Education

Inventor eyes next step

Imagine how convenient it would be to transfer data files from one thumb drive to another without needing a computer.

That’s the concept of a gadget that a team from Washington State University will present Tuesday at the 2010 Collegiate Inventors Competition. That team includes South Sound native Jeff Sweeney.

Sweeney and his cohorts already have won an all- expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., where they will compete for $10,000 and other prizes.

“It’s been really exciting,” said Sweeney, 27.

The 2001 Tumwater High School graduate described the contest as a “huge stepping stone” for the team members because even if they don’t win, they’ll be able to meet executives from major companies and potential investors during the two-day event.

“We’re going to try and get this product off the ground,” he said.

Sweeney and his teammates – Jacob Murray from the Tri-Cities, Carla Heathman from Anchorage, Alaska, and Paul Wettin from Renton – developed the device while participating in WSU’s Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute, a fellowship that matches engineering and business students for a yearlong design project.

As part of their studies, they created a company called “U2You” and a prototype for their device.

“The transformation that has occurred in each one of these students as they have taken on this project has been just short of unbelievable,” said Robert Olsen, associate dean of undergraduate student services in WSU College of Engineering and Architecture.

The idea came from one of the engineering students’ personal experiences: needing information that was on a USB, but not having a computer to access the files. Sweeney said that coming from the business school, he could see how easily the product could be marketed to the public.

“In essence, you can plug a USB into my USB and load or transfer files,” Sweeney said. “There’s a lot of potential with it.”

Sweeney graduated from WSU in May with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in entrepreneurship. He recently moved to Auburn and is a service representative for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sweeney said he drew on his personal experience in developing a business plan for the device. After high school, he enlisted in the Army and was twice deployed to Iraq.

“I was like, ‘Man, we could have used that every single day during deployment,’” he said.

Earlier this year, the team took third place in WSU’s business plan competition.

“That was the first eye-opener that we had something we could pursue,” Sweeney said. “We started thinking, ‘Wow, this could actually work.’”

While in D.C., they’ll face some serious competition: The other undergraduate entries include a surgical sponge that, if accidentally left in a patient’s body during surgery, will break down into harmless components; an adapter that makes it easier to plug and unplug devices; an attachment that increases the precision and safety of surgical drills; and a 3-D braiding machine that produces composite lattice poles for construction.

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