August 15, 2016

UConn’s startup interns build CT’s STEM-talent pipeline

HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
Scott Conroy, a graduate student in applied genomics, interned for Frequency Therapeutics, which is developing a way to regrow inner ear hairs used for hearing.
HBJ PHOTOs | Matt Pilon
MBA candidate Shyma Nair with her internship mentor Roger LaFlamme, COO of Rapid Radiant Technologies.
HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
Chemistry graduate-student intern Yue Zang
HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
Kit Bonin of Agrivida with intern Rebecca Pranger
HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
Intern Rebecca Axworthy, who worked with Diameter Health.
HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
Intern program director Caroline Dealy with Victor Hesselbrock, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry.

Earlier this month, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs looked on as UConn undergraduate and graduate-level students presented what they accomplished as summer interns working at the school's incubator companies in Farmington and Storrs.

Hailing from more than a dozen majors — and some already with STEM-related work experience under their belts — the students' projects were equally diverse, ranging from the creation of marketing plans for software and beauty products to the study of protein-coated inserts to treat degenerative eye diseases and the industrial implications of what happens inside a termite's digestive tract.

The students could very well become part of the STEM-talent (science, technology, engineering and math) pipeline Connecticut officials want to harness and grow in the state.

In all, 15 students joined the fifth annual graduating class of UConn's Technology Incubation Program (TIP) summer internship initiative, up from just two when the program was created five years ago by Caroline Dealy, an associate professor of reconstructive sciences.

Dealy said she hatched the idea when she realized there were no UConn students working in the TIP program, which was founded 13 years ago to provide lab space, technology, expertise and other support for startups germinated from university research.

Now, with the Storrs incubator facility fully leased and the recently expanded Farmington facility beginning to fill up, demand for interns is outpacing the supply, and Dealy wants to grow the student-help pipeline. But it will require more funding, she said.

The interns are paid a stipend ranging from approximately $3,500 to $5,000 for the 10-week program, financed entirely by various UConn departments.

The pay is one of the reasons the program has become competitive; more than 200 students applied this year.

For incubator tenant companies, it's yet another perk, in addition to competitive rents starting at $20 per square foot for lab space as well as regular access to attorneys and Small Business Development Center officials, who keep office hours in UConn Health's 400 Farmington Ave. incubator in Farmington.

Some companies keep their interns on part time after the 10 weeks. Other interns have even landed full-time jobs.

"It increases [companies'] chances of hiring highly capable people," said Rita Zangari, UConn's director of innovation programs. "Those companies stay in Connecticut because they want to be where the talent is."

Kit Bonin, senior biochemist at Storrs-based Agrivida, had high praise for the intern program, which has provided him with three interns he has found to be highly qualified.

"It's try before you buy," said Bonin, who this year mentored Rebecca Pranger, a junior majoring in cell biology and bioinformatics. "We want to get a student early enough to vet them and see if they can maybe continue during the school year for credit. It's worked out great for us."

Agrivida is developing animal nutrition enzymes. During her 10 weeks with the company, Pranger — a Coventry native — tested the ability of various enzymes in maize plants to increase fiber digestibility in cows.

Bonin said Pranger's work has real value for Agrivida.

"Being a small company, we can't afford to hire large groups of people, so expanding and contracting can be difficult and having an intern that can come in and actually do the work right away and be able to understand it and actually generate useful data for the company is huge for us," he said.

Pranger, who first experienced lab research in high school, said her time at Agrivida has convinced her that she wants to work in industry rather than academia — a choice with which she'd been grappling.

"I love the idea of applying research to a product," Pranger said.

Yue Zang, a master's candidate in applied chemistry who helped TIP company ReinEsse determine the most appropriate customer base for its wrinkle-reducing skincare product, said she was struck by the multiple roles people play at startups.

"Sometimes you are a research person, sometimes you're a marketer and sometimes you have to be an accountant," Zang said.

Roger LaFlamme, co-founder and chief operating officer of Rapid Radiant Technologies, said he was able to find the perfect mix of skills in his company's intern, Shyma Nair, an MBA candidate at the UConn School of Business, who previously worked in IT and software positions for JP Morgan and Tata Consultancy Services.

"I was looking for somebody who can do research and she had a perfect background in terms of working on her master's in project-management analytics, and she happened to be an electrical engineer," LaFlamme said.

That all worked well for Rapid Radiant, since its infrared heating system technology uses electricity to charge capacitor banks that quickly heat an industrial curing oven. The oven can toast a bagel in about six seconds, Nair said during her presentation.

LaFlamme said he's already asked Nair about working for the company in the future.

"She has to go back to class through December," he said. "We're probably going to use her part time and I'd say there's a good chance she could be hired full time."

Despite her professional background at major corporations, Nair said her work at Rapid Radiant gave her a truer sense of entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as a better sense of the varying pieces of the business. She learned about patents, met with various industry players, and sought to determine her company's competitive advantage in the market.

"I never got into all that when I was actually working," Nair said.

Not just scientists

While most of the 32 companies in UConn's TIP incubators are in the biotech or software space, managers aren't just hunting for STEM interns.

At least several of the 15 students this year were communications or marketing majors with no special knowledge of biology, chemistry or other sciences. After all, startups need to market themselves like anyone else.

Among those interns was Rebecca Axworthy, who's majoring in communications and sociology with a minor in creative writing.

Axworthy spent her 10 weeks with Diameter Health, a healthcare software company that helps hospitals and other providers analyze data from their electronic health records to predict which patients might be at higher risk of falls or costly readmissions. Diameter, founded in 2013 outside Boston, has been in the Farmington incubator for the past year.

Axworthy wrote six scripts that Diameter hopes to translate into one-minute marketing videos aimed at its target audience.

"I've learned so much the past two-and-a-half months I've been working for them and it's really something that's taught me a lot about health care and [business-to-business] marketing — things I really had no experience with prior to this," Axworthy said.

Her mentor, Diameter CEO Eric Rosow, said the company is eying a rebranding and wanted to create an intern project that would be doable within 10 weeks.

"We've been really happy, not just with [Rebecca], but with the whole TIP experience," Rosow said.

Rosow said he plans to stay in touch with Axworthy. It's possible she could work for the company during the upcoming semester for college credits.

"We're definitely going to stay connected," he said. "I know she wants to see the fruits of her labor converted."

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