The steady hum of 3D printers, the roar of band saws, and the whirr of drills fill the air in machine shops throughout the University of Iowa campus and downtown Iowa City. These shops are capable of making anything from complicated machinery for NASA satellites and military research grants, to intricate medical devices and stunning art pieces.
“Our goal is to assist entrepreneurs and accelerate their startups by translating ideas into tangible prototypes,” said Dan Reed, UI Vice President for Research and Economic Development. “The second goal is to de-risk more of the process. By having people who are experienced at building things and developing prototypes, it’s less likely that entrepreneurs will encounter unexpected problems.”
The UI ProtoLabs concept came out of a need across campus from inventors and entrepreneurs who required a way to translate ideas into tangible objects, so they could evaluate, make changes, and advance their designs.
“Before we set up ProtoLabs, those resources were scattered across campus and the city. People didn’t even know where to start,” said David Conrad, UI Deputy Director of Economic Development. “Right now the goal is to have one portal where inventors can tell us a little bit about what they need and why they need it. We can then match them up with the right person or shop to fabricate a prototype.”
Those involved in UI ProtoLabs said that prototyping is important to inventors and entrepreneurs to help them convey their ideas and designs.
“It’s an exceptional communication tool,” said Conrad. “If you can show something to somebody that they can touch that goes a long way to explaining what it is you’re trying to accomplish…People get very excited when they can see something that’s real.”
Each of the UI ProtoLabs shops
has extensive specialized equipment and highly experienced staff.
Chris Coretsopoulos, an associate research scientist in chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, interfaces with the Engineering Machine Shop. Chris has been involved with machine shop activities since his time as an undergraduate. His experience gives him insight into how to best approach the prototyping design process and maximizing collaboration with inventors.
“Inventors might have thought the project could be easily made in one way or another, but your first approach might not be the most economical, the most effective, or may not even be the most robust or best suited way of doing something,” he said. “So unless you try several iterations and attempt different design ideas you’re not likely to come up with a satisfactory solution.”
Mike Fountain, a university supervisor of plant services, directs the Physics and Astronomy Machine Shop. He said the combination of knowledge, ideas, and machinery in each shop will be a key factor in sustaining the program as it moves forward.
“If this develops like I think it can, I see all kinds of promise clear across campus for people,” Fountain said.
The other partnering shop is M. C. Ginsberg Advanced Design and Manufacturing, a private business typically known for their jewelry design. However, the business has been collaborating with biomedical researchers to create medical devices for many years. Those who work at M. C. Ginsberg said the interaction between the arts and sciences contributes to out-of-the-box thinking and unique approaches to prototyping.
Mark Ginsberg, owner of M. C. Ginsberg, said he’s looking forward to UI ProtoLabs being mutually beneficial for his business and for inventors.
“It keeps how we look at art and science agile. It allows us to be involved in projects both scientific and artistic and move them toward solutions,” he said. “Investors and investigators both benefit because we help them keep their research ideas fluid.”
Bounnak Thammavong, M. C. Ginsberg’s engineering and art consultant, agreed and said that he is excited to be involved in progressing technology and research towards commercialization.
“We get all sorts of projects from the world’s best new plunger to the next new radiation oncology needle that will help to cure cancer,” he said. “And whatever it is, it serves a purpose, and it’s advancing human thought and human ingenuity, and that’s exciting to me. It gives me hope for the future.”
UI ProtoLabs recently started collaborating with their first group of inventors, and so far, the labs are working on a variety of designs from an improved orthopedic brace to an emergency anti-convulsant drug delivery device.
Tom Baer, an engineering specialist with the university, is the inventor of the improved orthopedic fixture. Though he has experience with creating prototypes himself and working in machine shops, he said this program gives him a way to create a higher quality prototype than he would have been able to develop by himself.
“I don’t expect to get rich,” he said. “I just hope for the satisfaction of having developed this product and seeing it come into being.”
Max Baker, a UI associate professor in the anesthesia department and inventor of the anti-convulsant drug delivery device said he’s looking forward to having a tangible prototype that can be shared when approaching investors.
“It does make it easier because I have no manufacturing capabilities,” he said. “Otherwise I would be going to investors and attempting to sell the ideas, but at the same time asking, ‘Well, can you help me make it?’ which puts you behind the starting line. At least, with the assistance of ProtoLabs hopefully it will move me up to the starting line.”
Though the program is still in its infancy, Dan Reed said early feedback has been encouraging, not only from the inventors but also from the general public.
“The notion that we are building tangible prototypes for business resonates with people,” he said. “There’s been positive initial response.”
This initiative is one more in a long line of University sponsored entrepreneurship activities, including training programs and business support services, all with the goal of creating a strong entrepreneurial culture in Iowa.
“The creation of UI Prototyping is critical to advancing technology innovation and entrepreneurship,” said David Hensley, Executive Director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. “This new program, combined with several other recently launched University of Iowa entrepreneurship training and business support programs, should accelerate new company formation and enhance the university and state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Program officials said they want UI ProtoLabs to be just one more piece in the economic development puzzle, and they encourage anyone across Iowa to submit their designs.
“We want people all over the state to take advantage of this. There are individuals across Iowa that have ideas for prototypes and we want to work with everyone,” said David Conrad. “Not only will they benefit, but the more we can open the door to see how industry works and develops, then that’s good for us as well. We want to see all the ideas. No matter how crazy they are, we’ll learn a lot.”