Entrepreneurship played key role in student experience
6/7/2021 10:53:56 AM
A team project on sidewalk repair cost estimates during a required course for first-year CEE students inspired Brandon Yates to launch DeepWalk Research, a startup focused on automating civil engineering inspections. Now, four years and one bachelor’s degree later, Yates is beginning his professional career as his own employer.
DeepWalk tackles a challenge Yates learned about when he was introduced to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) during that freshman class: the sheer volume of sidewalk assessments that every municipality is required to perform in order to identify where their sidewalks are inaccessible to people with disabilities. These assessments must include curb ramp inspections, which can take an engineer up to 15 minutes each to perform.
According to Yates, who reached out to over 100 city engineers, ADA coordinators and consultants for input, the project is an enormous – and expensive – challenge for many cities. Not only do these inspections require a significant investment of time and personnel – New York City alone has over 200,000 ramps, Seattle has over 40,000 ramps and even Champaign has over 13,000 ramps – but failure to meet ADA requirements can cost cities hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements. In the case of Los Angeles and New York, each city’s legal obligation exceeds $1 billion.
With this challenge still in mind at the conclusion of his class, Yates recruited a friend in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and they began to train a machine-learning model to identify sidewalk panels. Their efforts would eventually lead to development of DeepWalk, a mobile application that is able to turn a 30-second video of a curb ramp into a 3D model, check if it meets ADA requirements and automatically fill out an inspection report.
“With the DeepWalk app, a single intern will be able to perform over 200 inspections a day,” Yates said. “This allows municipalities to take a strong first step in avoiding or meeting the requirements of these lawsuits.”
Over the next three years as they developed their app, Yates and his partners – his friend from ECE plus two students from the departments of Computer Science and Physics – took advantage of the entrepreneurial resources available to students at the University of Illinois, including the Technology Entrepreneur Center’s COZAD start-up competition and iVenture Accelerator. Most recently, DeepWalk won third place and $20,000 at the College New Venture Challenge, which is a program that connects entrepreneurial students from The Grainger College of Engineering with business students at the University of Chicago.
To date, they have raised $71,000 through these types of student startup programs and competitions.
“The University of Illinois has an extremely strong entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Yates said. “It has world-class computer science and civil engineering programs, a history of groundbreaking research, and a huge amount of resources devoted to supporting entrepreneurship. The fact that we as an undergraduate-led startup company raised over $70,000 in funding without leaving campus speaks for itself.”
Yates also benefited from generous informal mentorship from faculty and alumni. Professor Jeffery R. Roesler, who leads the project-based course for first year students, not only introduced Yates to a Ph.D. student who served as an early technical adviser for the DeepWalk team, but also connected him to his wider civil engineering network including industry professionals – people they would not normally be able to talk to, Yates said.
“I was also surprised by how helpful and responsive UIUC faculty and alumni have been to cold emails asking for information, advice or help,” Yates added.
With entrepreneurship playing a key role in his student experience, Yates said he has learned a “ridiculous” variety of both soft and technical skills. In the month prior to graduation, he found himself giving fundraising presentations, filing taxes for a C corporation, working with a law firm to draft equity agreements, interviewing several engineering consultants and writing a Python tool to annotate machine-learning data.
“Balancing schoolwork and startup work was challenging, especially in the beginning,” Yates said. “There isn’t a secret trick to it… just stay ahead of the reading and put in the work. The biggest thing that will carry through the rest of my career is that I’ve learned how to learn, and I’ve learned how to go get help when I need it. Even if I move on to a more traditional civil engineering career, that’s going to be really helpful.”
Yates, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in May, said he and his partners will work full-time on DeepWalk this summer. They have space in UIUC’s technology business incubator, EnterpriseWorks at Research Park, and – if they meet their pre-seed funding goals – should have a prototype ready for limited piloting in the fall and a full pilot the following summer. Noting that their technology is very flexible, Yates said they also plan to expand their product’s capabilities to other projects like manhole, drainage and ADA bathroom inspections.
“I don’t think I would have gotten introduced to any of this stuff if I wasn’t at the University of Illinois,” he said. “I don’t think a start-up like this could have happened anywhere else. DeepWalk is a product of the engineering and innovation culture here.”