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
“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
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.”