Discovering the Next Big Thing From a Dorm Room

in Courses, News-CE, Recognition, Research, Research-CE, Senior Design, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students
January 13th, 2014

This fall, Connor McEwen (ECE ’14) became one of 11 students chosen to work with the Dorm Room Fund's inaugural Boston group. Photo by Maddie Atkinson.

This fall, Connor McEwen (ECE ’14) became one of 11 students chosen to work with the Dorm Room Fund’s inaugural Boston group. Photo by Maddie Atkinson.

When Connor McEwen (ECE ’14) learned about Refresh, an energy-efficient vending machine designed by recent alums from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rhode Island School of Design, he knew this was an idea that showed potential and wanted to invest in it.

Not too many undergraduates have the ability to make a difference in getting a startup off the ground financially, but McEwen isn’t just any student. He’s one of the investment decision makers for the Dorm Room Fund.

The Dorm Room Fund, a student-run venture fund supported solely by Philadelphia-based First Round Capital, allows entrepreneurial students to have $500,000 to use toward investing in student startups over a two-year period. The program has roots in New York, Philadelphia, and Silicon Valley and came to Boston last fall, where members hope to invest in about 25 companies by 2015.

McEwen, who has been passionate about technology all of his life, was one of 11 students chosen to work with the Dorm Room Fund’s inaugural Boston group, who meet weekly at the Cambridge Innovation Center.

When it comes to investment strategy, McEwen said: “I personally am most interested in student-led tech startups that have the potential to really solve a problem and impact how we live our lives. Since our goal is to help students build their companies, I also like companies where I can understand and use the product and therefore help the most.”

McEwen, who is also a member of the BU Entrepreneurship club and runs a BU Startups newsletter, first became interested in entrepreneurship during his freshman year, thanks to his roommate, Nam Chu Hoai (CS ’14), who had previously worked at a startup.

“We started reading about them on a few websites, discussing companies, and working on an idea ourselves,” McEwen said.

He even took a year off to work on that project, Credport. Though he and Chu Hoai eventually realized that the market didn’t need their product, they learned a lot and McEwen called the time “a great experience.”

Today, when McEwen’s not working on the Dorm Room Fund, he’s back at Boston University working on his senior design project. He teamed up with biomedical engineering students in Assistant Professor Ahmad Khalil’s lab to design an LED device that will help improve synthetic biology experiments.

“Our device basically shines an LED light on a well plate, an enclosure holding a bunch of different cell samples, for a programmable duration, which will enable researchers in optogenetics and synthetic biology to run better experiments more efficiently and accurately,” said McEwen.

As a senior design mentor, Khalil has noticed that McEwen has shown great passion when applying his strong technological background toward his research.

“He brings infectious enthusiasm and wonderful ideas to the lab and is never reluctant to seek advice from my graduate students and me,” said Khalil.

Though McEwen initially thought about working on a startup-related project for senior design, he decided instead to focus his research on something he could only do at BU. Through this project, he’s able to utilize his own background in computer engineering and also work with students majoring in electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering.

That being said, his long-term focus remains the same. He doesn’t know exactly where he’ll be when he graduates this spring but he’s confident he’ll be working with a startup.

Interested in learning more about startups or the Dorm Room Fund? E-mail McEwen at cmcewen@bu.edu.

Related links:
12/3/13: The Boston Globe – “Young college investors back vending machine
10/29/13: The Daily Free Press – “Starting-up early
9/10/13: The Boston Globe – “First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund expands to Boston, with initial investments this fall

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)