Summer Founders Program offers student entrepreneurs springboard to success

Caroline Briselli, Schreyer Honors College Scholar
November 13, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Being a student entrepreneur is no typical internship. There’s no boss and no hard deadlines. Your hours are irregular and your workspaces non-traditional. The pay is often non-existent.

For most students, being a full-time student entrepreneur isn’t even a possibility. With the support of the Penn State Summer Founders Program, however, three members of the Schreyer Honors College were able to devote their entire summers to developing a project idea and launching a business.

The Summer Founders Program was founded by Matt Brezina, a 2003 electrical engineering and Schreyer Scholar alumnus, and Eli Kariv, a 2015 Smeal graduate. Last summer, the program provided six student teams, which included current Schreyer Scholar Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, founder of Project Vive, and Scholar alumni Robert Chisena, founder of MichelAngelo Robotics, and Brennan Cornell, a member of the MichelAngelo Robotics team, the opportunity to work full time on their startup, social good, or nonprofit project in State College. Each team was awarded $10,000, with funding provided by Penn State alumni and entrepreneurs.

“As I learned about the project, I knew it was definitely the most interesting thing I could do in my last semester at Penn State and possibly beyond,” said Cornell, who graduated from Penn State in May 2015 with honors in engineering science.

Cornell is a member of MichelAngelo Robotics, a team founded by Chisena, who graduated in December 2015 with honors in mechanical engineering. After graduation, Chisena met with doctors at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center and became interested in developing a controllable endoscope for use in gastro-intestinal procedures.

Chisena worked full time on the project during the spring 2015 semester, taking the lead as Cornell finished his final semester at Penn State. The team decided to apply to the program so they could continue developing their device over the summer.

“It was very, very nerve-wracking to be some of the first applicants to the program, but we worked really hard on the application,” Chisena said, recalling that after an application and interview process, the team was notified of their acceptance to the program in mid-spring.

“It dawned on me that this is something that I want to do, and I can spend a lot of time working on it. It’s something I’m passionate about.”

-- Schreyer Scholar Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, founder of Project Vive

McCulloch, a senior Scholar majoring in biomedical engineering, was encouraged to apply to the Summer Founders Program by her mentor from Lion Launch Pad, a business accelerator program for student entrepreneurs. She is the founder of Project Vive, a startup that is designing low-cost solutions for individuals with nonverbal communication disabilities. After living abroad in Ecuador and working at an orphanage where many children with cerebral palsy couldn’t communicate with their caregivers, McCulloch became interested in developing a device that would address this challenge.

"It dawned on me that this is something that I want to do, and I can spend a lot of time working on it," she said. "It’s something I’m passionate about."

McCulloch has been working on Project Vive since her freshman year, but she said the project has picked up speed in the last year and a half, catalyzed by support and resources from Penn State and the Summer Founders Program.

Although they worked on different teams, Chisena, Cornell and McCulloch met every week as part of the program. The weekly meetings, which all student teams attended, provided an opportunity for the student entrepreneurs to discuss what they were working on and bounce ideas off one another.

“I met so many talented and experienced people who shared their stories, which were priceless,” said Lingqiu “Q” Jin, a member of the MichelAngelo team. “By working with Brennan, Rob and all the other people in the Summer Founders Program, I stopped thinking as a student and tried to think as a problem-solver and a co-founder.”

McCulloch said that while the teams were working on completely different projects, they often found themselves facing similar challenges and collaborated to solve them.

For example, McCulloch, who had already gone through the patent process, advised Chisena and Cornell as they applied for a patent. In turn, they provided McCulloch with support and guidance as she determined how to interact with potential end-users of her product, many of whom shared heartbreaking stories of their child’s disability and asked about the status of her device.

“[Chisena and Cornell] are also doing a medical device to help people and their health,” said McCulloch. “We’re creating something that’s really going to change somebody’s life, and that comes with a lot of emotional and ethical responsibility.”

Being a student entrepreneur comes with many responsibilities, one of which is determining how to most efficiently spend your time, Chisena said.

“In school you have set deadlines that other people make for you. In this, you don’t,” Chisena said. “You have this empty space of time [and] you have to figure out what’s important and what you should focus on.”

In terms of a typical workday, there was none; Chisena said his personality is the kind that he works until he can’t work anymore.

“When somebody invests in something that I do, I find it very hard to take a lot of breaks and not give it 100 percent all the time,” Chisena said. “I tried to give back to the people who invested in me by working my butt off.”

Chisena said that the goals for the summer were to define a market for their medical device, develop a prototype, and continue with the patenting process. The team connected regularly with doctors at Penn State Hershey and sought feedback from the device’s end-users and customers. The team grew a lot over the summer, said Cornell.

McCulloch and her team spent much of the summer developing prototypes, often working many hours after midnight before a demonstration the next morning.

One of the prototypes is a glove with an elbow sensor that calibrates to the user’s movements. Wearing the device, a user can move his or her elbow to scroll through an audible menu of common sayings and phrases that the user hears through an earpiece. The device is customizable; it can be adjusted for any working joint — not just the elbow — and the menu can be sped up or slowed down based upon the user’s reaction time. McCulloch’s goal is to make the device as small and inexpensive as possible so that it can be used and maintained in developing countries.

McCulloch presented a wireless version of the device at Summer Founders Program demo day at the beginning of the fall semester. The MichelAngelo team also presented, and Chisena said they were happy to see a packed room at the event.

“Schreyer has given me so many experiences that some people say are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but I’ve had several of them.” 

-- Brennan Cornell, Schreyer Scholar alumni and member of the MichelAngelo Robotics team

Chisena, Cornell and McCulloch all expressed that the support of the Schreyer Honors College was instrumental to their success.

"Schreyer has given me so many experiences that some people say are once-in-a-lifetime experiences," Cornell said, "but I’ve had several of them." 

With support from the Schreyer Honors College, McCulloch and her team will be traveling to the American Speech and Hearing Association Conference in Denver, Colorado, in November.

“We’re going to be with thousands of professionals who have done assistive speech technology their whole lives,” McCulloch said. “Who knows who we’re going to meet … the mentors we’re going to meet and people who are probably just going to change my whole outlook on what we’re doing.”

The next step for Project Vive is to secure funding that will be used to create a demonstration video and to continue to develop the device. The team plans to set up an IndieGoGo campaign, one aspect of which will allow donors to give their voice to a voice bank that will be used in the device. Outside of the project, McCulloch is working on her senior thesis and keeping busy with club swimming and her work in an on-campus laboratory.

Although they are not all currently living and working in State College, the MichelAngelo team is collaborating despite the distance, developing their device and determining their market. Cornell lives in New York City and works as a business technology analyst for Deloitte Consulting, and Chisena is attending graduate school at the University of Michigan, pursuing his doctorate in mechanical engineering.

Looking back on their experiences, all of the students enjoyed working as full-time entrepreneurs for the summer and said they are excited to continue working on their projects in the future.

“I’m a firm believer in finding something that you’re passionate about and, once you do that, work no longer becomes work, it becomes something you do every day that you enjoy,” Chisena said.

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars, including Gateway Scholars admitted after their first or second year of enrollment, total more than 1,900 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth campuses. They represent the top 2 percent of students at Penn State who perform well academically and lead on campus.

Last Updated November 13, 2015