13 Jun 2017 Taking innovations from the classroom to the marketplace
As a child, Dylan Smith dreamed of being an inventor. Although he later wrote off the idea in favor of the practicality of electrical engineering, his interest in exploring innovative ideas never waned.
He enrolled in Project Lead The Way courses the first year they were offered at his school in Kearney, Mo., eventually taking all of the engineering pathway courses as well as computer science.
Today, as a 19-year-old wrapping up his freshman year at University of Missouri-Kansas City, he is building his own company to integrate solar technology into non-solar products. The genesis for his business, Solinity Technologies, came from his senior capstone project for his PLTW Engineering Design and Development course. That project, a solar-powered bench and kiosk that provides an easy place to charge phones or other devices, took third place in the KC STEM Alliance’s 2016 Senior Showcase Innovator Awards Competition.
Make It REAL Workshop
His team’s Innovator Award gave Dylan a seat in the 2016 Make It REAL entrepreneurial workshop, organized by KC STEM Alliance and partners from the business and startup communities.
“I think it’s safe to say that the workshop was the beginning of my company,” Dylan said. As the workshop concluded, Dylan approached Alex Altomare, one of the guest speakers and a managing partner of The Collective Funds, a venture capital company in Kansas City. Dylan was curious about Alex’s comments on cold calling.
“Alex helped me make my first cold call right there on the spot,” Dylan said. “We called an event rental company–and they actually sounded pretty interested. I’ve probably made at least 20 more cold calls since then.”
Connecting enterprising students like Dylan with the Kansas City business community is one of the ways KC STEM Alliance supports implementation of PLTW curriculum in area schools. Before they get to the Make It REAL workshop, students enrolled in PLTW STEM curriculum have other opportunities to connect with mentors from industry. For example, KC STEM Alliance organizes workshops each fall to connect students with mentors from the engineering and biomedical industries to brainstorm their senior capstone projects. Attending that fall workshop at partner Burns & McDonnell proved fortuitous for Dylan.
“That’s where I met Tim Sylvester, founder of Integrated Roadways. He was a speaker that day and then I was in a small group brainstorm with him,” Dylan said. “We exchanged emails a couple of times my senior year. But as I started my freshman year at UMKC, I kept seeing him on campus.”
Conversations with Tim ultimately led Dylan to keep networking and sharing his work with more and more people. Dylan’s enrollment in the Regnier Institute’s Entrepreneurial Scholarship Program provided more networking and business support, including office space in The Hatchery.
By the time he completed his freshman year, pursuing his long-planned electrical engineering degree with a new minor in entrepreneurship, Dylan had reached the prototype phase of the first product he wants to take to market–a retrofit kit that would put solar technology in bus stop charging stations across the metro.
“I thought I’d be working at a power plant my whole life,” Dylan told students at the 2017 Make It REAL workshop, where he returned as a guest speaker. “But now I’m working on creating things and seeing where they can take us. It’s a lot of fun. It’s great life experience at this stage, seeing how far you can take it forward.”
PLTW leads to real-world problem solving
After he shared his experiences with the 2017 workshop participants, Dylan spent time reflecting on how Project Lead The Way prepared him for his current path.
“Project Lead The Way was always my escape to the real world, letting me jump ahead to the next stage of life,” Dylan said. “I took it very seriously–half my waking hours were spent on my project.”
But Dylan says PLTW also tapped into something deeper.
“Before, I was just focused on myself and being a good student. Project Lead The Way was my first opportunity to be part of something that’s greater than myself. By the time you get to EDD (Engineering Design & Development), you start to realize that you, as an engineer, can affect the world around you.”
Although he’s signed up for a heavy load by pursuing his studies and his young company simultaneously, Dylan says he’s up for the challenge: “You have to have a passion for what you’re doing to get through the work. There are lots of engineers out there, but combining the entrepreneurial piece gives you something different. You never know what will happen once you put yourself out there.”