Greater Phoenix growth as a tech innovation hub has ‘Devil’-ish flavor
Collaboration between ASU and local entrepreneurs is changing the face of Arizona
Growing up, Patrick McFarland saw firsthand how a child enduring seizures impacted a family. His 4-year-old sister began having them, and McFarland’s mother put her career on hold to care for her daughter.
Fast forward about 15 years, and McFarland, who went to college after a short career in the insurance industry, is a sophomore in Arizona State University’s biomedical engineering program. He enrolled in a class titled “Entrepreneurship and Value Creation” for engineering and business majors. Here, a long-brewing idea came to life.
With a little inspiration and guidance, McFarland harnessed years of nervous moments into a passionate entrepreneurial tech venture called Korwave, which produces prototype simple headbands that monitor neurological activity to alert patients, caregivers and physicians of a seizure. The historical data of seizure activity is also stored and could inform physicians considering treatment options.
“I talked to a lot of families with children who had epilepsy, and they wanted their kids to have more independence,” says 27-year-old McFarland. “They felt like their kids could never be alone. I thought, ‘‘Maybe we’re onto something?’”
“The first prototype was very ugly,” he adds. “Total headgear. It was like a helmet. No one would have worn it in a million years. But it was a start.”
After earning $6,000 in seed funding from ASU’s new venture funding network, McFarland has filed for a provisional patent, built Korwave’s online presence and is eyeing funding opportunities (he needs about $750,000) to advance his concept through further testing and potential commercialization.
“In two to three years, we want to be a rising biotech company growing right here in Arizona,” McFarland says. “ASU has been incredibly helpful.”
McFarland isn’t alone. His idea is one of hundreds, if not thousands, percolating in the Arizona desert. Those in local technology and entrepreneurial circles say ASU and its community collaboration efforts help lay the foundation for Phoenix’s rise as the next big tech innovation hub. Here’s a closer look at some of those efforts.
Brent Sebold, who taught McFarland’s entrepreneurship class, is executive director of venture development at Entrepreneurship and Innovation within ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. Sebold also oversees ASU’s startup center inside its engineering school. In those roles, Sebold helps identify strong student ideas and links them to mentorship opportunities and early funding resources.
ASU recently celebrated its 100th startup company since 2005. There were fewer than 10 prior to that, Sebold notes. More than 330 business ideas are also tied to Venture Devils, another ASU effort designed to catalyze and launch student, faculty and even community member startups.
For Sebold, the years 2005 and 2006 mark a tech entrepreneurship birthday of sorts for ASU, a time when entrepreneurship and academic discovery really merged. Resources like the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s $5 million grant to further entrepreneurship education at the university as well as a $5.4 million endowment from the Edson family came together.
“That’s when we really started asking people to have an open conversation about the value of entrepreneurship,” Sebold says. “This isn’t solely about capitalism and the study of commerce. It’s about harnessing innovation across all disciplines to make the world a better place.”
The financial contributions allowed the university to invest in students beyond mentorship. With an engineering program topping 20,000 students and 300 faculty, ASU could now power ideas forward by pairing business know-how and seed funding in the form of $1,000, $5,000 and even $20,000 awards for winners of pitch challenges. With Edson endowment dollars and other philanthropic gifts, ASU grants more than $1 million a year for bright ideas coming from a variety of disciplines.
McFarland, along with innovators like electrical engineering graduate student Saiman Shetty, used those seemingly small funding nuggets, then paired them with endless entrepreneurial advice, training and resources to set the foundation for a prototype and company.
Shetty developed a sensor to help organizations better track when trash cans were full, allowing bins to be emptied only when absolutely necessary. The company, named Hygiea, is set to test the product on a San Francisco Bay-area hospital campus and in Phoenix-area cities.
Shetty leveraged a $20,000 Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative award in 2016 to move his idea along. He is optimistic his company could have a tested, commercially viable product within a few months. Beyond the financial contributions, Shetty credits access to entrepreneurial education as a chief reason for his ability to move quickly with his idea.
“I was also passionate about business and design classes. I would sit in those classes and absorb everything I possibly could,” Shetty recalls. “It helped me put the bricks together for how to build this from scratch.”
Bringing the community together
Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president at ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, leads panuniversity entrepreneurship and innovation efforts. She says building a tech innovation hub requires nurturing many critical pieces like live, work and play environments for employees and company leaders, collaborative spaces for entrepreneurs as well as keeping dialogue open with economic development enterprises and other stakeholders.
“I think for ASU, we need to continue to play this critical convening role,” she adds.
The Entrepreneurship Outreach Network (EON) is one way ASU helps bring together private sector mentors with university startups. The idea was born when a curious Scottsdale librarian asked what she could do with a large card catalog space. ASU minds came to the table with an idea, and the space became today’s “Loft,” a collaboration space for local small businesses, mentors and entrepreneurs. In these spaces, librarians work specifically to cull information about business formation and entrepreneurship for users. The idea has also caught on at Tempe, Apache Junction, Buckeye and Mesa library systems.
The ASU Chandler Innovation Center (ACIC) is a unique ASU-City of Chandler partnership that houses TechShop Chandler, a community-based workshop and prototyping studio that gives local entrepreneurs and students access to prototyping tools, equipment and training to help them create early products within an interdisciplinary community of makers.
SkySong, a partnership with the City of Scottsdale, Holualoa Companies, the ASU Foundation for A New American University and Plaza Companies, is another example of an ASU community outreach effort that advances tech entrepreneurship. The 42-acre campus with 1.2 million square feet of space is a business accelerator environment home to a mix of existing tech companies and startups. The site has grown from one building in 2008 to four today.
Culture of collaboration
While Shetty spends considerable time talking to Silicon Valley entities about funding opportunities these days, he sees great advantages to building his tech company in Phoenix. He says the city is culturally diverse, the real estate affordable and the overall entrepreneurial spirit promotes success more than competition.
“What I love about Phoenix is that everyone wants you to succeed,” Shetty adds.
“We reached out to hospitals and the cities of Tempe and Phoenix to explore if we can do something for them. They were really proactive in getting back to us. It’s not common for the potential customer to schedule the meeting, but that’s what you see here. In Silicon Valley, there is less urgency because it’s tech, tech, tech. Here (in Phoenix), everything’s new and people want to see others succeed.”
Choi, who spent time in entrepreneurial environments at Columbia University and New York University, likes how the Phoenix tech innovation scene encourages collaboration without leaning on legacy institutions.
“This really is the perfect opportunity for the intersection of tech and innovation,” she says. “We have the elements that make for the ripe social and economic capitalization of opportunities.”