Guided by purpose and passion, students from all corners of the college have launched enterprising ventures outside the classroom.
It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination – or the alphabet – to turn a Hokie engineer into an entrepreneur.
As students across the College of Engineering learn to tackle academic problems with ingenuity and innovation, the next logical step is taking their ideas to the masses by building a business.
“My engineering education at Virginia Tech has helped me develop a systems-thinking mindset when approaching problems, which has helped me tremendously as an entrepreneur,” said Robert Hodge '23, an industrial and systems engineering major who has spearheaded a golf shoe company designed for the everyday golfer.
For two years in a row, Virginia Tech has been ranked No. 25 for undergraduate entrepreneurship programs by the Princeton Review. Student-focused organizations like the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs help make such accolades possible. Housed within the Pamplin College of Business, Apex emphasizes that entrepreneurship isn’t just for business majors. The center equips and encourages student entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, including students like Hodge, from numerous departments within the College of Engineering.
Doctoral candidate Levern Currie, who earned her master’s in industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech in 2021, used her passion for accessibility to develop Drivingo, the world's first speech-independent, gesture-based recognition software for fast food ordering. She recently won first prize in the inaugural Whitewater Rapid Idea Pitch Competition at the Appalachian Social Enterprise Summit.
And after Kimberly Ikediobi '23 completed her first two chemical engineering courses, she felt inspired to start formulating her own line of hair care products. Combining knowledge from the classroom and guidance from faculty members like Kurt Neidigh, she confidently scaled her batches while ensuring the same recipe and quality.
These ventures and others featured below were started by engineers during their time at Virginia Tech, and many were directly fostered by Apex. Recent alumni Tahjere Lewis '22 and Tim Pote M.S. '17, Ph.D. '21 further demonstrate how their companies continue to grow beyond their campus roots. Though the expertise and driving force behind each business varies, they all have one thing in common: an impressive engineering Hokie.
B.S., Industrial and Systems Engineering
Class of 2023
Our company, ForeLife Golf, sells golf shoes that are comfortable and stylish but don't sacrifice performance on the course or for your next adventure. Our shoes are engineered with a low heel-to-toe drop to allow the foot to move in a natural motion. They're 100 percent waterproof, use a faux leather upper with a heat-sealed polyurethane mud guard, and feature a patent-pending tee holder on the shoe.
I became interested in golf during the pandemic and found that as a college student, current golf shoes on the market were uncomfortable, bland, and too expensive. This discovery led my two co-founders and me to create a golf shoe company designed for the everyday golfer who is going out on the course to be social, enjoy being outside, and have fun regardless of what the scorecard says.
We hope that our shoes can help grow the younger golf community and give everyday golfers a brand that better represents them. For every pair of our shoes ordered, we are excited to donate a percentage of the proceeds to support pancreatic cancer research, a cause that is dear to our team after having lost multiple loved ones to the disease.
MEng, Industrial and Systems Engineering
Ph.D., Industrial and Systems Engineering
Class of 2021, 2025
Drivingo is the world's first speech-independent, gesture-based recognition software for fast food ordering. It uses hand gestures based on American Sign Language (ASL) to allow customers who do not speak the language or who are nonverbal to communicate bidirectionally with service staff.
I saw a need for accessible accommodations for individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing (HOH), mute, nonverbal, and/or speak English as a second language (ESL). It was shocking to me that there wasn't already technology like this available. I thought I could make a product that would bridge this gap.
I'm hoping this invention will not only raise awareness about the deaf and HOH community, but will also normalize the use of ASL and other nonverbal communication methods. My goal is for this technology to eventually become commonplace enough that every major business or corporation has it, or something similar, incorporated into their infrastructure. Moreover, I think this approach will give the push needed to introduce technology to businesses that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as challenging existing standards.
B.S., Chemical Engineering
Class of 2023
Natural Kuru sells organic, cruelty-free hair care products that are handmade with natural ingredients for strong, long, and healthy hair. The brand has affordable options for all hair types, so everyone can take care of their hair.
When I was younger, I didn't have the products that my hair needed because they were so expensive. Even now, organic products are extremely costly. I want Natural Kuru to be the affordable option. Everyone should be able to grow their hair and have it reach its fullest potential.
Eventually I hope to have multiple stores around the United States and become a retailer for other all-natural hair care products. I also want to use biodegradable containers for my products and provide recycling options to consumers. This way, we can help save the environment, too.
B.S., Building Construction
Minor, Computer Science
Class of 2022
Aunt Carol's Sauce is an all-purpose, unique, delicious sauce that pairs with meats, vegetables, and seafood. The sauce is named in loving memory of my aunt, Carol Ann Morgan Scott, who originally created the recipe for her family.
When I was a senior in high school, I made a promise to Aunt Carol that I would turn her famous sauce into a business after I graduated from college. Sadly, she passed away unexpectedly during my freshman year. My memories of her love and the impact she had on me flooded my mind. I wanted to immediately share my aunt’s legacy to people across the world.
Through my business, I always knew service would be at the forefront. During college, I hosted food drives, community outreach events, a free cookout, and other giving initiatives. My philanthropic efforts flourished during college, and one of my goals now is to create a college scholarship at Virginia Tech.
Looking back as an alumnus, I have learned important lessons throughout the process of building my business. There isn't always an ideal opportunity to accomplish your end goal. If you have an idea, then make the first move. Learning should be persistent and desired. At first, I didn't know where to start in building my business. But when I took the first step, each step along the way brought me to something else I needed to learn. I never want to stop learning unfamiliar aspects of my business.
Aunt Carol’s Sauce now reaches hundreds of people with the mission of bringing families together. The sauce is available online and at 21 retail locations from New York to Florida.
M.S., Mechanical Engineering
Ph.D., Interdisciplinary: Human Exoskeletons
Class of 2017, 2021
At Maroon Assistive Technologies, we build an exoskeleton that makes lifting and bending safer and easier for workers who do a large amount of repetitive motions. The device looks like a backpack with leg straps that uses a patented carbon fiber spring, developed at Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Lab, that stores energy when you bend and returns it to you when you lift. This design makes lifting easier for wearers and safer for their backs.
When I started looking into graduate school in 2013, I knew I wanted to research exoskeletons. This is a technology that might one day benefit my younger brother, who is paralyzed from the waist down, or others in a similar situation. There weren't too many labs researching exoskeletons at the time, so I started focusing my master’s on 3D printing at Virginia Tech.
During my second year, the mechanical engineering department hired Alan Asbeck, whose research focuses on human exoskeletons and assistive robotics. After I took a class with him and expressed interest in his research, he asked if I would stay for a Ph.D. to work on exoskeletons with him. While I was working in the Assistive Robotics Lab, Lowe's approached Professor Asbeck and asked if we could design a device capable of protecting their workers while they stocked shelves and assisted customers in their home improvement stores.
That research ultimately became the Maroon Assistive Exoskeleton. I always hoped that one day my research would become the next idea for a company. We're now producing exoskeletons that are helping to protect workers and make their jobs safer every day.
If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to support the College of Engineering. For more information, call (540) 231-3628.