The Starting Line

At Baruch, campus entrepreneurs scratch their itch to get businesses off the ground

"But there was a problem," says 2004 Oberlin graduate Michael Murray, who studied the Lewis Center. "There were so many great opportunities with the building. The sensors were collecting so much information, but there was no way to display that technical information to a non-technical audience."

So Murray, along with classmates Gavin Platt ('06) and Vladislav Shunturov ('05), and advised by environmental studies professor John Petersen, entered the EPA student competition to test ways to monitor energy and water usage in buildings and translate that information into everyday language and graphics so people working or living in buildings would be able to understand how they affect the environment.

They were so successful in the competition that they formed a company, Lucid Design Group, that now develops software and provides consulting services to schools across the country wanting to monitor energy usage on their campuses.

illustration: Koren Shadmi

For the EPA award, the Oberlin students and faculty came up with an idea to hold their own campus-wide competition to see which dormitories could reduce their energy consumption the most. The project abstract made it through the first phase of the EPA competition and earned a $10,000 grant to develop energy-monitoring software and install it in half of Oberlin's residence halls. Murray graduated, but his classmates and adviser continued with the energy reduction contest.

By April 2005, all the school's dorms were competing. And by the end of the 2004–2005 school year, the environmental studies team found there was an 11 percent reduction in energy consumption campus-wide, while the buildings that used the real-time monitoring software reduced consumption by more than 50 percent.

"That showed us that occupant behavior is a big part of energy usage in a building," says Murray. "People use less if they're engaged in the monitoring."

Competitions like Baruch's and the EPA's help students accomplish something that many adults hope for their whole lives: to work for themselves. But owning a business can be stressful. Work can encroach on personal lives when people run their own companies, and many small businesses fail. Can achieving this type of autonomy at such a young age lead to early burnout?

Vacca, 25, says he doesn't worry about that. "I never think about what the next thing is," he says. "I just think I'll be here, doing this forever."

He points out that entrepreneurs do miss out on certain things. For an older business owner, family time might be sacrificed. For someone like Vacca, going to clubs or just hanging out with friends is sacrificed. But he doesn't worry about that too much either.

For Vacca, the major concern is about giving up on what he views as his own individual development. He is currently on what started out as a year-long leave of absence but has been extended for another year from an educational-psychology doctoral program. He says it's difficult sometimes going to educational-psychology seminars and listening to Ph.D.'s give presentations. "I kind of wish I could be doing that," says Vacca. "But I definitely see myself going back to school. Ideally, I'll be able to juggle being a professor and running Kognito."

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