Startups advancing with aid of SPIR grant

Startups advancing with aid of SPIR grant.

From left, interactiveX CEO Rohan Shah works alongside UB student assistant Jonathan Strzalka.

Published May 15, 2017

“It helps us deal with all of the paperwork, paychecks and those HR things that, especially being a startup, are time consuming and take you away from building the thing you need to build.”
Rohan Shah, interactiveX
Founder and CEO

Not too long ago Rohan Shah was a student at the University at Buffalo, juggling undergraduate computer science studies with the launch of a technology company, interactiveX.

The December 2015 graduate could have left UB without looking back. Instead, he is engaging students in work integral to developing his young company.

Shah is utilizing the Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) grant to subsidize the employment of five students. Since fall 2016, the students have flexed their software development abilities and devised solutions for the company’s software platform called “Classavo,” which provides professors with the means to convert courses into online experiences.

SPIR enabled the attraction of better-qualified candidates with a pay rate that was unattainable otherwise. The students have become an essential part of the team in contributing to product development.

The grant, administered by the UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE), is a program of the State University of New York. It partially pays for technical assistance projects carried out by UB engineering faculty and/or students. SPIR is available to companies in New York state that employ up to 500 people.

Like Shah, CEOs of startups are increasingly seeing the grant’s potential for bringing their ideas to life.

Thiru Vikram said the student support he received with the aid of SPIR was “very integral” to the progress of Buffalo Automation, the company he founded as a UB sophomore focused on creating self-piloting watercraft technology. Though he had the ability to employ three UB students in summer 2016 without the funding, use of the grant saved company resources.

Especially beneficial was gaining entry to a pool of candidates who were otherwise difficult to locate. Vikram needed people possessing such skills as machine learning, deep neural networks, image or signal processing, and Java and Linux system programming.

“TCIE had access to the listservs at UB and resources to capture the attention of potential applicants,” Vikram said. “They sent us a lot of applicants whom we interviewed.”

Two students worked primarily in UB’s School of Engineering Machine Shop to retrofit an 18-foot speedboat with a mechanical steering system. Plans entail conducting demos of the self-driving technology in Buffalo and beta testing, beginning this spring. The other student constructed the framework for a mobile app. It has some basic functionality, but requires further development.

The technology was intended for Buffalo Automation’s recreational boating “side project.” But it is important to the company’s core business of serving a large shipping company. Automated technology is first tested on speed boats before being developed for 750-foot boats.

At interactiveX, Shah admits that he and co-founder Josh Krouse would not be as far along in the company’s business life cycle without student assistance. Classavo is currently used by professors at five institutions of higher education and their cumulative 4,000 students.

SPIR has allowed the pair to concentrate more on core aspects of their business. For example, the program has alleviated some human resources issues that would normally weigh down an entrepreneur who lacks expertise.

“It helps us deal with all of the paperwork, paychecks and those HR things that, especially being a startup, are time consuming and take you away from building the thing you need to build,” Shah said.

UB students have contributed to the product by writing code, testing the platform, and fixing bugs. Vivian Luo is a senior computer engineering undergraduate who works an average 10 hours per week. She said she has not only learned more about programming, but has gained insights into marketing and its importance to product development.

“I have a different view of when I’m building a product now,” Luo said. “By interacting with the user more, I’m able to know more details of what they actually want in a product.”

Shah has witnessed Luo blossom with confidence in her ability to tackle problems. He relishes the opportunity to foster such transformations, provide students with an avenue for strengthening their resumes, and groom potential hires.