Published October 22, 2019
As an entrepreneur, Smart Walls Construction founder and Chief Technology Officer Jorge Cueto understands the inclination to hire experts when possible.
He also recognizes the potential disadvantage that abundant experience can spawn: bias. So when he was ready to advance his telescopic structural wall concept, he placed significance on recruiting energetic individuals willing to survey an issue from all angles.
The answer was three undergraduate engineering students from UB, his alma mater. The spark they bring — underpinned by problem-solving theory — is fueling momentum for his startup housed at Baird Research Park, UB’s technology incubator.
Cueto affords them with the help of Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) funds, a grant administered by UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) that supplements the cost of technical services from the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He also leverages Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II monies from the National Science Foundation.
“It’s quite an opportunity, that’s for sure,” says Christopher Borders, a mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) senior.
Borders works alongside two fellow seniors, MAE student Albert Shaw and industrial and systems engineering student Derek Roback. The three are transitioning Cueto’s idea for flood protection into reality. They touch all areas of product development, from assessing a dilemma and brainstorming solutions to designing, manufacturing and testing a prototype.
“It makes you want to come to work every day,” Borders says. “It’s really exciting because you don’t know what’s going to happen or what you’re going to learn.”
The smart walls vision originated with Cueto attending a UB Emerging Technologies class that asked students to conceive a fix for a societal challenge. His ambition was to improve bridge construction with a system of nested, hollow boxes that expands like a telescope.
Watching one-year anniversary news coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation triggered a shift in the plan. He thought: Why not apply the concept to create a retractable wall, built into the ground, that is deployed only during the risk of flooding?
Cueto forged ahead, enrolling in a competitive UB Entrepreneurial Lab program and emerging as a winner. Ensuing seed money was the precursor to forming the company in 2015 and acquiring SBIR Phase I funding for proof-of-concept validation. Amid it all, the Colombian native was pursuing a doctorate in civil engineering at UB.
Today, Smart Walls employs one part-time employee. Cueto focuses on business development activities, which includes exploring opportunities with municipalities and businesses, and attracting outside funders to aid equipment purchases and staff hires.
He reserves the advanced design prototyping primarily for the three aspiring engineers and supports them as a resource.
“I was a student, so I recognize the importance of involving students and having their hands on the process,” Cueto says. “I told them that I hope in this place, you find what you love.”
It happened for Roback. Previous technical internships at well-established companies limited his creativity since processes were already in place. The scenario is the opposite at a startup, and he loves it.
“I like the idea that each day you go to work you might have a different problem to deal with. And you don’t have defined positions,” Roback explains. “We have a problem and we need to figure out how to fix it. That keeps things really interesting, to say the least.”
The students’ energy has been devoted to a few main assignments.
One centered on devising the telescopic mechanical lifting mechanism. The job involved overcoming constraints, researching materials and building the device. Hours spent in UB’s machine shop provided a new perspective and understanding of machining.
“That was one of those projects where we knew a tiny bit going into it, but we were starting from scratch,” Shaw says.
The endeavor has since progressed to conceptualizing an automatic prototype in which wireless communications activate the wall. A concurrent project aims to reinforce the molds used in making the concrete walls.
“These guys have opened my eyes to teamwork — to having people you can rely on,” Cueto says. “The things I envisioned happening within six to eight months have happened in two months.”
Their effectiveness is elevating Cueto’s credibility in the structural technology field. It also permits more time for networking and entrepreneurial community involvement, which are integral for shedding the startup label and transitioning to the growth stage.
For instance, he attributes winning the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2019 “Best Entrepreneur Award” to student help because he could invest in preparing his pitch. The monetary award was only $2,000, but the recognition was priceless. The honor is one more way to attract attention and open doors to new business relationships.
Cueto acknowledges that some entrepreneurs may be indisposed to involving students if they lack a linear set of tasks to assign. He sees it differently.
“Seek assistance with an open mind, not thinking of interns as interns but as future engineers who are able to solve problems,” he says when reflecting on the technical-minded SPIR program in particular. “You just need to challenge them.”