Skip to main content

Greenville Business Magazine

Clemson University Entrepreneurs To Meet With Silicon Valley Executives

Dial Devaney said that he likes taking his hunting dog, Tex, with him on off-road trips, but that she gets nervous if she has to wait in the Jeep when he finds a rock face to climb.

Devaney looked for a portable invisible fence that would allow Tex to run around outside the Jeep but not wander off and get lost. He couldn’t find one - so he invented one and founded a company to commercialize it.

The creation helped Devaney and his business partner, Silas Adams, win first place in the inaugural Spark Challenge at Clemson University.

The team received $2,500 in prize money and earned Devaney a trip to Silicon Valley to meet with technology company executives. He leaves Sunday and plans to use the opportunity to learn more about how the executives became successful so that he can do the same.

The Spark Challenge is among the latest efforts to expose Clemson students to start-up culture and provide them with access to mentors who have business experience.

The program was made possible by Alex Zheng, who received his chemical engineering degree from Clemson in 1990 before going on to co-found Huneo, a healthcare tech company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The $25,000 he provided to Clemson was seed money to establish the West Coast Connector Fund, which pays for the Spark Challenge. The fund also helps pay travel expenses for Clemson’s new University Innovation Fellows to attend their annual meetup at Stanford University.

As Devaney and other students pack their bags for their trip West, Zheng and others are looking for additional donors to help sustain the fund and expand the number of students involved.

“If you’re exposed to these sort of things, it opens up your eyes, opens up new horizons,” Zheng said. “It may give them new opportunities to explore.”

Among those heading to Silicon Valley with the students is John DesJardins, who is the faculty mentor for the Spark Challenge and The DEN entrepreneurship program.

DesJardins said that he sees growing interest among students in innovation and entrepreneurship, especially in the tech sector.

“These kind of trips are formative for a lot of students,” said DesJardins, who is also the Robert B. and Susan B. Hambright Leadership Associate Professor of Bioengineering. “It’s a real adventure, and these interactions are critical. It’s impactful for the alumni as well.”

Teams applied in October to enter the Spark Challenge, and those that were accepted received $500 in seed funding. Another $150 went to each of their faculty advisors.

Teams were required to attend business and development workshops in November and February held by The DEN and the Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

Students then pitched their products to an audience of entrepreneurs, faculty members, and students in the Fluor Daniel Engineering Innovation Center.

A second place prize of $1,000 went to Collin Braeuning and Madison Maddox of MailRoom, while Christopher Lambert and Nathan Binkley of Telemetry received $500 for coming in third.

Devaney and Adams, who are picking a company name, said participating in the Spark Challenge provided them with funds for professional graphics and video services and valuable feedback on how to make their business better.

“You notice especially in the preparation process for the Spark Challenge that you depend on a lot of people,” Adams said. “It’s important to be timely with your decision-making and also very strategic when it comes to who you approach for outside resources.”

The Spark Challenge allows one member from each of the top three teams to travel to Silicon Valley. The plan calls for them to have dinner with Zheng, who lives in Fremont, close to the Tesla factory.

After graduating from Clemson, Zheng went to the California Institute of Technology for his Ph.D. in chemical engineering. He then became an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, where his honors included a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

His wife found a job working for IBM in Silicon Valley and, after five years of cross-country commuting, the family moved West.

“That really changed my perspective when I came to the San Francisco area,” Zheng said. “Every time you go to a party, you talk about who is starting companies. It’s an eye-opener.”

Zheng worked for eight years at OSIsoft, where he was director of development, before deciding to launch Huneo.

He said that he decided to start the West Coast Connector Fund after a group of Clemson students and administrators paid a visit to alumni in the Bay Area. Zheng said he wants to give students a chance he and other alumni didn’t have 30 years ago.

“It might change your life,” he said.

Devaney and Adams hope so. In the meantime, Devaney is using his easy-to-use, GPS-based invisible fence to travel with Tex throughout the Southeast.

“Now I can take her to Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky - wherever I go,” he said.

University Innovation Fellows, a group of students that encourage entrepreneurship, have figured prominently in the Spark Challenge. The 2019 group developed the Spark Challenge, and previous fellows were responsible for creating The DEN.

The Spark Challenge is expected to return next academic year. Applications can be on any marketable product, and are open to any team that has at least one student in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.