102: How to Build a Leading Hardware Business as a Student

102: How Students Start Successful Hardware Businesses

November 17, 2021

With Scott Evans, Director of Inventionworks at UT

102: How Students Start Successful Hardware Businesses

Scott Evans is the Director of Inventionworks at the University of Texas, just a few blocks away from our Mako Design Austin office. Inventionworks is a 23,000-square-foot product design and development facility with lots of fun machines and a team of 40 experts to help get student inventions off the ground. In addition, Scott has spent 25 years in the prototyping and product manufacturing industry. Today, Scott is going to share some valuable knowledge on how student inventors and startups can start their invention idea journey and how to maximize the value of what colleges and universities have to offer. Today isn’t just about students, these tips also apply to anyone in the industry wanting to get involved with their local schools to help and to learn from them.

Today you will hear us talk about:

  • Look around campus for resources (students, faculty, entrepreneurial programs)
  • Product development, in combination with an entrepreneurial mindset, is key!
  • How can people in the community be helpful for university hardware incubators?
  • Continuous learning is a core tenet; regressing back to the role of a student to learn even as an established professional is beneficial.
  • Blur the lines between education and professional practice!

Product Startup
Episode 102: How Students Start Successful Hardware Businesses
With Scott Evans, Director of Inventionworks at UT

00:00 | Kevin Mako (KM): Hello product innovators. Today, we learn from the head of a major university hardware incubator how students can build a successful product business.

00:11 | Voice-over: You’re listening to the Product Startup podcast. The show that helps bring your product idea to life, by chatting with successful inventors, product developers, manufacturers, and hardware industry professionals. Our goal here is to get to the bottom of what makes a product successful, from initial idea to getting your product on store shelves. We’re taking you step by step to build a functional product and scale your product business. Hosted by Kevin Mako, one of North America’s leading experts on hardware development for small product businesses. Now, on to the show.

00:46 | KM: Welcome back everyone. Today, I’m very excited to introduce Scott Evans to the show. Scott is the Director of Inventionworks at the University of Texas, just a few blocks away from our Mako Design Austin office. Inventionworks is a 23,000 square feet product design and development facility with lots of fun machines and a team of 40 experts to help get student inventions off the ground.

01:05 | KM: In addition, Scott has spent 25 years in the prototyping and product manufacturing industry. Today, Scott is going to share some valuable knowledge on how student inventors and startups can start their invention idea journey, and how to maximize the value of what colleges and universities have to offer you.

01:20 | KM: And today isn’t just about students, but also anyone in the industry can get involved with their local schools, both to help and to learn from them. Now, on to the episode. Hey Scott, welcome to the show.

01:31 | Scott Evans (SE): Thank you for having me.

01:32 | KM: It’s great having you on. Our Austin office is only a few blocks away from Inventionworks. So, although we haven’t met face-to-face, I’m looking forward to doing lots of stuff between Mako Design and Inventionworks with everything that’s going on there in the new facility.

01:45 | SE: There are lots of opportunities and I look forward to exploring them.

01:48 | KM: For sure. And talk a bit about what’s going on with Inventionworks. We’ll start there and then jump into your background. And then go into tips for students to succeed. And, as well, how the industry can also help students and help themselves as being a part of facilities, like Inventionworks of course in Austin, but in facilities all over the world.

02:07 | SE: That sounds great. So I am reporting to you today from in the middle of the newest building in the Cockrell School of Engineering. And we have a big facility here that has a lot of prototyping capabilities, 3D printing, woodworking, machine shop, electronics, as well as some open workspace for students.

02:29 | SE: Outside my office here, there are a bunch of tables and right now several of those tables have sort of different takes on little 3D printers that are part of an engineering design class. And so, in Texas, Inventionworks includes those facilities, as well as all of the training for all of those machines.

02:48 | SE: I have a 40 members student staff who get trained on the machines as well as basic design principles and things like that to be mentors for everybody. And I also work with professors in all engineering departments and then several colleges around campus to develop courses that have some kind of hands-on, some kind of product development element to them.

03:11 | KM: That’s amazing. And it’s so good to see investment from the university level, and obviously the state level, going into student entrepreneurship, especially around the hardware space. When I was a young budding entrepreneur starting Mako Design, while I was in high school and then incorporating it in university, there was almost nothing in terms of university programming for entrepreneurship. Let alone hardware labs and all this set up to really foster student innovation. Let alone in the hardware space.

03:37 | SE: It’s great. I’ve seen what’s happened over the last 20 years. I was a PhD student, actually here at the University of Texas, from 2001 to 2005. And during that time I got involved in business planning competitions and technology commercialization.

03:53 | SE: And there were business planning competitions, and a brand-new thing called Idea to Product that was really for technology folks, engineers, and scientists to start looking at how they might commercialize their research. But, in terms of actually building hardware prototypes and stuff like that, there was not a lot of stuff here. And we had to do a lot of work as students to piece together people and resources and stuff from all over campus and lots of offices and staff members to make progress in what we were doing.

04:26 | SE: And now it’s really wonderful to come back, and I have been at the university now for a little over five years. To come back and build on some of that momentum and fill some of those gaps that would’ve allowed us to get so much further, so much faster as students. And then be able to do that on a larger scale than anything that we saw when I was a graduate student.

04:49 | KM: Well, it’s great. And I can tell you on the professional design firm side of things, we had a ton of clients coming out of student incubation programs. It’s where a lot of these student innovations start, and they get their footing there. And then they go on to raise their first angel rounds and their seed rounds.

05:04 | KM: And then going to venture capital rounds and becoming major businesses. And a lot of that sparks in college and university all around the world, especially with the assistance from these types of programs. So when we’re talking to the students in particular, what are some of the things around campus that students should be looking out for when they’re thinking about their invention idea or getting a product to market?

05:27 | KM: What resources are there around many schools around the world? What things should they look out for? What tips and tricks do you have for those students just in and around campus to start.

05:36 | SE: I want to answer almost two questions there. The first question is, how does someone get started in this arena? And then the second one is if you are already going, and you have some ideas, and you are looking for some other resources. So the first one, getting started, I would say, requires a little bit of courage.

05:58 | SE: Like that’s one of the things that we see. It requires a little courage for a lot of students to simply walk into this facility and ask if they can learn how to run one of our 3D printers. So, to those of us who are familiar with it, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but for people outside it takes a little courage.

06:17 | SE: So, to get going, I would say, sweep together a little bit of courage. Go talk to people you don’t know. Look for some of these resources. Walk through the door and ask to learn how to run the machine or learn how to do some stuff. And just tinker and just sort of move forward.

06:36 | SE: If you already have ideas, then one of the things I like to tell people here at the University of Texas is you should do something while you’re at school. And what I mean is to do something entrepreneurial while you’re here. Why? Well, because within a couple of hundred yards of where I’m sitting right now, there’s probably a world expert in whatever it is that you need.

06:57 | SE: And you can go talk to them. And you can engage them and get them involved in what you’re trying to do. And that’s either going to do two things. It’s going to move you forward personally, well, just the networking and learning from these people. And it’s also going to give you an opportunity to have that world-class expertise in your project.

07:16 | SE: So lean in, have some courage on one side. And the other one is, I would just say, assume there are resources out there and there are people who are at your university. There are probably programs you don’t know about that could help you move forward, and it just requires you to go out and talk to a few people and ask a few questions.

07:37 | KM: Something that really resonates with what you said there is just getting out there and talking to people and having that courage. For those of you out there who are a little bit nervous, let’s say to do that, know that the university setting is engineered and designed for you to reach out to people. The intent there is for you to bother folks.

07:55 | KM: It may not be so as you get into your career. It may be much more difficult to reach out, as you mentioned, to those world-class individuals that are there as experts in the facility that are either student staff members, or faculty staff members, or tech members, or whatever it might be, but they’re right there in your backyard.

08:12 | KM: And students here are encouraged to make those connections to have that communication. The key here too is that it’s not just with the facilities like Inventionworks, but it’s also with other students. And that’s something that Scott, you and I talked about before jumping on the air. Can you speak to that power of student-to-student innovation?

08:32 | SE: That is probably the biggest source of learning and of progress for people who are trying to become creative professionals or entrepreneurs, or product developers. It is connecting with other students who are interested in that area and who may be bringing other expertise and stuff. So that now you’re starting to move towards having a team or at least having a network that can help you solve problems.

09:02 | SE: We see such a wide range of students. So a freshman engineering student could be someone who has never built anything, never taken anything apart. But yet, they have this proficiency in math and science, they’ve kind of got an interest in engineering and here they are. And that’s just where they’re at.

09:22 | SE: We have other students that show up here and they’ve been on robot teams, or they’ve been building stuff. Or they have a workshop at home and they have these incredible skills to move things forward. And so, student A is certainly going to learn a great deal from student B in this case, and probably is going to bring some experience and stuff like that. And they’re going to have a productive conversation there.   

09:47 | SE: So it’s amazing what students bring to the table here. If you look at, just in terms of gray matter, most of the gray matter on campus is in students’ heads. Most of the intelligence, and stuff like that, are in students’ heads. There are a lot of folks like me who have been around for a while, have some experience, and stuff like that. But anytime I step into a classroom, the brainpower is out in the audience. And so I think that’s something to kind of keep in mind.

10:16 | KM: It’s so powerful when you talk about connecting those dots. I’ve judged a lot of student entrepreneurship competitions, both in university settings and beyond. And one of the things that I find so amazing is when you get these groups of students together, even if that specific project that they’re working on doesn’t materialize into this big invention idea or this big entrepreneurial vision.

10:35 | KM: A lot of the time, what’ll happen is that two or three or four of the individuals from within those groups, or possibly in collaboration with one or two or three individuals from other groups, end up getting together and starting something else.

10:46 | KM: The key here is to have that conversation going. Get that communication out there. Or, like Scott said, just reach out and start asking for help. A lot of the time, as well, if you don’t know what type of student you’re looking for. For instance, like in your example, maybe you’ve got a great app, and you’re looking for somebody to build the hardware portion. Again, reach out to the faculty or the entrepreneurial incubation programs there.

11:10 | KM:  A lot of the time those folks can start connecting the dots for you. Or can start putting you in contact with either the groups or the competitions. Or the events in which you may meet those people who could be a critical match to your potential business going forward.

11:24 | SE: That’s very true. You’re talking about the competitions and what happens after competitions and why they’re important. I’m almost hesitant to let your listeners know what the secret is here. But I think I will just go ahead and do it. And the secret is that, in the competitions that I’ve been involved in, it’s usually not the teams that win that end up being the ones that move forward and make great things happen.

11:53 | SE: But the ones that win, I don’t know what it is, sometimes they go forward. But it’s usually the ones that are a little further down, and they’re a little hungry, and they get a little bit of success. But they kind of see what they could have done differently and they keep at it. And they have that persistence.

12:13 | SE: Often, it’s the third-place team that goes to start a company. Or it’s the team that almost made it and was fourth, but didn’t get any prize money, but kept going anyway. And in most of the competitions I’ve been involved with, somebody who keeps going after the competition isn’t necessarily the one who wins.

12:31 | KM: That’s a really good observation. Something that I’ve always said when I’ve done these keynotes for these events or whatnot is the fact that by being there, by participating in these things, you’re already way ahead of the competition. Now, of course, you’re trying to win within the event. There’s nothing wrong with that.

12:44 | KM: But the reality is there’s a lot more meat on the bones within the event itself. It’s almost more the journey than it is the outcome. And what you’re saying here just fits that exactly. It’s really something where the more you immerse yourself into it, both with the school, the incubators, the competitions, with other classmates, the more you’re going to get out.

13:03 | KM: The more you’re going to find those matches. And the more you’re going to be able to pursue those. And I think that’s why, earlier on, you were saying just try something while you’re at school, outside the academic setting. Try a little bit of an entrepreneurial venture or an idea, or whatever else.

13:18 | KM: Even if it’s just in the initial spitballing phase where you’re working with some people ideating. That can be very valuable to your potential career, even if you decide to go the route of a designer, an engineer, or whatnot. But on the flip side, if you do end up going entrepreneurial, there’s no doubt that you’re going to learn lessons along the way that aren’t being taught academically.

13:37 | SE: Yeah. I think there’s an earlier and very easy step that you can take as a student. And that is simply showing up to a meeting of an entrepreneurial student group, super easy. Or there are seminar series. There are speaker series. There are these sorts of things.

13:55 | SE: The people who show up to those things are other people who, like you, are interested in that, want to know more, and are probably going to benefit from building their network, and so you’re often moving. You don’t have to have an idea. You don’t have to have a problem that you want to solve. If this arena seems interesting to you, move towards it. And you can do that with a 1 hour speaker series at a launch, and you’re moving in the right direction. 

14:25 | KM: And you’re hearing from some great people. Keep in mind, when Scott’s collaborating with these outside groups, something that you’ve kind of touched on before was the fact that you’ve got all these industry-leading experts. One of the things that Scott, you and I were talking about before this, in terms of collaboration, is doing an event like this.

14:40 | KM: Bringing in world-class designers out of Mako Design and pairing them with students who are interested. This stuff is free for students. And this is the caliber of things that happen at these sorts of meetups or these sorts of groups, or whatnot.

14:53 | KM: So you might as well take advantage of that sort of stuff while you’re a student because those things become much more expensive or difficult to access as you graduate and as you move on. Now, one thing that I want to really talk about here in terms of the university groups is looking at the career individuals as well.

15:10 | KM: People who have graduated and are moving on, how can they get involved in what’s happening at the student level, the student incubation level, the student entrepreneurship level? And how can they also improve themselves academically, in addition to their career, or to help propel their career forward?

15:27 | SE: Well, I think on the University of Texas campus here are programs all over the place that have sort of an on-campus, but off-campus kind of thing. They’ll have meetings or seminar series or something like that. So, as an example, the Austin Technology Incubator has a very extensive group of mentors that they draw from as they’re working with companies and stuff like that.

15:56 | SE: So showing up to an event that the Austin Technology Incubator is a part of would allow you as a person from outside the university to start networking with other people who are inside the university. There are ways of reaching out to the development teams inside, like the Cockrell School of Engineering, when looking for opportunities.

16:21 | SE: In the same way that we’re sitting here talking about, hey, students get out there and network. I think, probably, the same thing is going to happen to those who are outside the university and simply kind of looking at the university and trying to find sort of ways of networking their way into the university, either through professors or through the development teams.

16:39 | SE: Or through programs like the Austin Technology Incubator. I’m looking for people who are out there and who are professionals in various areas. And then I have classes that I’d like to include those people in. So I’m looking to network with people who are out there, and I’m not the only one sitting at a university in that same position.

16:59 | KM: This is great advice. Basically, everything we’ve talked about in this episode also can apply to postgraduate students as well, right? Get involved, especially if you graduated, and you’re nearby your university. Not only should you be donating back to it, but that’s a side note. But you should really be looking to get involved.

17:15 | KM: Now you’re an expert. Now you’ve got experience in whatever your craft might be. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, whether you’re a product designer or somewhere in between, you’ve got a lot of experience now to share down to the next generation.

17:26 | KM: And as you mentioned, Scott, earlier on in the call, that student group has subject-matter experts in very specific things that they’re working on. They are the gray matter of the future. And like you said, they are the geniuses who really are a big part of the university setting. So it is a two-way street, in terms of value there.

17:43 | SE: It is. Another thing I thought of was that there are student groups that have coalesced around all sorts of things. So auto racing, rockets, consumer products, there are all sorts of things. And so those are also things that you can look at, at your local university, as potential opportunities to get involved.

18:01 | KM: Scott, why don’t you just give a quick overview. You had a theory you mentioned, blurring the lines between education and professional practice. And this is somewhat in line with what we’re talking about right now. We all hear about perpetual learning and lifelong learning and all that sort of stuff.

18:16 | KM: How do you see that applying to individuals, both at the university level, but especially when they are into their careers? What’s the importance of that? And what are some things they should be thinking about to develop their craft?

18:27 | SE: Part of that kind of stems from a trend in engineering education. If you rewind the clock a couple of decades, there was a huge amount of talk about, we want project-centered education. We want more projects. We want more students working on projects. The project was the keyword, that’s still around. 

18:47 | SE: You can still find a lot of discussions that kind of echoes all of those things. But coming back to the university, I was trying to think, well, projects are good, but why are we doing the projects? Why was that so popular? It was popular because it’s the experience of solving problems, working in teams, having to do the communication, of the context around all of the math and science in your engineering classes.

19:15 | SE: The context is what’s valuable. Well, the context is actually the practice of engineering. And so if I want to go beyond this concept of just projects to something that’s more wholistic, then what I need to do is create ways for students to operate more like engineers while they’re still students.

19:36 | SE: So I think that what we’re trying to do is practice-centered engineering education. So it’s a little bit like traditionally there’s this education, then there’s this hard barrier. And then after that, you go and act as whatever professional it is that you’re going to be. But on the professional side, you have this continuing education stuff where people are changing careers and all of those sorts of things.

20:02 | SE:  So education is bleeding out into your entire career. And so, what I’m working on is allowing the practice to bleed backward into what has traditionally been more strictly education. And I think what that’s doing is we have sort of an ecosystem of all of my student staff and me, and all that. That allows students, puts them in the driver’s seat, allows them to make decisions about whatever it is that they’re working on.

20:33 | SE: I say this jokingly, but it really is true. I say to students, build stuff that doesn’t work, and they kind of look at me weird, right, when I say that. But that’s the key. The key is building stuff that doesn’t work because all of us who are product designers know that we make stuff that doesn’t work.

20:51 | SE: And then, eventually, after we make a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work, we make something that does work and works really well. And then students, when they come in, they don’t know all of that fun between I have an idea and I have something that works really well – all that making stuff that doesn’t work.

21:04 | SE: So we try to kind of highlight that and make sure it has a sort of structure around people that allows them to learn from that. And move forward and be mentored by other students. And mentored by a professional staff, myself, and some of my other staff members here.

21:20 | KM: Being a lecturer in the Master of Engineering program at Ryerson University, I can tell you that’s one of the biggest ticket items I think is helping to educate the students of tomorrow. It is having that hybrid approach that it comes down to real-world versus academic, and the combination thereof, and the best of both worlds. So, that’s very much tying in to the engineering principles that you mentioned there.

21:41 | KM: And I love the fail forward model. That is very powerful, especially as a student, especially as you’re learning your craft. And really, I think a lot of these things can be considered through lifelong learning. On that note, is there education, let’s say, for folks who are further down the path at UT? Are things around the world at university centers?

22:01 | KM: Are there more things or more courses or more workshops? Or even events that can maybe help people who are further down the line in their career, as opposed to just going through a full-fledged Master of Engineering program? Is there something kind of hybrid in there where they can learn remotely? Or is this stuff coming into practice more?

22:18 | SE: There are continuing education programs that exist. So there’s one that’s in engineering here. And it’s not necessarily a big, full degree program. But they have a bunch of small things that are happening. I think micro-credentialing and badging, and having your electronic portfolio of all of those things that you’re able to collect are coming.

22:42 | SE: And I think that what you’re going to see are more opportunities coming out of universities to take advantage of these small pieces. So it might be learning a piece of software. It might be learning how to build a particular type of device or testing something. But I think that’s sort of coming. But I also think part of our answer to this question would be identical in that there are places around that are hackerspaces, makerspaces, these kinds of things that are open community oriented.

23:15 | SE: It’s unfortunate that TechShop didn’t have their business model right to still be with us in several cities, but there are places like that around. And so that’s a place where you can show up and learn from other people in the way that students are learning from each other in my facility here. And you can go. And maybe you haven’t done woodworking, you could find somebody that can help you get going with that.

23:39 | SE: Or maybe you haven’t programmed, or you haven’t done much coding. You’re going to find people there that can make or do all sorts of things and kind of help you move forward. So I think those kinds of facilities and environments are great opportunities for people in our line of work to continue to put themselves back in that mode of a student where you’re learning very quickly.

24:03 | SE: And you have that sort of I don’t know what to do here. And a little bit of that nervousness and stuff like that, or you have to respond. You have to kind of beat back a little bit of inventive confidence.

24:14 | KM: Scott, I appreciate you mentioning those events because something that I would say to anybody in the hardware space, whether you’re developing a new product, you’re a student, you’re a mature product developer, whatever the case is, check out Mako Design’s blog.

24:27 | KM: We’ve got all kinds of information on upcoming events. We co-run events with a bunch of other partners, like the Crowdfunded Summit and Make48 TV show, and whatnot. So there’s a ton of digital education right now that’s in and surrounding the industry that Mako Design is quite heavily involved with.

24:43 | KM: But even if it’s not something that we’re directly partnered with, or I’m not keynoting at, we’ve got a ton of information on there. And of course, by listening to this podcast, we’re always trickling in tidbits of information around upcoming events and whatnot as well. So thanks for bringing that up Scott to the listeners out there.

24:59 | KM: And I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say thanks for your tips and tricks, especially for students or those of us who still have that student vein in us that we still want to be learning for life. Or let’s say, to be honest, we kind of miss being in school. It was a great time in our life. So I’d say to the students out there, keep in mind that years later you’ll really look back on those times and never regret doing what Scott said.

25:21: | KM: And doing that one reach out that you thought you should do. Or checking out that facility that you thought might be interesting. Or looking into that course that you thought might lead to something. So Scott, thanks a lot for being on the show today. Much appreciated, and we’ll talk soon.

25:35 | SE: Thank you for having me. Looking forward to it.

25:37 | Voice-over: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Product Startup podcast. The show that teaches you what it really takes to bring your product to market and turn it into a big success. This podcast series is brought to you by MAKO Design + Invent, the original and leading firm in North America to provide global caliber end-to-end physical consumer product development to startups, inventors, and small product business clients. If you’re looking for product development help on your invention, head over to makodesign.com. That’s M-A-K-O design.com, for a free consultation from one of MAKO Design’s, four design studios from coast to coast. Thanks for listening and see you next time.


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