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Prototyping the Future: How students and startups are working together to shake up local industryAt George Brown College, students are helping young companies design and prototype tomorrow's technologies.

Jeff Soupcoff, 31, never imagined he'd one day become an entrepreneur. Then, five years ago, his mother was diagnosed with ALS—or, Lou Gehrig's disease. The condition rapidly breaks down a person's muscles and motor skills, making them dependent on others for basic daily care.

“When my mom got diagnosed, my whole family dropped everything,” Soupcoff recalls. He took a year and a half off from work and took his mother travelling across North America, during which time he found himself handling all sorts of mobility equipment—devices designed to help his mother manage everything from taking a bath to getting into bed. But a lot of these medical devices fell short of his expectations. Thus, Bajeo Mobility Products was born.

Bajeo is a company that develops what Soupcoff describes as “progressive mobility devices” for people who need assistance getting around. He developed this equipment through a combination of firsthand experience, trade show environmental scans, and software rendering and prototyping with the help of students from George Brown College's Mechanical Engineering Technology Design program.

“Companies will come to us looking for help with projects, and if they fit within the course, we'll fit them in,” says James McIntyre, the program's coordinator. Often, even if a company's objectives don't quite work within the academic framework of the program, students will be able to assist on an ad hoc basis. It's a double-win for students looking to gain real-world design experience, and young companies seeking out a helping hand.

“We do a lot with startups,” says McIntyre, who points out that the campus' downtown location makes for an ideal match between research institutions, incubators, and the students he works with. “A lot of our companies will be maybe one person or a couple of people looking to get a product idea off the ground, and they don't know where to start. They don't know how to get something designed, how to get a prototype fabricated, and don't have the financial resources to go to a professional service that would be able to do this for them.”

This was the case with Soupcoff, who spent the 2013-2014 school year working with George Brown students to develop the mobility device he set out to manufacture. In the meantime, he reached out to students from George Brown Consulting, who helped him put together a business and marketing plan.

Now, halfway into a new school year with a whole new batch of students, Soupcoff and company are working to finalize the product's design for prototyping with an April deadline. He's also developed a relationship with the Baycrest Centre, who has expressed interest in the product; the geriatric care facility plans to use Soupcoff's early prototypes and give feedback for fine tuning. He hopes to have a final product on the North American market by March 2016.

Another startup partner who has worked with George Brown on prototyping and design is Clear Blue Technologies, whose hybrid controller and cloud-based monitoring system are used to power off-grid applications like street lights and mobile signage.

“We're making our infrastructure smarter and smarter,” says Miriam Tuerk, co-founder of Clear Blue Technologies. “When streetlights were 150 to 250 watt lights you had to power them through the grid, which was very expensive. But now with 50 watt LED lights, it's cheaper to use solar power.” It's, of course, an approach that's better for the environment, too.

Clear Blue Technologies developed a computer processor that can be put into a variety of systems—from solar powered streetlights to security cameras and so on. Tuerk describes it as as “a smart off-grid controller that's reliable, easy to install and maintain that can be part of mission critical infrastructure.”

George Brown helped Clear Blue with research and testing for the controller. For the company's first six to eight months of existence following its September 2011 inception, it was headquartered at the school itself. A lot of momentum has picked up since then; earlier this month, the company installed a solar powered streetlight just west of Bathurst on Bloor for the City of Toronto.

But Clear Blue hasn't forgotten where it started from.

“We've maintained a really good relationship with [the Clear Blue Technologies team], and they continue to advise us on ways we as a college can support these kinds of startups better,” says McIntyre. “And the best thing is that they've hired graduates from our program. Several people have been hired by them since.” It's a dynamic that he has come to expect with partner organizations—one of collaboration, learning, and mutual growth. It's a climate ripe for innovation. 

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