NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. – All electro-mechanical engineering technology (EMET) students at Penn State must complete a senior design project as part of graduation requirements. For two EMET students at Penn State New Kensington, their project has also turned them into budding entrepreneurs and finalists in a competition for student-led businesses throughout Penn State.
“The past four years in engineering, we’re taught to learn and approach things a certain way,” said Anthony Gyke, a senior from West Mifflin and veteran of the U.S. Navy. “Now we’re doing this engineering project and bringing business into it. Business is a whole new realm and way of thinking, and that’s where we’ve had to go down a different path.”
Gyke and classmate Olivia Sribniak, a senior from Leechburg, never imagined their design idea would turn into something much more. The idea, to create and program an automated team roping practice dummy, came from Sribniak’s personal experiences.
“I come from a long line of cowboys, I guess you could say,” said Sribniak. “All of my uncles team rope, but I never really was into it until about two or three years ago when they said they needed a heeler.”
In nontechnical language, roping competitions normally consist of teams of two riders on horseback, known as “the header” and “heeler,” who work together to rope a cow during a timed competition. The header is the first person to rope the cow by its horns. The heeler then ropes the cow’s back legs to stop the clock.
“As I was learning, there were different things that I was picking up on that I thought would be good for a dummy to help us practice,” explained Sribniak. “I talked to my other family members and people that I rope with and got their input as well. Once I got a baseline for what I wanted a dummy to do, I talked to a world champion team roper about what would and wouldn’t work. After that, I presented it to Anthony.”
Sribniak found that the roping realm is not only expensive, but also inefficient, especially when practicing for events. When using existing practice dummies, only the header or the heeler can practice individually, not together, as they must in competition, and dummies currently aren’t automated, which means they cannot simulate the real movement of the steer. In practicing with live steer, added stress is put on the animal as well. These issues are resolved through Gyke and Sribniak’s concept, now formally called Steer Logic.
Their robotic prototype dummy will include three modes: novice, intermediate and advanced.
The idea seemed perfect for the senior design project, which must incorporate electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as automation. Little did they realize, the idea was also perfect for a business concept.
“The whole thing is very unique,” said Joe Cuiffi, assistant teaching professor and program coordinator of EMET at the New Kensington campus. “That’s the beauty of teaching students to be innovators or entrepreneurs because fun and interesting and potentially even profitable ideas can come from absolutely anywhere. It’s obviously something they’re passionate about, but they also managed to spin that into a great idea. It’s a niche market, and their approach to it is very pragmatic and very engineer-like, but they also took a little leap, and I’m glad they’re exploring it.”
The leap and exploration Cuiffi is referring to is Gyke and Sribniak’s video submission to this year’s Inc.U competition. Penn State’s Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP) manages the competition designed specifically for undergraduate students at the University to foster entrepreneurship. Now in its third year, students submit video pitches for their start-up ideas and businesses, which are reviewed by a panel of judges who narrow the field to six finalists. The finalists earn a spot on WPSU’s “The Investment” television show where they will pitch their ideas aka “Shark Tank” to a panel of judges for a chance to win significant investment funding.
This year, the competition had 72 submissions, the most it has seen since its inception. Entries also reflected more students and teams from the University’s Commonwealth Campuses like New Kensington. In fact, four out of the six finalists, including New Kensington’s Steer Logic team, are from campuses other than University Park.
Speaking about the Steer Logic team, Tim Kerchinski, innovation team lead at PennTAP, said, “They are very articulate, and they have the technical background being electro-mechanical engineering technology students, and they also have a prototype, and that’s huge. You can talk about an idea all day long, but when you can actually build it out and you can demonstrate it either through an animation or have an actual, physical prototype, that’s worth something.”
Students also learn other skills through the competition that will be important for them as they go into the future beyond graduation.
“Presentation skills are extremely important, and this forces students to think about that,” said Kerchinski. “Lots of people have good ideas, but they have to be able to sell that idea through articulating that idea and articulating enthusiasm, passion and where you can take that idea. That will serve them no matter what they do.”
Cuiffi, who has been involved in two start-ups in addition to academia, echoed this sentiment and added the benefit students receive by learning about business principles such as understanding customers.
“You can build anything you want, but if you don’t start immediately focusing on the customer, you’ll just wander,” shared Cuiffi. “Whether its solving a problem at your company and fixing it properly and actually understanding it or tinkering in your basement to make something that may be a product, you have to think who would buy it first.”
For Gyke and Sribniak, becoming entrepreneurs has added a different learning curve to their project, so they have been reaching out to professors like Cuiffi, as well as peers and faculty members from other academic fields such as corporate communications and business. The process has also shown them the support of the campus and University first-hand.
“It’s teaching us a lot about how to get a business started, and it’s showing us as well that there’s other people within Penn State that are there for us,” said Sribniak. “It’s not just we have an idea, and we go to Penn State; it’s Penn State wants to help us and help our idea grow.”
The students have also learned a lot about collaboration and working together as a team, even through failures, which has helped Steer Logic grow and become a reality.
“Between us, it’s a love hate relationship,” joked Gyke. “Honestly, the first 100 things you try to do never work, so don’t give up too soon,”
“I honestly can say that I would not be able to do this project with anyone else,” said Sribniak. “You can’t give up when you hit the first big problem.”
Gyke and Sribniak will be busy in the days leading up to their May graduation. They’ll be taking part in Penn State’s StartUp week events at the end of March, film their spot for “The Investment” television show on April 7, pitch their idea at the Penn State Venture and IP Conference on April 19 and have their final senior design project complete on April 23. On top of all that, they have their internships, jobs and other classes.
“I just hope they gain some valuable experience from the project, whether or not they take it forward,” hoped Cuiffi. “What you learn from it is the important part. I think they already have.”
The opportunities presented to Gyke and Sribniak, as well as many other students and Pennsylvanians, have been made possible and strengthened by Penn State President Dr. Eric Barron’s Invent Penn State initiative, which launched in 2015 to encourage and foster entrepreneurship across Pennsylvania.
Penn State New Kensington has been strengthening its foray into entrepreneurship and innovation through its entrepreneurial center, The Corner, in downtown New Kensington, and promoting entrepreneurial events such as Inc.U. The Corner is one of 21 innovation hubs throughout Pennsylvania made possible through Invent Penn State. Students, including Sribniak and Gyke, as well as community members, can take advantage of Corner Launchbox programming, coworking and more thanks to the campus and initiative’s support.
“It’s huge,” said Kerchinski. “President Barron has just opened up the floodgates for resources for innovators and entrepreneurs at Penn State. If you’ve been anywhere around President Barron with student entrepreneurs, he just absolutely loves hearing about their innovations and engaged learning experiences, and he truly believes that by supporting them we are supporting the economic development mission of the University in the state of Pennsylvania.”
Kerchinski continued, “Because of Penn State’s 21 undergraduate campuses--that now have funding for innovation hubs that support entrepreneurs--there’s not any other university in Pennsylvania that can have this kind of impact. It’s great that President Barron has embraced entrepreneurship, encouraged it, and that he’s supporting it financially. He walks the talk.”
As for Gyke and Sribniak, they’re eager for graduation and to see what the future holds for Steer Logic.
“We definitely want it to take off,” said Sribniak.
Kerchinski’s expectations for this year’s Inc.U competition have already been exceeded, and he is looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the University and Invent Penn State as growth keeps building.
“Who doesn’t want to help students become successful, and who doesn’t want to help start businesses that could possibly create jobs in your local communities?” asked Kerchinski. “We’re already seeing that, and everyone at Penn State supports it.”
About the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP)
The Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP) is a federal, state and University partnership to stimulate statewide economic development. Since 1965, PennTAP has delivered services and solutions to businesses and individuals through two main areas: energy and environmental services and innovation services.
The Inc.U competition is part of PennTAP’s innovation services arm and began in 2015 as a pilot program funded through a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. In 2016, the competition became solely a Penn State program managed by PennTAP and has continued thanks to a five-year grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (USEDA) and in partnership with Invent Penn State. The USEDA grant is now in its second year and enables PennTAP to deliver its innovation services throughout all Penn State’s campuses and the Commonwealth. Inc.U is privately funded.
To learn more about PennTAP, visit: https://penntap.psu.edu
To learn more about the Inc.U competition, visit: https://penntap.psu.edu/innovation/incu
To learn more about Invent Penn State, visit: https://invent.psu.edu
To learn more about The Corner, visit: http://newkensington.psu.edu/launchbox