What’s New in Nanotechnology?

There is some impression out there that “nanotechnology” (and our Nanotechnology Engineering program) is all very research-oriented, with no practical applications or career prospects yet.  Graduates can only look forward to doing lab research or a PhD degree.  Those are certainly potential paths, but not the only ones by any means.

Nanotechnology has been around for about 30 years (see it’s history).  In many ways, it’s just a specialized way of approaching Materials Science/Engineering, and there are already over 1,500 products on the market that incorporate nanotechnology.  Making products requires more than just lab research, and one of the reasons we launched our Nanotechnology Engineering program was in response to industry needs for people with this expertise.

It also seems that the nanotechnology area is one where there is a lot of room for innovation and entrepreneurship by our undergraduate students.  Here are a few recent examples (mainly based on senior design projects) that have led to start-up companies:

It’s interesting to see what creative new ways that nanotechnology can be used to make new products or improve existing ones.  In my own research lab we are working with companies to develop novel test methods, based on nanotechnology, for detection of water contamination, and this is on the verge of commercialization.  Some day soon I’ll finish a post on that topic.

So for a high school student thinking about different career paths, don’t exclude Nanotechnology Engineering if you’re interested in materials and commercial product development.  It’s not all theory, lab work, and graduate research.

Innovation Track Record

There was a recent article in the New York Times about the panic and anxiety surrounding applicants trying to get into the “elite” U.S. schools like Stanford and Harvard.  It contains this interesting little comment:

I also spoke with Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, one of the best-known providers of first-step seed money for tech start-ups. I asked him if any one school stood out in terms of students and graduates whose ideas took off. “Yes,” he responded, and I was sure of the name I’d hear next: Stanford. It’s his alma mater, though he left before he graduated, and it’s famous as a feeder of Silicon Valley success.

But this is what he said: “The University of Waterloo.” It’s a public school in the Canadian province of Ontario, and as of last summer, it was the source of eight proud ventures that Y Combinator had helped along. “To my chagrin,” Altman told me, “Stanford has not had a really great track record.”

Here is the link to the full article.

Capstone Design Projects

March is the season for “Capstone Design Project” presentations at Waterloo Engineering.  These are events where groups of graduating students present and explain the design projects they have been working on for the past 8 to 12 months.  Working on a significant, open-ended design project is a feature in all engineering programs in Waterloo and across Canada, to my knowledge.  These “Design Symposia” are open to the public.

Where do the topics for these design projects come from?  There are 3 typical sources:  1) some professors provide an idea, likely related to their ongoing research projects; 2) companies approach us with ideas that they would like someone to work on; 3) the student groups come up with their own ideas.

For companies, this is an opportunity to have some ideas explored in more detail and for free (other than some time spent).  Many companies have some new ideas or side-projects that would be nice to do, but they don’t have the time or resources to follow-up on them right away.  Having a student group work on it can help them scope-out the idea and see if it is worthwhile to pursue more aggressively in the future.  For the students, they get more experience working on a real-world problem, possibly in an industry sector they want to learn more about.  This can be a nice addition to the experience they already gained during their co-op work terms.

Student groups that come up with their own idea are often the source of new innovations and start-up companies that they build after graduation.  At Waterloo, any novel idea that a student creates is owned by them.  The university supports innovation and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t attempt to take it over in any way.

For high school students who are thinking about pursuing engineering, these projects are a good way to get a feeling for what you can do in the different disciplines.  So check out these links for project titles or descriptions:

Management Engineering
Nanotechnology Engineering
Software Engineering
Civil, Environmental, Geological Engineering
Electrical & Computer Engineering
Mechatronics Engineering
Mechanical Engineering
Chemical Engineering
Systems Design Engineering

A couple of programs are missing their project lists, but will probably be updated in the coming days.  See this link.

University approves $88-million Engineering 7 building

  Here is some interesting and exciting news.  I wasn’t aware it was up for approval, so it caught me by surprise!  It will have quite a few interesting features for education in engineering and entrepreneurship for all programs.  But it also will help with our space constraints in Biomedical and Mechatronics Engineering.  See the link for more details.  In the picture (architect’s rendering) you can just see the side of our current Engineering 5 building in the background to the right.

University approves $88-million Engineering 7 building | Engineering.

Waterloo grad first Canadian to lead Mars simulation mission | Waterloo Stories

Waterloo grad first Canadian to lead Mars simulation mission | Waterloo Stories.

Here’s an interesting story about a Mechanical Engineering graduate, and her unconventional career path in the aerospace sector as well as a start-up company in the renewable energy sector.  I always find it very interesting; the wide variety of things engineering graduates end up doing.

Sunscreen warning markers earn top grades at Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp

Sunscreen warning markers earn top grades at Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp.

Here is an interesting story about some of our Nanotechnology Engineering students, who used their creativity and expertise in materials science to develop a business idea for a compound that warns you when you need to re-apply sunscreen.  They won a $15,000 prize to help carry on building their start-up company.

There was another story a while ago about nanotechnology engineering graduates who were developing an improved de-icer compound for use in frost removal or control.  Just a couple of examples of what nanotechnology engineering students do in the area of entrepreneurship.