Debora Rodrigues is focused on solving the problem of contaminated water and educating future scientists to develop innovative technologies that will benefit society.
“I’m a researcher and educator,” said Rodrigues, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston. “As an educator, my main goal is to help students develop critical thinking skills and assist them to be successful in their careers.”
But increasingly, UH and other universities want to commercialize the work of their faculty, both to improve society and to increase revenues.
A program launched at the Bauer College of Business Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship in conjunction with the Office of Intellectual Property in the Division of Research is intended to fill that niche while providing a unique academic experience for UH students.
Rodrigues has a role to play there, too. “Although my focus is not to create technologies for commercial use, I welcome the opportunity to support students with an entrepreneurial spirit who are leveraging my research to create a start-up business,” she said.
The program started on a small scale several years ago but is growing rapidly. Over the past 18 months, 16 teams have been paired with UH faculty-created technologies.
Rathindra Bose, vice chancellor/vice president for research and technology transfer, said universities do a good job of creating technologies but are less successful at commercializing the research.
“We teach business, but we do not create business,” Bose said. “How many students get the chance to take a technology and create a business plan? It is their real training.”
The student teams are paired with a technology and a faculty inventor. They investigate market potential, competing products, supply chain issues and financial models, ultimately creating a business plan they can take to national competitions. Some teams also include students from the Valenti School of Communication.
The eventual goal is to spin the companies off as UH start-ups, while providing market analysis allowing triage of UH technologies not ready for the marketplace.
Six teams are competing on the national business plan competition circuit.
The team working with Rodrigues’ technology – a nanocomposite coating used for water purification, capable of removing heavy metals, radioactive materials and micro-organisms – won first place in the Global Student Business Plan Competition at the College of the Bahamas last month and will compete April 10-12 in the Rice Business Plan competition, as well as the California Dreamin’ competition at the end of the month.
Team leader Julia Lonnegren, a senior majoring in entrepreneurship, said the team named itself WAVVE, taking the first letter for the word “water” in English, Spanish, Swedish, Russian and French, the native languages of each team member to reflect the global nature of the group, as well as the core purpose of the technology.
Latha Ramchand, dean of the Bauer College of Business, said the success of this year’s Wolff Center students in national competitions, where they often are competing against graduate students, is a reflection both of the quality of the entrepreneurial education they have received and of the spirit of the city in which they live.
“One reason Houston is booming is thanks to the entrepreneurial culture we enjoy in this city,” Ramchand said. “As Houston’s business school, and with the nationally recognized Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, the C. T. Bauer College of Business serves as an entrepreneurial hub for the university and the city.”
As for Rodrigues, who now is working to scale up the technology so it can be used in the oil field and other large applications, she would like to see it commercialized to improve health conditions since many people still lack access to clean water.
But she has no plans to leave academia for a start-up.
“I’m here to help students,” she said. “If they want to open a company, I will be glad to serve as an advisor, but not as CEO or CFO. If there’s something good from my research that can come to society, I will be very glad.”