On Learning and Earning

March 19, 2003

How did you earn extra cash during your undergraduate years? Perhaps you slung burgers at one of the local diners. Maybe you caddied at a nearby golf course.

Bet you didn't work as a chemical engineering consultant. After all, what solutions could a college student possibly offer industry?

Quite a few, actually.

Consider the young entrepreneurs of Virginia Commonwealth University's (VCU) ChemEngine, the first ," and likely the only ," student-run chemical engineering consulting company in the nation. In 1999, Brad Crosby and Nick Cain, both sophomores in the Richmond, Va.-based university's engineering program, came up with the idea for Chem-Engine while weighing the pros and cons of available summer jobs. They then presented their idea to school staff members.

Gary Huvard, associate professor and assistant chair of VCU's Chemical Engineering department, was convinced the idea had merit. He believed the students could apply knowledge gained from two or more years of coursework to solve many of industry's "projects-in-waiting."

To assist the students and to help sway industry, Huvard lent his name ," as well as his expertise from years of chemical industry and consulting work ," to the ChemEngine team.

For its first project, the ChemEngine team was asked to find a way to reduce scrap from an Ohio company's fiberglass preform oven. In just nine weeks, says Huvard, the kids devised a plan that would save the company more than $5 million at several different plants.

ChemEngine earned $150,000 in its first year of business alone.

Brad and Nick have since graduated, but their company lives on. Today, more than a dozen VCU students are involved in ChemEngine, which is open to all chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering students. The consulting firm has served up solutions for numerous companies, including DuPont and Rohm and Haas.

ChemEngine rents an office at the school. I was lucky enough to tour the facilities with a few enthusiastic ChemEngine students, who also showed me the state-of-the-art computers they recently purchased with their consulting earnings.

ChemEngine imparts business skills and instills confidence into the students, maintains Huvard, better preparing them for future careers. Moreover, it brings true benefits to industry ," tackling projects that have been shelved because of manpower and time constraints.

ChemEngine is unique, but so is the seven-year-old VCU School of Engineering.

Henry A. McGee Jr., the school's founding dean emeritus and professor of chemical engineering, says the school is the "brainchild of the local industrial community," which recognized "the critical importance of engineering education to industrial development and wealth creation."

The building was privately funded and is owned by trustees of the VCU foundation, represented by "the presidents and CEOs of virtually every major corporation in Richmond," notes McGee. The school opened in 1996. VCU leases the building for $1 per year, he adds.

Hmmm. Industry funds academia and academia, in turn, finds answers to industry challenges. Sounds like a match made in Heaven ," or at least in Richmond.

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