started?
“Before Enis, it was rare to find students interested in creating their own app or starting a company while they studied here,” said Stretz. “Now, it feels like there’s a growing entrepreneurial community here at Tech.”
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