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A plug for entrepreneurship

As freshmen in the Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) program, Greg Capece ’10, Mike Harm ’10, and Nick Rocha ’10’s course load included a mandatory workshop whose assignment was the development of a product that would assist the elderly in their homes and help them have better lives.

In the process of researching household tasks older people have trouble with and brainstorming ways to help them overcome those hardships, the three came to a realization.

“The problem we discovered is that a lot of times the elderly have problems plugging and unplugging appliances into wall outlets because of arthritis and weak grip strength,” Capece recalled.

Two years later, the trio has parlayed its assignment into funding for a new device that helps older people complete that often-onerous task. Their product, the MPlug, uses a magnet system to connect appliances to—and disconnect them from—outlets with far less force than is required for direct connections.

After working to develop the idea as freshmen, the three were so intrigued by it that they opted to continue after the class ended in hopes of actualizing it. They entered their idea into a few contests and took first prize in the 2008 Thalheimer Student Entrepreneurship Competition. That recognition brought with it $3,000 and a seven-person Lehigh student team that is working on the MPlug for its IBE capstone project.

The students continued to solicit funding, and recently the Technology Collaborative, a statewide economic development organization that supports the growth of Pennsylvania’s robotics, cyber-security, and digital technologies industries, awarded them a $30,000 grant through its Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Commercialization Initiative (PATCI).

Plugging away

Capece, Harm, and Rocha, who are required to spend the grant within nine months, are planning to use the funding for patent and legal issues, for market research, and for building a better prototype. They began putting the prize to work by incorporating a company, Plug Away.

The PATCI grant process could prove invaluable as the trio draws closer to manufacturing the MPlug and finds itself in need of further capital.

“It was a great experience,” Capece said. “We had to e-mail a PowerPoint presentation to a panel of judges—the people involved with the state funding. We gave roughly a 20-minute presentation on our project over the phone. It was very well received; we were told we had the full backing of the panel.”

The team credits its Lehigh curriculum for igniting the spark that led to the MPlug, and the IBE faculty for stoking the flames as its development grew ever more complex.

“I don’t know of any 19- and 20-year-olds starting their own companies,” Capece said. “Without the IBE program, we never would have been able to do this. It really gave us an entrepreneurial fire. They pushed us along. It was difficult, but it’s been a very rewarding program. We owe a debt of gratitude there. Everyone has been very supportive along the way.”

--Tom Durso

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2008

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