Program draws creative minds to North Campus

Chanmee Chung/Daily
Engineering senior Kunal Naik works on a prototype for a blanket for babies with jaundice during the 2015 Makeathon at the Art & Architecture building Saturday. Buy this photo

By Jing Jing Ma, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 8, 2015

The Art and Architecture Building buzzed with energy Saturday afternoon as students sketched designs, drilled wood and wired hardware. More than 200 students tried their hands at building physical products ranging from collapsible skis to stress-relieving stones.

Makeathon, held Friday and Saturday, is an annual competition where students team up to brainstorm and create innovative products. Participants competed in one of three categories: Health & Wellness, Environment & Energy and Entertainment & Toys.

MPowered, a student organization that promotes student entrepreneurship, launched the competition in 2013. MPowered is also responsible for similarly focused events, including MHacks, 1000 Pitches and Startup High School.

Last year, the University of Michigan-Dearborn hosted Makeathon, with about 100 participants. This year, the event doubled in size and was held on North Campus.

Art & Design sophomore Arwin Wang, Makeathon director, said the event’s change in size yielded a minor change in focus as well. To give the event a more defined purpose, Makeathan featured three themes: Health & Wellness, Environment & Energy and Entertainment & Toys.

“Last year the event was very open-ended and people could create whatever they wanted,” she said. “We want people to come up with innovative ideas and creative ways to create a product that solves a real problem.”

Students streamed into the auditorium of the Art and Architecture Building for the event’s closing ceremony Sunday afternoon. The winners of each of the three categories received $1,000 in prize money.

Apollo 257, a toy light that allows the user to direct colors, won the Entertainment & Toy category. MyBot, a wheelchair controlled by a Myo armband, won in Health & Wellness. Green Energizer, a solar-powered backpack that allows the wearer to charge electrical devices, carried the Environment & Energy category.

Engineering junior Nick Naruns, the creator of Green Energizer, said he got the idea from being outside for long periods of time and realizing he had no way to charge his phone when it ran out of battery.

Naruns said he would like to add more features to the backpack and integrate the solar panel into other wearable accessories. Eventually, he plans to sell a finished version of the product.

“I think there’s still some work that needs to be sorted out but I definitely think it’s a marketable product,” he said.

Wang said she wanted Makeathon to be a place where anyone could come, test their ideas and collaborate with others regardless of their academic field or previous experience.

Students could either enter the competition with their own teams or receive a team upon arriving Friday evening. Some came with specific projects in mind while others attended to network and receive hands-on experience with hardware.

“One of our goals is to bring people from all disciplines together to collaborate,” Wang said. “It’s interesting because Friday we were scared that people who didn’t have a team would go home and not come back. But people have really bonded and formed new teams just like that.”

President Barack Obama’s administration has promoted a “Maker Movement” on a national scale to encourage people to make and sell tangible items. Wang said a White House liaison for the Maker Movement has been in contact with the Makeathon planning team.

Engineering freshman Pascal Sturmfels, a computer science major, said he was excited to gain experience with new hardware and to “meet people interested in computer science and hardware and have that connection, if anyone wants to work on a project with me in the future.”

Engineering senior Gabriella Willis planned to use the event to build a prototype system aimed at providing food for low-income families. She employed aquaponics — a food production strategy that is fertilized by the excrement of aquatic creatures, like snails or prawns.

“The aquaponics idea is something I’ve had in mind, but I’ve never tried to build,” Willis said. “I think this is the perfect opportunity to get my hands dirty and see what happens.”

Makeathon featured a variety of “building stations,” including accessibility to a woodshop, metal shop and laser cutters. These were available for use during the day, but closed at 10 p.m. every night due to safety concerns about sleep-deprived students operating potentially dangerous machines.

Because the deadline for project submissions was early Sunday morning, students began to feel the time crunch Saturday night as 10 p.m. approached. Some teams who started out with ambitious ideas found that they had to scale down or scrap their plans as the event neared its end.

Other groups focused on completing smaller-scale projects. One such project was an adjustable grab bar whose height could be easily adjusted with one hand. Representatives from General Electric praised the project for being well designed, functional and easily operated.

At the event’s expo Sunday morning, students showed off their product prototypes. Some were complete and functioning while other projects were still works-in-progress. Teams were enthusiastic about continuing to develop their products.

Qi Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, said his team created a small computer encased in a wooden box designed for integration into living room furniture. The computer could be used to operate a variety of home technologies.

“As a business, we want to take the internal components of your Xbox or your PS3 and put them into a minimalistic (compartment) and design furniture that will house them… and remove clutter in the room,” Zhang said. He and his team hope to eventually bring their product to the market.

Wang said she ultimately hopes that large-scale recognition of maker culture — at the University, as well as local and national levels —will help the event grow in the future.

“People need to know that entrepreneurship and startups aren’t just about apps. There’s value in physical products,” she said. “Making is intuitive to humans. We need to be able to touch things to use them.”