Spiro Institute, paid internship jump-start insulation start-up
Cullen Schlageter showed a mechanical aptitude as a fifth-grader, when he took apart a broken radio and reassembled it in working condition. His mother used to marvel at her son’s knack for building things – from forts in nearby woods to projects in his grandfather’s woodworking shop.
So, it’s no surprise to those who know the Clemson University junior that he could be on the brink of creating the next best thing in insulation.
The Greenwood, S.C., native has been a tinkerer for as long as he can remember. Cullen may have been on to something when he decided to put that mechanical aptitude to good use by majoring in packaging science.
His mechanical know-how and a heavy dose of curiosity led to his interest in insulation. Cullen worked part-time at a Greenville-area company that uses insulation in its products. It was that workplace experience which piqued his curiosity about how insulation could be made better, yet still be affordable.
“I seem to have a gift of grasping an understanding of something, then wanting to know more about it. My curiosity got me thinking about building models to develop a thinner, lighter product with a higher insulation value” that would be cost effective for packaging refrigerated products for shipping.
To a layperson, that process is complicated, but in a nutshell it involves creating an air gap between reflective, aluminized layers of polyester that will enhance the R-value of an insulation. Initial testing has shown Cullen’s product to be lighter, thinner and have a competitive insulating value with products currently used for shipping refrigerated products.
“Cullen has insights about his industry that many other of his peers don’t,” said Matt Klein, director of the Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership. “He has a strong entrepreneurial orientation of being innovative, proactive and not averse to taking risks.”
Cullen is the beneficiary of a Spiro Institute UPIC (University Professional Internship Co-op) program, which pays students to work on their start-up ideas. The UPIC program pays students for 160 hours of work on their start-ups during a semester. Eight students are currently participating in the UPIC program through the Spiro Institute.
“It makes sense to pay a student for work that’s significant to their future. In our case, students work on their start-up as opposed to them paying their bills by working in a restaurant,” Klein said. “And these paid positions come with accountability. Every week, students must file a report, including to peers, on their accomplishments, goals for the coming week and areas where they need help.”
Campus-wide, the UPIC program provided 850 Clemson students with experiential learning in the past academic year. Funding for the program is provided through the state and the provost’s office.
“UPIC is another stepping stone in preparing our students for the real world,” said Lisa Robinson, assistant director, University Professional Internships. “Students are able to apply their classroom learning in a professional setting that directly relates to their future careers.”
Cullen is getting professional guidance from Klein and others within the Clemson resource network as he navigates the process of creating the next generation of insulation. He already has applied for a provisional patent on his process and continues to test and improve the R-value. He hopes to be able to design the product to be recyclable.
Cullen credits that guidance and numerous resources available to him as invaluable in his quest to take his concept to market.
“There are so many ways my experience here has helped me move forward with this project. From my intro to engineering class, my co-op experience through the UPIC internship to even my fraternity involvement and how I learned time management,” Cullen said. “At each point in my journey there’s been a learning experience and someone, or a resource, has always been there to move me along.”
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