As you read this, the next world-changing breakthrough could be brewing in a Clemson University lab. The next Fortune 500 company could be taking shape in a student’s notebook.

The College of Engineering and Science wants to make sure those ideas do more than collect dust on a shelf, so we have partnered with The Design and Entrepreneurship Network, or The DEN.

Doctoral candidate Bre Przestrzelski, who is wearing green on the left, talks with students in a meeting of The DEN.

Doctoral candidate Bre Przestrzelski, who is wearing green on the left, talks with students in a meeting of The DEN.

The DEN connects student inventors and entrepreneurs with industry experts ranging from angel investors to patent attorneys. They gather in weekly meetings across campus, where students pitch their ideas so that the group can brainstorm ways to make them better and take them to market.

“The success of America is premised on the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of our people,” said Robert Jones, Clemson’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost.

“To have programs like The DEN enables us to create the next generation of leaders who will continue in the same spirit.”

The DEN launched in January 2014 in the bioengineering department and has steadily grown. Some meetings draw as many as 40 students representing a variety of majors across the university. The DEN brings in faculty,  industry and legal experts to serve as presenters and mentors to these budding entrepreneurs.

“What was sown as a seed in the Department of Bioengineering has blossomed into a full-fledged entrepreneurship initiative across the College of Engineering and Science,” said the dean, Anand Gramopadhye.

“The DEN is a wonderful entrepreneurship ecosystem that prepares engineers and scientists not only to take the next generation of jobs but to create the next generation of jobs. This is a major campus initiative by the College of Engineering and Science.”

While the network is young, it has already produced some promising results.

A company was born after bioengineering doctoral candidate Kayla Gainey met Greenville businessman John Warner at one of The DEN meetings.

Warner and another Greenville businessman, Brian McSharry, later became co-founders of Accessible Diagnostics, where Gainey is chief technology officer. Delphine Dean, the associate professor who advised Gainey, is also a co-founder.

The company’s product, GlucoSense, uses ink-jet printers to make glucose test strips for diabetics in “resource poor settings.” Accessible Diagnostics has a commitment of $500,000 in private investment from Concepts to Companies, also run by Warner and McSharry.

Bre Przestrzelski, the student founder and leader of The DEN, said that while the network began with mostly bioengineering students, she is working to help it catch fire across the university.

“We look forward to introducing The DEN mission to other colleges, and are excited to build a university-wide team of faculty and mentors to support design, entrepreneurship, and venture creation across the university,” she said. “Spreading across campus will ensure true multi-disciplinary entrepreneurship. At the end of the day, it will create better companies and products.”

Nicholas Marais, center, shows how Insita Pro while Dr. John DesJardins holds a model of a rotator cuff.

Nicholas Marais, center, shows how Insita Pro while Dr. John DesJardins holds a model of a rotator cuff.

The DEN’s next big breakthrough could be Insita Pro, an arthroscopic surgical device that could make rotator cuff surgery less invasive.

Nicholas Marais, the master’s student who is leading the team, said the device developed as fast as it did with the help of The DEN.

“At the end of last year we had a functional prototype, but that’s all it was at the time,” Marais said. “We used The DEN to take it to the next level.”

One of the network’s meetings connected the team with a mentor, Michael Gara, who helped develop a business plan that was key to entering Insita Pro in two national design competitions. As a result, the team was among seven finalists nationwide at the 2014 Collegiate Inventors Competition. The team was also able to present its patent-pending device at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C.

The DEN’s reach into areas beyond bioengineering has already begun. The “Shoot Umbrella” team, for example, met through The DEN and includes students studying finance, marketing, bioengineering and mechanical engineering. They hope to create an umbrella rental service, similar to the Redbox service for movies. Other student ventures under development at the DEN include art, music, education and computer science.

John DesJardins, associate professor in bioengineering and co-founder of the DEN, advised the Insita Pro team through their senior design project. He said that for many students, The DEN could be a way to advance technology and businesses they develop in design or Creative Inquiry courses. Creative Inquiry is a Clemson program that encourages undergraduates to do research.

But not all of The DEN’s pitches need be well-developed Powerpoint presentations. Some are ideas students thought up a night earlier. Students participate to learn, network and grow their teams, DesJardins said.

“We take apart ideas and put them back together,” he said. “The next thing you know, students are forming companies, whether it’s in their dorm room or something like Insita Pro that could be picked up by a major manufacturer.”

A room in the bioengineering department’s Rhodes Engineering Research Center is being renovated as part of The DEN’s expansion.

The room has been painted in bright colors and outfitted with extravagantly patterned chairs. It serves as one of their first dedicated “ideation” spaces on campus, giving students a place to kick around new ideas and build their teams.

“What I would love to see for The DEN initiative is a space like that in every department across campus,”  Przestrzelski said.

Some students participate in The DEN for credit through Creative Inquiry, but most show up because they are passionate about their projects, she said. The DEN is listed as a bioengineering Creative Inquiry class as a placeholder, but students from all disciplines are invited, Przestrzelski said.

The DEN’s first meeting of spring semester will be Jan. 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Edgar A. Brown Room of Clemson’s R.M. Cooper Library. Students and faculty members from all disciplines are encouraged to attend.

For more information, email Przestrzelski at clemsonden@gmail.com or bprzest@g.clemson.edu, or go to The DEN’s website at www.thedenatclemson.com.