From IWU Magazine, Summer 2017 edition
Alumni Investment in Student Innovation Pays Many Kinds of Dividends
Sidebar Story by KIM HILL
Over the past academic year a team of students took advantage of an extraordinary opportunity: to take a Titan alum’s idea for a product; research its viability; design, produce, and test a series of prototypes; and create a brand, with the ultimate goal of bringing the product to market.
It all began with an observation about how kids lose interest in toy trains. Entrepreneur Marc Talluto ’94 noticed his oldest son, now age 11, aging out of his wooden block trains for more sophisticated remote control cars and similar toys with tech capabilities. A co-worker of Talluto’s mentioned he observed the same thing with his children.
“It just seemed like there was this huge gap in the train space in what interested a six year old and maybe a 14-year-old kid,” Talluto recalls. But being busy with his job as the co-founder of Fruition Partners, a Chicago-based IT services and consulting firm, Talluto let the idea languish.
After selling Fruition in 2015, however, Talluto began thinking about new goals — personal and professional — at about the same time the DTE program was getting off the ground. Talluto was interested in ways he could benefit IWU students directly — projects that could move quickly that didn’t depend on layers of bureaucracy. First he sponsored the IWU Entrepreneurial Fellowship in summer 2016. Then he decided to sponsor paid internships for interested students in order to get the train idea off the ground.
“It just seemed the fastest way to get the students engaged and also build up some momentum for the DTE program,” says Talluto.
Once a student team was established, Talluto visited campus and laid out the challenge: to develop a remote-controlled track switch that could get upper elementary school-aged kids reengaged with trains. During the fall semester 2016, physics students built a prototype that was kid-tested through focus groups. Talluto checked in on the group’s progress through Skype and phone calls.
“One semester was just seeing if the idea made sense,” Talluto explains. “In the second semester they discovered the idea made sense, but the way we were doing it needed to change” — from a track to a train engine that’s switchable. “Same result, same feeling of moving a train around a track, but it’s lower cost, it’s easier to have one remote instead of five, and we think people will understand it better.”
The spring semester team included physics majors Evan Dill ’18 and Chris Rudnicki ’17. Art majors Ania Bui ’18 and Nghi Nguyen ’18 worked on product design. Business major Patrick Zajac ’18, economics and financial services double major Anuvrat Baruah ’18, and music major Michaela Lamczyk ’18 rounded out the team employed by the limited liability company (named STEMengine) that Talluto established exclusively for the project.
For Dill, a major challenge was understanding his teammates’ points of view. “It’s really easy for me to work in a group with five other physics majors because we are all kind of like-minded,” he notes. But when he said of the prototype, “let’s get the function; form comes later,” Dill learned that his words sounded to the design team like, “Your job isn’t worth anything.”
“It wasn’t easy at first to work with the design team,” says Dill, “because we didn’t understand their values. We do now.”
As a design-team member, Nguyen noted the importance of looking at the product as a whole. “Our design decisions have an impact on the prototype’s production,” she says. Fellow designer Bui felt inspired by the artistic freedom Talluto gave them to conceive a design based on “what works best,” rather than conforming to a customer’s preconceived notion. “Marc did not tell us how to do this,” she says. “He was generous in his trust of us and in our skills.”
And while noting that his technical abilities have grown two- or three-fold as a result of his work on the project, Dill speaks for the team when he says the most valuable lessons have come from recognizing the critical importance of communication, time management, flexibility, and confidence in themselves.
“They’ve learned so much through the trials and failures, through more trials and errors,” Talluto observes. “They’ve really pulled back the veil on product creation.” At the same time, he says, students’ work — from presentations and analysis to models and focus group results — “have surpassed my expectations.”
While helping IWU students succeed has been Talluto’s greatest reward, he’s also pleased with the project from a business perspective.
“Looking at this from the point of view of the investor, I came up with the idea years ago but I was always frustrated by the fact I knew the idea wasn’t that complicated. I just had no time to focus on it,” Talluto says. “For four years I thought about this and within two semesters I now have a prototype and a product and a team that’s ready to do more with it. You don’t often get results of that speed.” He notes he still had his “day job” during the STEMengine startup, as he has remained CEO of Fruition Partners during the transition to new ownership.
Talluto says the next steps are to take the prototypes — essentially built from scratch at IWU using 3-D printers and computer-controlled routers — to an outside product design and engineering firm in Urbana, Ill., on the recommendation of Jane Chadesh ’90, owner of children’s art company Kidzaw.
“I would like the students to still be involved with product development and learn from these product engineers,” says Talluto. “Right now we have a prototype that’s functional, but that doesn’t mean it can be scaled or sourced internationally or sold with proper safety specifications. I want the students to see the next stage in the life cycle of a potential product.”
Talluto is exploring other IWU-based ideas. One is to set up another limited liability company with a student team to conduct research on the potential of a software product. He’d also like the University to consider launching an on-campus business managed by students, with profits going back into the program.
And he hopes other alumni will follow his example. “It’s a simple thing to start a company to run these kinds of internships. There may be other alums who have a great idea for something, or who are looking for help in doing research and market analysis. It’s a great way to affect student lives.” If you are interested in learning more about how to help IWU students with projects like these, contact Tara Gerstner, coordinator of entrepreneurial activities, at (309) 556-3711.
Studies show young adults were affected by the Great Recession and hunger for an entrepreneurial style of working. Talluto sees “the University pivoting into this really interesting approach to student learning (via the DTE program) and the attraction it has to these kinds of students. The more opportunities students have, the more students will come into the program, and the investment cycle starts to grow and feed on itself.”
And for those Titans who are already entrepreneurs, Talluto believes they’ll find enormous personal satisfaction encouraging students to “become the kind of free thinkers who are willing to create something out of nothing.”