Silicon Prairie News

The entrepreneurial excitement at Peter Kiewit Institute

Omaha October 14, 2010 by Andrea Ciurej

 Mike McGinnis, Peter Kiewit Institute’s executive director. Photo by Andrea Ciurej.

While designed to meet the needs of students interested in information science, technology and engineering, the University of Nebraska’s Peter Kiewit Institute (PKI) also serves as a staple for connecting students from business to industry.

For some students, the latter translates into getting a degree and entering their field of choice. But, for aspiring entrepreneurs, it means starting a small business and taking it to market.

Mike McGinnis, PKI’s executive director, said entrepreneurship is a high level of interest to students in the institute’s two colleges: the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s College of Information Science and Technology (IS&T) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Engineering.

McGinnis said entrepreneur-driven students from IS&T are looking to invent new techniques and methods within the areas of informatics and cyber defense, while engineering students are doing so in sustainability and renewable energies.

“They have very different approaches to how they work intellectual property, tech transfer and entrepreneurship,” McGinnis said, “but the areas they work in and the areas that overlap between them are the ones that have the most groundbreaking opportunities for our students.”

Professors within the institute are very much apart of this entrepreneurial excitement, as they are enhancing programs for bioinformatics, computer engineering and robotics, especially in swarm technologies, studying robots working together in the industry and on the battlefield.

(Students in PKI's computer lab. Photo by Andrea Ciurej.)

“Entrepreneurship exists in those areas,” McGinnis said. “It’s sometimes big, sometimes small companies that would be interested in working with them.”

Faculty and students are also going beyond the traditional curriculum and partnering with nearby businesses.

PKI works closely with the Scott Technology Center and the Innovation Accelerator, an incubator program located in the technology center for early-stage startup businesses, McGinnis said.

“Those two have brought us numerous opportunities for our students to get involved with entrepreneurship, innovation [and] discovery,” he said. "They are constantly looking for good ideas and they really don't care where they come from."

The technology center and the Innovation Accelerator work to identify an entrepreneur-in-residence – a position held by a seasoned entrepreneur who is brought on staff by a venture capital firm, university or other organization – with the ideas sparked by PKI students.

Once an entrepreneur-in-residence has been chosen, the student who brought forth the idea is asked to build a company around that intellectual property.

A group of PKI's top students will then work with the entrepreneur-in-residence on equity arrangements, as well as building the company and taking it to market.

PKI also aligns its engineering students with companies, such as Kiewit, DLR Group, HDR and Leo A. Daly, for building information modeling. IS&T students, on the other hand, get the opportunity to work with companies, such as First Data, Mutual of Omaha Insurance or Union Pacific.

Ideas sparked by faculty and students in the classroom often determine their next partnership.

"Companies will form a partnership with us so they can acquire that technology to make themselves more competitive," McGinnis said. "It depends upon what section you're working with and who."

The Peter Kiewit Institute, located on the campus of UNO. Photo by Andrea Ciurej.

Within the next 10 years, McGinnis said the institute has goals of expanding research "five to 10 times" and enhancing academic programs "by about 50 percent" so PKI can serve as more of an incubator-like environment.

This includes the transformation of the institute's third floor into a "great research environment." Currently, all three floors hold classrooms and serve as study space for students, McGinnis said. All classrooms will eventually be limited to the first and second floors.

"That alone will give us incubator-like space so that companies can come in, work in our labs, alongside out researchers, alongside our faculty and students," he said. "That's where the back-and-forth of ideas comes from.

"Together, we will find solutions to our [partner companies'] problems that are the same problems that are facing companies elsewhere in the United States."

While this will give PKI and its partners a technical and technological advantage, McGinnis said it all comes down to human capital.

"Are our academic programs as cutting-edge and as high quality as they can be or need to be?" he said. "Our answer to that question is they will be as long as we provide the technology, the space, the intellectual curiosity of our great students that we recruit and out great faculty to work on those cutting-edge problems and try to find those solutions."

McGinnis said the Omaha area is fortunate to have large corporations headquartered here. It is his hope that PKI will continue to serve as a hub of growth and natural curiosity among students and local business partners.

"What we want to do is create an environment where natural curiosity about how things work, looking for solutions to problems, where we will be a magnet for that here at the Peter Kiewit Institute," McGinnis said. "We think that this can truly be a great opportunity for the individuals from Nebraska, from the Great Plains states, to look to the Peter Kiewit Institute, to look to Omaha, for entrepreneurship, innovation and solving the problems of tomorrow."

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