Meet NJIT's Student Entrepreneurs

Kevin Ly, left, and Asim Zaman won first and second place in a recent contest for student entrepreneurs.

Many students dream of starting their own business.  At NJIT students turn their dreams into reality in classes, clubs and centers that help them hone their entrepreneurial skills. The process through which science begets technology, and technology begets commerce, is not commonly available to undergraduate students.

Improving Glucose Monitors

But consider Kevin Ly, an NJIT sophomore who is designing a glucose monitor device for diabetics. The device clips onto the ear and uses infrared light to measure glucose levels. Current glucose monitors require diabetics to puncture their skin, but Ly’s device is painless and bloodless, offering hundreds of millions of diabetics a non-invasive way to monitor their glucose levels. His research stems from NJIT-funded research into optical imaging for biomedical applications.

Ly and his team are part of the Interdisciplinary Design Studio (IDS), a research and entrepreneurship program run by the Albert Dorman Honors College. Six teams in the program design solutions to pressing societal problems. The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), the nonprofit, and the Dorman Honors College fund the teams. The students take special honors classes for four years and are mentored by industry advisors who assure that their business ideas are marketable.  One IDS advisory board member, Michael Smith, chief digital officer for Forbes Media, said the teams are learning invaluable skills.

"Teaching students how to found start-ups and become entrepreneurs while they are still undergraduates is very impressive," said Smith, who is an NJIT graduate (1995, electrical engineering).  "As an advisory board member, I think their work is excellent.”

Winning at Innovation

NJIT recently hosted the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge, a student entrepreneur contest co-sponsored by Capital One Bank.  During the Challenge, individual students from Newark-based universities presented their business plans. A panel of Capital One bankers, investors and venture capitalists evaluated the presentations and selected three winners – two of whom are IDS students.  Ly won first place while Asim Zaman, a civil engineering major, took second.

For winning the Challenge, Ly and Zaman each received $3,000 fellowships from Capital One Bank. The fellowships will pay for their teams to spend the summer in NJIT’s EDC, where they’ll further develop their projects. The EDC houses 90 start-up companies, many of which were founded by NJIT alums. Michael Ehrlich, an assistant professor of finance at NJIT, will guide the two teams. Ehrlich is a former Wall Street trader who also founded his own company, FineStar Imaging LLC.

Turning Waste into Energy

Zaman’s IDS team is designing fuel cells to convert household garbage and organic waste into electricity. Along with Zaman, the team is comprised of two biology majors and a mechanical engineering major. Each team member works on a part of the project that concerns his or her major.  Zaman, the civil engineer, focuses on installing the electrical system in households. The mechanical engineer designs the mechanics and the two bio majors study catalysts that breakdown organic waste.  All four students work together on developing their business plan. The team is mentored by Leon Baptiste, an NJIT graduate (1991, electrical engineering,) who is president of LB Electric, a firm located in the Enterprise Development Center, NJIT’s business incubator.  The team has a patent pending for its technology. 

“Two students from the IDS program entered this highly competitive challenge and they placed first and second,” said Atam Dhawan, the interim dean of the Dorman Honors College who founded the IDS program. “That shows the potential impact of the student’s technologies.” 

Accelerating Innovation

At NJIT Ehrlich, the finance professor, co-founded The New Jersey Innovation Acceleration Center, which trains New Jersey-based entrepreneurs to develop financial models to attract investors.  He founded the center with Judith Sheft, associate vice president of technology development at NJIT. The center, under Ehrlich and Sheft’s direction, hosts the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge, a lecture series at NJIT and a recent TEDx conference.

One speaker at the TEDx NJIT conference, Matt Bischoff, is an NJIT student with his own successful start-up called Lickabilitiy. Bischoff founded Lickabliity, an app development company, with fellow student Andrew Harrison, an Information Technology major. Earlier this year the two released an iPhone app, Quotebook, which was Apple’s 5th best-selling app in the Reference Category.  Bischoff, a Human-Computer Interaction major, was recently hired by The New York Times as a mobile software engineer. 

To create more students like Bischoff, Ly and Zaman, The Innovation Acceleration Center hosts The NJIT Innovation Acceleration Club (IA), a student club based at the School of Management whose members learn to create businesses. Hanni Abukhater, the club president who majors in mechanical engineering, was a finalist in the Challenge. His team is designing an app called Group Hug, which helps people remain on diets by sending encouraging messages to each other.  

In the end, the IDS program, the Innovation Acceleration Center and the IA Club have one invaluable aim, says Ehrlich:  To create “an ecosystem of entrepreneurship.”

“NJIT is a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurism,” adds Ehrlich. “Our students study the fields you need to form a business. When you mix those students together and guide and encourage them, they’ll ultimately create technologies and start-up companies that spur economic growth.” 

(By Robert Florida)