Clemson alumnus funds Silicon Valley trip for students

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A group of Clemson University students pose at an Adobe Inc. office in Silicon Valley over spring break. Photo provided.

A small group of Clemson University students was able to spend a week in Silicon Valley after a 1990 graduate established the West Coast Connector Fund to make it happen.

The biggest takeaway from the trip for many of the students was the attitude and culture Silicon Valley entrepreneurs seemed to have regarding failure.

“Everyone there seemed to almost celebrate failure,” said junior industrial engineering major Olivia Burns. “There was one guy we met with and his LinkedIn bio said, ‘Failed at starting three companies.’”

Gabriel Herman, a sophomore industrial engineering major, said job-hopping was not only common among the tech-startup entrepreneurs but also expected.

“You talk to people there and they’re like, ‘I’ve had seven or eight different jobs,’ and they’re in their 30s,” Herman said. “The average job life there is like, a year and a half to two years, which is really crazy to think about.”

Alex Zheng, who graduated from Clemson nearly three decades ago, made the trip possible for a few of the students. Zheng gave the school $25,000 to fund an initiative called the “Spark Challenge” where students pitch inventions and are judged based on a series of criteria. Students who win first, second, and third place are able to attend the annual trip to Silicon Valley.

Zheng is co-founder of Huneo, a health care technology company based in San Francisco.

The West Coast Connector Fund also helps pay for students in the school’s University Innovation Fellows program to travel to Stanford University for an international meetup.

“I learned a lot — some of it was the entrepreneurship scene, some of it was how to be more innovative,” said Ethan Bensman, a sophomore computer science major.

Dial Devaney, who graduated in December with an industrial engineering degree, was able to attend the trip because he and another student, Silas Adams, placed first in the Spark Challenge with their invention of a portable, invisible dog fence.

The fence would allow people to easily carry their dogs on a road trip while giving the animals room to roam outside in a contained area.

But Devaney said he didn’t start working on the pitch because of the Spark Challenge — he and Adams had actually been working on it for months before they knew the challenge existed.

“We’re in the process of filing for a patent,” Devaney said.

Sophomore computer science major Nathan Binkley won third place in the Spark Challenge for a chat bot his team initially pitched at a hack-a-thon event.

All three said a passion for innovation is what drove them to try inventing products.

“That’s the common denominator in successful entrepreneurs — they don’t give up,” Devaney said.

John DesJardins, associate professor in bioengineering at Clemson, said a lot of students show up to the university with big ideas.

“Everybody comes to a university with all these ideas, and then we systematically beat it out of them over the course of four years,” DesJardins said. “School gets in the way and life gets in the way — so we’re giving students an opportunity to kind of pull out their little idea book and work through some of them.”

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