Transformative approach to 5G funded by new Innovator program

Nine technologies competed for $75k in the ECE Innovator Program, which emphasizes a team approach to entrepreneurial success.

2018 ECE Innovator Program Enlarge
2018 ECE Innovator Program winning team with program judges and organizers. L: Prof. David Brophy, Jonathan Fay, Prof. Mingyan Liu, Bryce Pilz, Avish Kosari, Joseph Heanue, Dr. Armin Jam, Rick Bolander, Prof. Khalil Najafi

SkyGig, a startup company focused on improving wireless communication in the world of 5G and beyond, is the inaugural winner of the ECE Innovator Program, launched in 2018.

“With the emergence of autonomous cars, Internet of Things devices, smart city applications, etc., there is more need than ever for innovative communication devices to enable all these applications, and that is exactly what we do,” said company co-founder and ECE alum, Dr. Armin Jam.

The SkyGig team, which includes doctoral student Avish Kosari and Prof. David Wentzloff, says they are leveraging over a decade of research in the area of wireless radios to bring a disruptive technology to the marketplace. It offers significantly higher speeds, lower power, and lower cost than what is currently available. Their unique wireless technology platform paves the path towards the next generation of high-speed wireless communication devices, where the team plans to work with telecommunication giants to find the best network solutions.

SkyGig is one of nine teams that participated in the inaugural Electrical and Computer Engineering Innovator Program (ECEIP), announced earlier this year by former ECE department chair, Khalil Najafi.

ECE is a regular leader across the University in the development of intellectual property.

Khalil Najafi

Open to teams of two or more that developed their technology at Michigan ECE, the ECEIP was the brainchild of Najafi (BSE MSE PHD EE ’80 ’81 ’86) and long-time supporter Rick Bolander (BSE MSE EE ’83 ’85; MBA ‘94, Harvard).

“ECE is a regular leader across the University in the development of intellectual property,” said Najafi. “This program provides a focal point for ECE entrepreneurs ready to take that leap from the lab to the marketplace.”

Most entrepreneurial competitions pull from a wide net of participants – but with so much tech transfer activity happening just in ECE, the organizers knew there would be no problem limiting participation to ECE. They also wanted to do something different with the ECEIP.

ECE Innovator Program graphic Enlarge

“It was my observation that ECE has lots of expertise and talent in hardware solutions,” explained Bolander. “The capital required is much more than with, for example, a software startup. I wanted to help the inventors create a prototype that they could bring to customers and investors.”

Bolander, a successful entrepreneur himself before turning venture capital investor, also wanted to make sure the participants learned the right stuff to avoid wasted time and opportunity in the future. To that end, the ECEIP offered three workshops focusing on: 1) identifying customers and market opportunities, 2) licensing, and 3) prototype development.

In all, nine teams submitted their proposals describing how and why their technology was ready for the leap to commercialization.

The applications impacted patient care and health, communications, ultra-accurate navigation for autonomous systems, artificial intelligence for the energy sector, information security, powering Internet of Things devices, and next-generation flexible electronics.

All nine teams were invited to present an overview of their technology on September 21, 2018; three were selected to give extended presentations; and one, SkyGig, was selected to receive $75K to help develop a prototype.

Seven entrepreneurial experts (listed below) evaluated the entries.

The other two finalists featured flexible display technology, and miniature-sized, autonomous, vibration energy harvesters with record power efficiency. Team members of the display tech, which has already been licensed to a startup company for commercialization, include doctoral students Yongbum Park and Chengang Ji, and their advisor Professor Jay Guo. The energy harvesting tech was presented by ECE alumnus Dr. Ethan Erkan Aktakka, founder or the startup ActiveMEMS. ActiveMEMS sees smart manufacturing and transportation sectors as its key markets.

Dr. Jae Yoong Cho, CEO of Enertia Microsystems and another ECE alum, also took the opportunity to present his technology – small precision affordable rotation sensors for pinpoint accuracy in autonomous devices, such as vehicles and drones.

But after careful deliberation by the judges, only one team walked away with the check for $75K – and it went to the team ready to build a prototype and take their tech on the road.

They got out of the lab and visited customers to validate the willingness for customer purchase.

Rick Bolander

“They have not only proven to possess a highly disruptive technology, they have also connected with potential customers to validate that their solution would be both technically and financially viable,” said Bolander. “They got out of the lab and visited customers to validate the willingness for customer purchase.”

All presenting teams were invited to participate in Professor David Brophy’s popular and over-subscribed course, Financing Research Commercialization, in which entrepreneurial teams work with mentors to build a business and marketing plan for a new technology or invention.

“It’s all about the team, and the people you connect with along the way,” says Bolander. “I hope all who participated in the program feel like they are winners.”

Supporting the future of innovation

Funds for this year’s program came from an initial donation by Bolander that was matched by Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“The program is fantastic,” said Mingyan Liu, the newly-appointed Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I look forward to supporting our talented teams of inventors well into the future.”

The dream of Najafi and Bolander is for the program to be endowed, which will be good for the inventors, for the University, and ultimately, good for the State of Michigan.

“If we can help bring even one company to a high level of success every few years, we can create tens of thousands of jobs,” said Bolander.

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The Entrepreneurial Team of Experts

The nine teams of entrepreneurs were evaluated by a strategically-selected group of experts in entrepreneurship.

Rick Bolander, Managing Director and co-founder of Gabriel Venture Partners and eLab Ventures. Leader of more than $100M in early-stage financing in the areas of communications applications and internet mobile services.

David Brophy, Professor and Director, Office for the Study of Private Equity Finance, Ross Business School, University of Michigan. An active researcher in the fields of finance and entrepreneurship, Brophy is also founding director of two leading international private equity conferences: the University of Michigan Growth Capital Symposium and the University of Michigan Global Private Equity Conference.

Jonathan Fay, Dixon and Carol Doll Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE), University of Michigan. In addition to running the CFE, Fay manages the nationally acclaimed NSF Innovation-Corps program (NSF I-Corps) at U-M as well as statewide innovation education programs for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Joseph A. Heanue, President and CEO, Triple Ring Technologies. Triple Ring, one of the top prototyping companies in the country. Founded in 2005, the company has incubated 20 companies to date.

Mingyan Liu, Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Michigan. Liu co-founded the company QuadMetrics in 2014, which was acquired by analytic software company FICO in 2016. She was named 2018 U-M Distinguished University Innovator.

Khalil Najafi, Schlumberger Professor of Engineering, ECE, University of Michigan. Najafi co-founded Integrated Sensing Systems, Inc. (ISS), a company specializing in the design, development, manufacture and commercialization of innovative MEMS products, and ePack, a MEMS packaging company. He has more than 20 U.S. patents.

Bryce Pilz, Director of Licensing, U-M Office of Tech Transfer, University of Michigan. Pilz is credited with greatly reducing the hurdle to commercialization for Michigan researchers. He co-founded the Law School’s Entrepreneurship Clinic, and is co-chair of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center’s Legal & Insurance Working Group.

Resources at Michigan

“Entrepreneurs at Michigan have a huge advantage. There are many different resources because of its size.”

Rick Bolander