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Mechanical engineering student’s big idea earns him national innovation fellowship

By Adrienne Cornwall | May 1, 2014

Mechanical engineering student’s big idea earns him national innovation fellowship

By Adrienne Cornwall | May 1, 2014

When it comes to big ideas, Ohio University mechanical engineering student John Herbert is full of them – and the energy to take them on.

His latest, an experimental entrepreneurial co-op program for the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology, has earned him a University Innovation Fellowship in a nationally competitive program run by Epicenter, the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

An Athens native who will be a senior this fall, Herbert puts his project and his personality on display in the YouTube pitch video about the pilot program.

Herbert’s honor originates in his startup idea for a Compact Pizza Robot and his desire to take an academic term to work on it full-time, much like he’d done for his co-op with General Electric (GE) in 2012. To do so, he signed up for ET 1910, a one-credit course to keep him enrolled full-time while he got experience in the field.

His startup concept – to create a robotic pizza prep and cooking device smaller than a commercial conveyor pizza oven – would eventually take his full attention. His advisers thought it could be a distraction from his coursework.

“I want to make it easier to start a lean food business by offering an all-in-one package for less than the cost of a commercial pizza oven alone, so that people who are unemployed and or on limited income can start an affordable business that can get them stable again or help them start out as a successful adult,” he said.

Then, Herbert had a lightbulb moment: Use the one-credit ET 1910 co-op course,  for a co-op assignment of his own design — working on his pizza robot business.

This traditional co-op and internship experience hadn’t been used for entrepreneurial endeavors before, but that didn’t stop him from pitching it to Russ College Associate Dean of Academics Jeff Giesey.

“He had an idea, and he wanted to take a term to work on it,” Giesey said. “We said, let’s try it and see what happens.”

One initial hurdle was the lack of a supervisor to evaluate the work product that is normally part of the infrastructure of a traditional co-op or internship experience.

For his experimental entrepreneurial co-op, Herbert received his technical guidance and oversight from Luke Pittaway, director of OHIO’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

“It’s important that students who want to act in entrepreneurial way get the opportunity to do co-ops that are focused on venture creation rather than traditional business,” said Pittaway. “It’s a major trend in entrepreneurial education beyond Ohio University, and we need to be a part of that trend.”

When Herbert’s department Chair and Professor Greg Kremer learned about the experiment, he sponsored Herbert for the Epicenter fellowship program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Stanford University and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

Since the fall, Herbert has divided his entrepreneurial co-op time between the startup and strengthening entrepreneurial support for students at Ohio University. Now, as a fellow, he’s networking with entrepreneurial experts all over the country, gathering their advice and spreading his enthusiasm and ideas for startup innovation.

“It creates practical opportunities in the fields of entrepreneurship, intellectual property, and R&D,” Herbert said. “If an OHIO student comes up with a great invention or a kick-ass business plan, then they need to have a reliable way of saying, ‘Hold up, I need to do this right now,’ without trying to squeeze it in around homework or wait until summer to try and get in an accelerator.”

While the course proposal is still under consideration by University College, Kremer said Herbert was the perfect student to participate in the fellowship program because of his creativity, ambition and energy.

“When he comes back to the college for his senior year, he’ll be able to share some of his learning with students, and with faculty so we can make decisions about how to best develop that entrepreneurial mindset among our students,” Kremer said.

Herbert’s entrepreneurial vision is just as big as his personality, extending far beyond the engineering and technology disciplines.

“I want to get some version of this running in every department with a sort of central hub that helps students with complementary skills find their first business partners so they can learn from each other while creating the next big thing,” he said. “I want to see two more businesses, technologies, and movements start next year that otherwise wouldn't have. The year after that, I want to see 10, then 20, and then for it to just become a way of life here. I want to make Athens another Silicon Valley, but with a reasonable cost of living.”