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Engineering Impact Report

From Student to Startup

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A growing culture of entrepreneurship within the School of Engineering has led to the creation of a business incubator and technology accelerator called Leonardo Enterprises. The program is designed to help UD students, faculty and staff transition technology into the market by creating startups. 

That technology often begins as an idea generated as part of a classroom project. That was the case for Spencer Janning, a mechanical engineering major whose Freedom Brace design was conceived as part of his first-year engineering innovation class. 

The students were tasked with creating a leg brace for a local pediatric patient with cerebral palsy. Janning researched similar devices and spoke with the patient about why she wasn't wearing her current brace, which was designed to prevent scissoring of the legs while sleeping. 

"I was trying to figure out how it could have more motion and be more comfortable and still prevent twisting," Janning said. 

Janning's design was selected by his group for development for the class assignment, but the project didn't end when the semester did. Janning was just getting started. 

It's not surprising that invention and innovation come naturally to Janning. His grandfather, Eugene A. Janning, holds multiple engineering patents and his great uncle, John L. Janning, is the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame inventor of the liquid crystal display (LCD) screen and holder of more than 250 patents. Both reside in the greater Dayton area. 

Following in the family footsteps, by the end of the semester, Spencer had already applied for a provisional patent application for the Freedom Brace. A year later - in the spring of 2017 - he applied for a formal patent. While his initial application was rejected, a revised application was submitted and he was granted a patent on January 23, 2018. His class assignment had evolved into a marketable product but, now what?

That's where Leonardo Enterprises came in. After applying and then pitching his product to an advisory board composed of industry experts, Janning was selected as Leonardo Fellow in the fall of 2018. He gained access to the lab space, co-working office space, use of the School of Engineering Makerspace and research equipment, engineering and legal support, as well as one-on-one business mentoring. 

"Spencer saw something great in what he was doing and kept going with it," said Emily Fehrman Cory, director of Leonardo Enterprises and faculty of practice in innovation. "Through Leonardo Enterprises, we hope to encourage more students like Spencer. Programs like this are important because not everyone has access to the resources they need to be successful."

Spencer has continued improving his Freedom Brace, receiving a U.S. patent and FDA approval for the device. Recently, he began selling on Amazon and his website. 

Leonardo Enterprises - which is currently funded by alumni donations - is assisting Janning with entering the market by applying for necessary FDA approvals and scaling up his manufacturing. Over time, Leonardo Enterprises will become self-sustaining with a 5-percent return on investment for the projects it funds.

"Amazing things are going to come out of this program," Fehrman Cory said. "They already are."

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