‘Baptism by fire’

At CES, students learn innovation is more than science and engineering

By Robert L. Smith

LAS VEGAS, Nevada-- Beneath the Sands Expo Center, in a display hall called Eureka Park, a carpeted path leads through a maze of startups to the young entrepreneurs from Case Western Reserve University. Rounding a corner, you encounter a giant blackboard that declares “Brilliant is Beautiful” and that invites you to share your maker dreams.

In front of that message stands Xyla Foxlin, a senior mechanical and aerospace engineering major, ready to chat. She’s marketing her new YouTube channel—“Beauty and the Bolt”-- in a booth designed to be both professional and fun. This is her third trip to the world’s largest consumer electronics show, and she knows how to play the game.

Across from her is the upbeat team of Reflexion Interactive Technologies, whose multi-media presentation reflects technical skill and confidence. Farther down “Case Row,” the teams tend to grow younger and the displays less ambitious, but everyone is learning something. That’s why they’re here.

The people who champion innovation at Case Western Reserve view CES as place where aspiring entrepreneurs can grow up quickly, often with help from savvier classmates. Thrown into a sprawling convention, they experience a side of innovation far removed from science and engineering. Among 4,000 exhibitors, they vie to win attention and make connections.

“It’s a bit of baptism by fire,” said Jim McGuffin-Cawley, the interim dean of the School of Engineering, who made his first visit to CES this year. “This is an overwhelming event.” He credits Bob Sopko, director of the campus startup consultancy LaunchNet, with offering the students just enough guidance to succeed or fail on their own.

“This is another example of how we create an opportunity for students and it’s up to them to use it,” the dean said. “Case is historically known for rigorous fundamentals, solving a problem. This is teaching them how to take that knowledge through to a commercial enterprise.”

Eyes twinkling, he added, “These kids are holding their own.”

Back for its fifth straight year, CWRU brought 10 teams to CES, the most of any university. The exhibitors included students, recent graduates and representatives of LaunchNet and thinkbox, the university’s acclaimed innovation center. Arranged across from one another in the same row, the teams created a noticeable CWRU presence-- and a sense of camaraderie.

That helps, Xyla Foxlin can attest. “Your first CES is one of your most intimidating experiences in college,” she said.

Observers recall her as a bit timid three years ago, when she introduced Parihug, Wi-Fi enabled stuffed animals that can convey hugs across long distances. This year, she stood poised and confident in an eye-catching corner booth, eager to explain the artful maker kits she designed for girls. She did dozens of media interviews and gave out hundreds of business cards.

Foxlin’s goal of attracting more women into maker spaces and engineering labs lends her pitch the fervor of a crusade. But she credits CES experience with helping her to gain confidence and shape an effective delivery.

“You learn things. You learn what works,” she said, gesturing toward her booth. “I have a theater tech background and this is essentially a stage set.” Plus, she’s learned to cool her emotions. “The more professional you are, the more people will take you seriously,” she said.

The university offers some support to the CES teams, but not as much as you might imagine. With the help of alumni, it covers the costs of the booths -- $1,000 each—and provides signage and advice. But the students must get to Las Vegas on their own (some drive), find their own food and lodging, set up their exhibits and perfect their pitch.

“We’re innovators,” said Sopko, who started the trek to CES with two teams in 2013. “We like to give students a chance to show their work-- to partners, to investors, to the world. We buy the booth. We give them the key. We let them show what they can do. What better place than one of the biggest trade shows on earth?”

There are stumbles. On the show’s first day, January 9, the team from Reflexion was unable to get its multi-media display running, despite feverish efforts.

“That’s part of entrepreneurship,” Sopko said. “They’re trying to get it right for tomorrow.”

They did. On Day Two, a constant stream of people beat a path to the Edge—a concussion warning and reflex training system for athletes—garnering some convention acclaim. Reflexion was named a finalist in a Best of CES 2018 competition sponsored by the tech news website Engadget.

Matt Campagna, the company co-founder and a junior computer engineering major, likes CES for the media attention but also for the feedback. “It’s like a giant focus group,” he said. “Just being able to show the technology and see how people use it, you learn a lot. You can make engineering decisions.”

After CES 2017, he and his two partners—high school friends who attend Cornell and Penn State universities-- -modified the touchscreen to make it more responsive, he said. Farther down the row, Robert Steward manned a spartan exhibit for “Enabled Robotics.” A freshman majoring in biomedical engineering, he never imagined himself at the largest trade show in the tech world and was unsure how to prepare.

Still, he described the experience as eye-opening. People had been stopping by to hear about his idea for a pulley-enabled exoskeleton that would move paralyzed legs. (He 3D printed sample joints at thinkbox). One group of visitors, from Australia, noted their country had a large elderly population that maybe could benefit from the concept.

“It’s a slightly different application, not exactly what I was thinking of,” he said, acknowledging that the word “pivot” popped into his head.

Across from Steward, the team of Apollo Medical Products welcomed visitors who lingered at the technical schematics describing a fast, inexpensive, portable blood-testing device.

“Today has been crazy,” said company founder Punkage Ahuja, who earned his master’s degree in biomedical engineering from CWRU and is now a doctoral candidate. He had had conversations with representatives of Bayer, CVS Health, Fitbit and an Israeli investment firm.

“This is the best show,” Ahuja added. “You don’t know who’s walking around here, and everyone is walking around here.”

That included Michele Jones, the director of product innovation for Akron-based FirstEnergy. She tried out the HoloLens glasses at NE Ohio Immersive Technologies and chatted with several of the students at their exhibits.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “You’ve got a lot of great things here. We came down from upstairs just to see this.”

Chances are, CWRU will be back. Dean McGuffey-Cawley was a frequent presence on Case Row, where he was visited by deans and administrators from other universities. He said many asked him a version of the same question, “How did you do this?”

In an address to alumni at an evening reception at Planet Hollywood, the dean noted that CWRU had two dozen students and maybe twice as many alumni exhibiting at CES, swelling the university’s reputation as a center of innovation and discovery.

“I think that’s how we always wanted to be,” he said, “and we’re doing it better than we’ve ever done.”

Questions or comments? Please Email: robert.smith@casealumn.org