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Above, Daniel Heinen ’18 checks a 3-D printing project in Bowman Hall’s technology-based makerspace.

Students Prepare for First Innovation & Entrepreneurship Challenge

03/01/17

Nicole Hall ’18, Elizabeth Dawson ’18 and Daniel Heinen ’18 may study in diverse academic fields at MCLA, but all three are among the students who hope to pitch their original and inventive ideas to area business leaders next month, at the culmination of the College’s first-ever Innovation and Entrepreneurship Challenge.

The goal of this new competition – made possible by the Feigenbaum Fund, and Jack and Susy Wadsworth – is to match entrepreneurial students with resources and networking opportunities that will help them bring their ideas to fruition.

The finalists – as many as six groups of students – will be selected from about two dozen teams slated to participate in the Challenge.

Hall (top right), who studies English/Communications with an environmental science minor, is developing an idea to help bridge a gap in community engagement and the natural environment with a smart phone application.

Her idea, she explained, came as a result of a brainstorming session to find a way to combine community engagement and art with the environment for her “Community Engagement in the Arts” class last fall.

“I suggested a digital solution,” Hall said. “What if we could combine art and nature via our phones in a way that blends them into an experience? This way, we could support local artists with work, create an attraction for people to get out and see what wouldn’t be a hazard to the environment and create another way to enjoy the wonderful natural world we live in.”

Dawson (bottom right), who majors in chemistry, plans to establish a regional science center to bolster STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) education for young people in Berkshire County. The concept for her idea, she said, has been with her for years, “but living here encouraged me to boldly re-imagine the idea as a reality.” 

All of the participating students are collaborating with a mentor. Dawson said that working with a mentor has allowed her ideas to transform in ways she didn’t see possible before.

“These people have turned brainstorming into an art form,” Dawson explained. “Limits seem to vanish and perceived capacity for success grows infinitely. Whether you’re already confidently headed in the right direction or inert with writer’s block, a mentor will remind you that anything is possible.”

Heinen, who majors in biology and computer science, wants to use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to revolutionize education 

“Our technology allows students to study complicated concepts in a 3-D augmented or virtual space using either a VR headset or a mobile application,” he explained. “Our VR and AR educational software prototypes have been presented at both local and national research conferences. Through the creation of various software products we plan on building a tech company based in North Adams.” 

He continued, “This technology could change how students learn. … The framework we are creating has the potential to help a lot of students, as well as teachers.”

Despite the competition’s outcome, Heinen will continue to develop his product. “Everyone will walk away a stronger entrepreneur than when they started,” he said.

Win or lose, Dawson said the competition will only impact her timeline, not her endgame: “I never imagined this idea coming to fruition while in my 20s. Before, I’d planned to start this endeavor after retirement, after a lifetime of researching, fundraising and networking.”

In addition to a $10,000 prize and a funded, 10-week internship, the winning students will receive advising and space to continue the development of their proposed idea from a local incubator, Lever, Inc., a center for entrepreneurship and social innovation based in North Adams.

The competition will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19, in MCLA’s Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation, room 121. It is free and open to the public.