WCU wins grant to expand product and business development services

Monty Graham, applications engineer with The Kimmel Schools, scans an antique chair as part of initaitive to assist a business.

Monty Graham, applications engineer with The Kimmel Schools, scans an antique chair as part of initaitive to assist a business.

Western Carolina University will receive $420,000 in federal funding over three years to develop a center that synergizes and expands efforts at WCU to help innovators and companies transform their ideas into marketable products.

With the grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration University Center Program, which is designed to make the resources of universities available to economic development communities, WCU is establishing the EDA University Center for Rapid Product Realization. Clients will have access from one place to low-cost comprehensive engineering, technology, business and entrepreneurship services.

“This center brings together in a formal way three powerhouses of economic development at WCU – the award-winning Small Business and Technology Development Center, the nationally recognized Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and The Kimmel School’s dynamic Center for Rapid Product Realization,” said Phil Sanger, director of the Rapid Center.

The EDA University Center will link clients to a range of services, including three-dimensional design and scanning, reverse engineering, rapid prototyping, and extensive mechanical and electrical testing at the Rapid Center; business assistance from the SBTDC; and consulting and entrepreneurial mentoring from the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“We always receive more requests for assistance than we can take on,” said Sanger. “With new professional product design engineers and business counselors at the EDA University Center, we will be able to respond to more requests and to provide a higher quality of service.”

The staff will include an administrative counselor who will receive and coordinate client requests, a new product design engineer and a new product business counselor jointly funded by the SBTDC. “Assisting clients with market research and business planning is a key component to success as well as product development,” said Wendy Cagle, regional director of the SBTDC at WCU.

Sanger and Louis Buck, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Wesley R. Elingburg Distinguished Professor in Business Innovation, will provide managerial direction, and faculty members and faculty-student teams will assist with client projects when possible.

Buck said the rapid product, small business and entrepreneurship centers at WCU already have worked jointly with several clients who have made patent applications and are trying to move successfully from an idea to a product in the marketplace.

“There are many aspects to the very broad subject of economic development,” said Buck. “In concert, we are assisting aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams and become part of the economic development and transformation of the region as envisioned in Western Carolina University’s strategic plan.”

Thirty projects are expected to be completed at the EDA University Center in the first year, growing to 60 annually by the third year.

“Western Carolina will provide assistance to entrepreneurs and regional firms for the development and launch of innovative new products and services, assist regional organizations with attracting firms to distressed counties, and assist regional firms with improving and expanding their operations,” said Robert McMahan, dean of The Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology at WCU.

One initial focus area will be exploring opportunities in WNC to support the Volkswagen facility being developed in Chattanooga, Tenn. Other opportunities include developing new technologies to increase productivity or efficiency for businesses currently in WNC – some of which already have benefited from working with the Rapid Center. Yet another focus area will be developing green and renewable energy technologies, which are now being requested by WNC firms.Sanger said the development of the new EDA University Center is not only exciting for the region but also for Western Carolina students. “The center will bring more projects to WCU and thus offer more opportunities for our students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to actual projects,” he said.

Students in an interdisciplinary engineering class currently, for instance, are working on projects such as developing a prototype of a patient simulator embedded with sensors that measure the amount of pressure exerted on different parts of the body when a patient is moved. The goal of the project, developed in partnership with Wake Forest School of Medicine and Winston-Salem State University, is to create a marketable tool to help medical professionals learn and practice the safest methods for positioning and handling patients to avoid the development of sores.

The development of the new center also is in line with the goals laid out for University of North Carolina system institutions in UNC Tomorrow, an initiative requiring UNC institutions to address the most pressing needs of North Carolinians, such as improving public education and aiding economic transformation, said Sanger.

Tom McClure, director of regional affairs at WCU, said the EDA University Center grant process is very competitive, and winning the grant is significant national recognition of the uniqueness of the Rapid Center. Recent projects at the center have included creation of a prototype of synthetic high-end poplar siding and a process to manufacture it for a client, and assistance to a Hickory business enhancing a custom furniture-reproduction process using imaging techniques.

“Because it is one of the few centers around the country engaged as it is in product development, the award of this grant positions the center to gain national recognition – and demand – for its services,” said McClure.

For more information, contact Sanger at (828) 227-2435 or sanger@wcu.edu.