UWM students spread startup gospel

If Amin Mojtahedi could meet the one person on Earth whose passion exactly matched his own, it would be Frederik Pferdt at Google, the search engine titan known for its promotion of creativity through work environment.

Like Pferdt, Mojtahedi is fascinated by the way the physical aspects of a room or space encourage social interaction and productivity.

Amin Mojtahedi
Amin Mojtahedi

So Mojtahedi couldn’t believe his luck when he had the opportunity to visit Google’s headquarters and talk to Pferdt, co-founder of Google’s collaboration hub, The Garage. Their discussion happened thanks to a national program that teaches student entrepreneurs to cultivate innovation at their campuses.

Along with eight other UW-Milwaukee students, Mojtahedi has trained as a University Innovation (UI) Fellow in a program funded by the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation. Trained by Stanford University and VentureWell, a national student inventor’s organization, UI Fellows host activities on their own campuses to foster an alliance of student innovators.

Mojtahedi and his wife, fellow doctoral student Tahereh Hosseini, are developing software that helps designers get the most creativity from their spaces.

“Pferdt said he had been experimenting a lot with [Google’s] space, moving the location of food and furniture around, but if someone could quantify those aspects, it would remove the guesswork and take it to the next level,” said Mojtahedi. “When he told me that, I was so golden.”

With a prototype currently under construction, he and Hosseini are now turning their attention to spreading the innovation gospel as UI Fellows.

“The UI Fellows are building a network of campus makers and doers – a community of practice that applies their education to projects important to them,” said Engineering Associate Professor Ilya Avdeev, who has been a leading advocate of entrepreneurship at UW-Milwaukee.

Three UW-Milwaukee students were among the first to go through the 4-year-old program, which has now turned out more than 500 fellows nationwide. UW-Milwaukee fellows have hosted activities such as student startup pitches to an online audience of investors and business executives, and fast-paced, design-brainstorming workshops so popular at UW-Milwaukee that the fellows were invited to stage one at UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology.

“In the past, we saw many fellows developing entrepreneurship-related events at their institutions,” said Humera Fasihuddin, co-leader of the national UI Fellows program. “Now, we’re seeing them also hosting design-thinking events and also creating spaces that encourage students to prototype and test ideas.”

Nicole Green
Nicole Green

UI Fellow Nicole Green is one student who discovered her calling after joining the UW-Milwaukee startup community in 2013. As a senior in graphic design, she conceived a mobile app to help families coordinate elder care.

The class project earned her a spot in the university’s Student Startup Challenge, and she also won the annual elevator pitch competition through UW-Milwaukee’s Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization. A high point was attending the club’s national conference, where she talked with a casting director from the television show “Shark Tank.”

“These experiences gave me new ideas of how I could use a graphic design degree,” said Green, now a master’s student in the Lubar School of Business. “Ultimately, I found that the best part for me was bringing people together.”

Entrepreneurship and innovation aren’t just for engineers and business majors, she said.

“If you get a swath of different people working together, it will likely turn your project in directions you didn’t expect. As a fellow, I see myself as a connector in that process.”


Read the full 2016 UW-Milwaukee Research Report.