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Students Work to Spark Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

April 30, 2014

The entrepreneurial mindset is as much an inherent part of the atmosphere at UC Merced as it is at any start-up.

But now two students, Eduardo Rojas-Flores and Nick Fong, are on a mission to help bring even greater levels of innovation and venture activity to the campus.

Selected as University Innovation Fellows, Fong and Rojas-Flores are part of a national network empowering student leaders to encourage more entrepreneurial activity on their campuses.

They will work with more than 100 other fellows, as well as with UC Merced faculty members in the new Pathways to Innovation program, which UC Merced is helping pilot.

“UC Merced’s rapid growth means we live with many of the benefits and challenges associated with start-ups,” School of Engineering Dean Dan Hirleman. “That makes us the perfect incubator for nurturing innovation and creativity among our students, as well as among our faculty and staff members.”

Rojas-Flores and Fong had only about a week to complete the rigorous, competitive application process to join the year-old national network of students from 78 universities. The network only selected three new fellows from California; the third is from Cal Poly. 

Not only are UC Merced students creating legacies on campus, but nationally, too, because programs and activities they create will help determine how the Pathways program will proceed at UC Merced and how it can serve as a model for other universities, Hirleman said.

The two UI fellows have created a Wiki page for the campus that is open to the other fellows in the network, as well, and ranks campus priorities, including Fong’s goal of having entrepreneurial workshops and skill sessions available to all students, complementing engineering courses such as Engineering Service Learning and the Innovation and Design Clinic.

Students will study subjects like project management; rapid prototyping and brainstorming techniques; pitch development; intellectual property topics; business-plan development; and organizational strategy.

“While UC Merced is ahead in a lot of areas – like having an intellectual property course for engineers and scientists, and interdisciplinary capstone project teams that include management students – these aren’t things that are common in engineering programs around the country,” Fong said. “It’s one way to help undergraduates feel more invested in their educations. We don’t want them to be able to say they aren’t using what they learned in college.”

Fong, from San Jose, is an economics student who’s graduating this spring, so he has only a short time to work on the project on campus. But he will remain a fellow and be part of the network, helping guide its growth.

“As a graduating student, I wanted to leave a lasting mark,” he said. “Also, this is one way to help UC Merced stand apart. Because UC Merced is new, there are so many opportunities for business and industry – you have developable land, a world-class faculty and UC students. I don’t know why they aren’t here already. But this program will be one way to show them all the potential here.”

When School of Engineering Dean Dan Hirleman told Rojas-Flores he was nominated by a faculty member and that he should look into this new opportunity, he jumped at the chance.

“I was humbled,” he said. “But what makes this so exciting is that, like pretty much everything else at UC Merced, the time from inception to implementation is accelerated. If you want something, or want to be a part of something, you just make it happen.”

Kind of like when he wanted to bring aeronautics to campus. Rojas-Flores started a chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and now has an official charter from the national organization and more than 60 students involved.

As a third-year student, Rojas-Flores, from Fallbrook, has more time to implement his goal as a UI fellow: to bring a dedicated design space to campus.

“When people are designing – anything – they don’t just do it during class or when an office is open,” he said. “We need a place where anyone can go at any time to work on anything they are designing.”

He was inspired by a visit to Google during the UI annual meeting. The company, known for fostering creativity, has designated space that’s open to anyone at the company to work on company or personal projects.

Because faculty members are also involved in the pathways program, the two students said they have already enjoyed a lot of support from professors and Hirleman since they were named fellows just after Spring Break.

They attended the UI national meeting in March, held in the Silicon Valley area, and got to meet all the other fellows in the network. Rojas-Flores has already formed bonds with East Coast students, feeling a cross-country collaboration will benefit the campus and the Pathways program’s development.

“They have the same challenges we do, but might come at things from a different perspective,” he said.

Hirleman said he’s thrilled that the two fellows are so committed to the UI and to the campus.

“Our UI fellows and their team will help carry the entrepreneurial spirit into the mainstream of learning and co-curricular activities here,” he said. “They are committed to supporting the faculty in making UC Merced an even more dynamic place to learn.”