First Time at Deshpande Pays Off

Erin Graceffa Image by Tory Germann
Erin Graceffa of UMass Lowell was among the students and recent graduates at the Deshpande Symposium.

By David Perry

Erin Graceffa got her degree in electrical engineering in May, but she has stayed around campus to refine a project she began working on last September. Her efforts got a boost at the recent Deshpande Symposium for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Higher Education.

For the first time, the Deshpande Symposium included a large group of student and recent graduate attendees. As a result, Graceffa and other young entrepreneurs had access to a range of experts, ideas and resources that are typically available to only seasoned veterans of the startup world.

In addition to the faculty, administrators and business leaders who typically show up for the three-day event, 50 students from 21 schools came from across the U.S. Canada and four ventured across the pond from the U.K. to attend the symposium at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center.

“For both students and faculty, it’s really useful to be here,” said Graceffa, who along with fellow electrical engineering students Rajia Abdelaziz and Raymond Hamilton last year won $5,000 in engineering prototype and DifferenceMaker competitions for Flaire, a wearable device that connects to a Smart phone via Bluetooth to send emergency information to predetermined contacts.

Symposium organizers said the student-entrepreneurs were a natural fit for the conference.

“We had talked about this last year, the idea of students being here,” said Jim McLellan, who oversees Queen’s University’s Queen’s Innovation Center in Ontario. “They’re finding it very helpful to be able to share experiences and learn from one another, as well as the regular attendees. Most of these students are invested in a university program, and some have their own startups.

Corey Cargill Image by Tory Germann
Corey Cargill, right, listens to a fellow student during a Deshpande Symposium workshop.

“To have 50 students from North America and the U.K. come to Lowell to talk about startups with higher education experts from all over the country and find that kind of support…that’s a successful conference,” said Steven Tello, associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development. “We’ll certainly be doing it again next year.”

A breakfast discussion offered students a chance to present to the wider attendees their notions of what works and doesn’t work in college entrepreneurship.

Among the ideas were the bonus of access to university resources and expertise. Some said the process by which students take ownership of their products needs to be streamlined and clarified.

“They can provide us insight even without experience out in the real world," said McLellan. “They’re creative, bright, talented people and I think their feedback is going to help improve university programs in entrepreneurship. What is working? What isn’t? They can teach us a lot.”

McLellan said as soon as they first gathered in a meeting room, students’ chatter and comparing notes was “non-stop.”

Corey Cargill, a junior from the University of Akron who is working on a startup, said the exchange of ideas was helpful.

“So far, I’ve met a lot of really good people and this is a great place for people to be to compare notes about startups. It gives you the tools.“

Shelby Yee, a geological engineering student from Queen’s University in Ontario who helped coordinate the student attendees, is also working on her own project, a geotechnical mapping robot.

“I sort of fell into entrepreneurship,” she said. “I always loved science as a kid and I watch a housemate go through the program…I realized, if you want to do something, this is the fastest way to make happen.”

The Deshpande Symposium returns to UMass Lowell June 12 through 14, 2017.