From a “Founder’s Workshop” course to a $20,000 Innovation Grant competition, Duke Engineering is investing in new initiatives to help undergraduates turn their ideas into impactful solutions
It all started at Duke with an idea.
Duke Engineering undergraduate Sam Fox had an idea for a device to help a wheelchair user take a shower.
“Our job is simple: to increase the impact of Duke innovation. Entrepreneurship is the engine we use to do that.”
Mattson Family Director of Entrepreneurial Ventures
Fox, a biomedical engineering (BME) major, brought his idea to instructor and assistive device designer Kevin Caves, who connected him with patient care experts at Duke’s medical center.
These experts informed him about a much more urgent set of problems: how to lift, transfer, and reposition bedridden patients. Although proper positioning prevents bedsores, moving patients can pose a risk of injury to nurses, and many existing assistive devices are slow and cumbersome.
Fox's initial solution was too complex, but further iterations led to a focused design: a device for turning and repositioning patients in bed. He then drew on the expertise of his BME faculty advisor Robert Malkin, a leader in the creation of effective medical technologies for the developing world.
With Malkin’s encouragement, and help with a development strategy, Fox got to work. He designed a device that uses air-filled tubes to
safely reposition a patient.
Fox built a proof-of-concept model in The Foundry—a 7,600-square-foot, tool-filled “makerspace” administered by Duke Engineering and
open 24 hours to any Duke student.
The prototype won the Duke BME Prize in the annual Duke Startup Challenge competition—$5,000 that Fox used to turn his prototype into a field-test version under the mentorship of Bill Walker, a successful entrepreneur hired as Duke Engineering’s first Mattson Family Director of Entrepreneurial Ventures and head of the Entrepreneurship @ Duke Engineering program.
“Bill had a transformative impact,” Fox said. “He brought his huge wealth of knowledge and network to help me.”
Walker met weekly with Fox to review plans and provide advice.
The new Entrepreneurship @ Duke Engineering program coordinates a range of opportunities to build students’ entrepreneurial confidence.
“Part of what we’re doing is demystifying the path to successful entrepreneurship."
A collaboration with Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E), the program is led by Walker, and Steven McClelland, Executive-in-Residence—both successful entrepreneurs and Duke Engineering alumni who serve as dedicated mentors and advisors for engineering students and faculty.
With Walker’s help, Fox pitched his startup idea to potential investors among Duke alumni, raising additional funds. Now, he’s made an agreement with Duke Health to have its nurses and clinical staff field-test the device.
Fox’s experience may, in its swift path forward, seem extraordinary—but his entrepreneurial drive and access to resources at Duke Engineering to support that ambition make such success stories increasingly common.
“Part of what we’re doing is demystifying the path,” said McClelland, a Silicon Valley tech executive who founded a web-consulting company and was chief architect at Citizen Sports when it was acquired by Yahoo. “If you start a company, no matter whether it succeeds or not, you’re going to learn a lot if you’re paying attention.”
From creating spaces to work on personal ideas, to new courses teaching entrepreneurial skills, to new programs that fund the development of student startups—entrepreneurship is a central, and growing, part of the Duke Engineering student experience.