Two students have turned a failure to reach the stars into success here on Earth.
After failing to win a NASA-sponsored program that would have put their invention, a non-mechanical heat-exchange pump, into orbit, Brandon Carpenter and Jonathan Wachob founded a company to bring their idea to investors.
Now, three years later, the two men have secured the first round of funding necessary to build a working prototype of their device.
"[NASA] said that, while our idea was cool, they thought our team was too immature — not in terms of age, but where we were in terms of our engineering curriculum," said Wachob, a junior math major. "They didn't think we had the skillset to successfully build the experiment for them to test."
The two men received a document more than 30 pages in length detailing the issues NASA had with their project, Wachob said. After a week spent mourning their defeat, they got together with the rest of their seven-person team — now operating under the moniker of their company, Fourier Electric — to refine their device and seek out independent sources of support.
"We sat down and we figured out that there were applications for [our invention] outside of space," Wachob said. "We sat down with Florida Hospital at their Innovation Lab and they really loved the idea. The idea resonated with them. The problem we were finding a solution for was a problem that they had actively had. After we spent a little time with them and further refined how our idea would work in a medical imaging space, [that's] when we started taking our idea to GE, Siemens and all those guys.
"We met with GE's health care CEO and we pitched to him. He stood up and was like, 'Wow, I love the sound of this technology, so I'm going to give you all the engineers you need to integrate and test it. You build the prototype and I'll give you the engineers and equipment.'"
Carpenter, a double major in Aerospace and mechanical engineering, said the current incarnation of the device will be used to help cool MRI machines. The machines use a complex two-stage cooling system to keep their delicate electronic systems from overheating; however, due to the complexity of the machines, a simple failure in their pumping system would necessitate repairs in the order of tens of thousands of dollars.
"If either one of the systems break, the entire machine has to be replaced," Carpenter said. "It's a $2 [million] to $3 million machine; just to replace the hydrogen [used as a coolant] costs around $60,000. Since our device has no moving parts, there's no chance it will break."
Now that they've hammered out a concept to prototype, the two have started approaching venture capital firms to secure funding for their device. They met with Steve Felkowitz, a UCF alumnus and a managing member of Golden Knight Capital, who provided the team with its first investment.
"We were here at UCF to meet one of our teachers," Wachob said. "I stopped in to give her a little update about a meeting we just had and Steve was sitting there. He asked us to tell him a little bit about our project and it all went from there."
Pam Hoelzle, associate director of the Blackstone Launchpad, helped to facilitate the first meeting between the students and their investors.
"I want students to know that it's their turn, that it's their time to succeed," Hoelzle said. "I'm here to connect people with the tools and people they need to realize their dreams."
Wachob said that the team was seeking upward of $1 million to see its prototype realized. While the cost was high, the two men were bolstered by the interest and support they'd received so far.
"It only really started hitting us the last few months when everything really started taking off," Carpenter said. "We first started this idea as something beyond the world of academia and now it's really getting out in the real world."