by Jennifer Ernst Beaudry

Res.Inc., the immersive Living Learning Center program, is giving Columbia Engineering students a head start on their entrepreneurial careers.

Centered in Wallach Hall, the collaborative, entrepreneurship program was established with the support of Alessandro Piol BS’79, MS’82, and Alexandra Piol BS’79, MS’83, and gives students the mentorship and structures they need to get their start-ups off the ground while balancing a full undergraduate life.

Mr. Piol, cofounder of Vedanta Capital, and Mrs. Piol, managing director at 4C Ventures Management, endowed the Piol Family Entrepreneurship Fund in 2011 to create the Residential Incubator, launched that year with seven students. Today, 29 students from the Engineering School, and now Columbia College, live and collaborate together while learning the tenets of Steve Blank’s customer-focused Lean LaunchPad strategy and moving their projects closer to reality.

Left: Christina Michaels ’17SEAS; Right: Rienzi Gokea ’16SEAS discusses his design of an electricity-generating scooter that can also be used to charge a cell phone. (Photos by Timothy Lee Photographers)

“I was initially attracted to the program because of the opportunity to learn from like-minded peers about entrepreneurship and technical innovation,” Anshul Gupta ’17SEAS said. “Coming into college, I was a definite computer science major, but I didn’t know where my interest lay between the diverging worlds of research, entrepreneurship, and corporate software development, and the program offered me the opportunity of diving deep into one of the three possibilities.”

Gupta and his team created Chisl, an online art education platform that lets users browse interactive 3D models of sculpture and other pieces of art—allowing anyone, he said, to “turn his or her laptop into a museum.” The group won a $10,000 Columbia Engineering Ignition Grant this past summer to help bring the program to its target users of art instructors and enthusiasts.

And he gives Res.Inc. credit.

“Be it the random 2:00 a.m. start-up viability conversations we have or the off-site office tours that we went on together, I’ve had a great experience in my two years in Res.Inc.,” he said.

Sisters Christina Michaels ’17SEAS and Stephanie Michaels ’18SEAS agreed that the unique live/work structure of the program has been a boon to their project, SightSeers, which will let hotels broadcast real-time scenic views over any windows using a mobile projector and clear adhesive screen.

“What’s been really helpful is to have this variety and diversity on the floor—when you’re pursuing a project, you don’t always know what skills you need at the outset,” said Christina Michaels, a chemical engineering major. “I don’t know how to code and Steph doesn’t know how to code, but you can show up at study break to ask who has time to code something or teach us how, and that’s the unique thing about Res.Inc.: you can get that down the hall.”

And, Stephanie Michaels added, the mentoring aspect from program leadership—including Engineering administrators Leora Brovman, Scott Helfrich, and Ivy Schultz, and graduate student Boyan Penkov—and others was invaluable. “My sister and I, having the same background and same sort of way of doing things, need to expand, so it’s been so helpful talking on the floor, and with leadership, to see that way of looking at things.”

An early developmental shot of one of the main pieces of concept art for the video game, Spectrum: An Elegy for Piano, developed by Res.Inc. student Rienzi Gokea ’16SEAS. (Image courtesy of Gokea)

Rienzi Gokea ’16SEAS, a mechanical engineering major, has worked on two projects this academic year, a puzzle adventure video game based on synesthesia and an electricity-generating scooter. For him, the residential atmosphere keeps motivation high—a huge advantage when classwork, athletics, extracurriculars, and simply the desire to relax sometimes all conspire to make moving forward difficult.

“Being here on a Res.Inc. floor, everyone’s really enthusiastic about their ideas—being in this environment where everyone’s on the same page, it’s really about this whole culture of working and seeing it through, and that’s really cool,” said Gokea.

The program is already paying dividends. In the last round of Columbia’s Fast Pitch in November, two of the top 10 teams came out of Res.Inc.—Gokea and the Michaels sisters. Not bad considering the elevator pitch competition is open to all Columbia students, including grad students, faculty, and recent alumni. But Res.Inc. students say the benefits go far deeper.

“It gives me the ability and experience so early in my academic career to approach the concepts in my engineering classes with a business outlook, as in ‘How can I make this into a product or a process?’ ” Christina Michaels said. “Being able to think of both with an entrepreneurial mindset, it’s shaped my entire experience.”