Spin fryer developer oversees
debut of entrepreneurship program © July 10, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications
The job market is weak and changing dramatically. In response, the David Crawford School of Engineering at Norwich University is teaching students to create opportunities for themselves.
“Typically, a lot of engineers become entrepreneurs. They just start their own businesses,” said Ben DiMiero, a 2009 graduate and one of the “guinea pigs” in a program to show budding engineers how to take ideas beyond the research and development stage.
Mechanical engineer DiMiero, along with Brian Juskiewicz, Chris Prybella and Clayton Smith, already knew how to build a widget. For their senior project, however, they learned how to take their product—a variant of a unique deep-frying appliance—further. This involved locating funding, writing a business plan and creating a presentation to really sell the product. For the students, it was a chance to take skills they had grown confident with during their college years into new, less comfortable territory.
“I had never taken a business class,” said Smith, now a lieutenant in the Army. “It’s a good program for exposing yourself…to how things are in the real world.”
To get the program off the ground, Engineering Dean Bruce Bowman got the business school involved, and contacted a true entrepreneur from Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college. Paul Foster graduated in 1970 with a history degree. After a career in the military and private sector as a lawyer, Foster happened to spy a prototype of a “spin” fryer in someone’s garage. The device impressed him, and he decided to go into business with the inventor.
The process of spin frying starts with conventional deep frying, but the basket is raised out of the oil and begins to spin while it continues to cook the food in convection oven-like heat. This significantly lowers the fat content, making the food crispier and tastier because oil doesn’t mask its flavor.
Foster’s product line, Spin Fresh, has marketed a home version of the fryer through the George Foreman label, and he’s working with food corporation ConAgra to adapt the device for restaurants. This was where the entrepreneur program came in. Foster, who worked closely with the students, set a loose set of parameters for what he’d like to see in an industrial model, such as a larger fry basket, durability and the strength to handle heavier loads.
The students adapted a propane turkey cooker and added a hydraulic lift system to raise the basket and AC motor for the spin motion. They worked from a $5,000 budget, and were expected to draw up a business plan that identified the intended consumer, showed why this product would attract them and provide value, and how the product could be made profitable.
Students said the cooker was relatively easy to build, but they ran into some confusion in the marketing portion of the product, and what was expected of them. Bowman attributed this partly to the newness of the program, and partly because they wanted students to find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
“We gave them a project where the scope was largely undefined,” said Bowman. “I told them up front that this was going to be difficult and that they were going to be pilot-testing a program.”
Smith said loose guidelines for the project could be frustrating, but pushed them to try new things.
“We actually had a pretty innovative product that had some technology they’ve never used,” he said.
He was referring to the hydraulic system that lifted the basket out of the oil. Students designed a way to use cooking oil in the system instead of hydraulic fluid, requiring them to figure out how to filter and cool the oil before forcing it into the system.
“That was kind of cool,” said DiMiero, who expects to begin a job at NASA in the fall of 2009. “We felt that no one’s ever done this before.”
Foster was impressed by their innovation, and said his intention was for students to explore ideas rather than develop a specific product. That, he said, is the essence of entrepreneurship. The business world is changing, and this is an economic climate that rewards initiative.
“There are a lot of people who would tell you this is the best time to start a business,” he said. “I think once the students understand what [the entrepreneurship program] is about, it will be a great asset to them and to the school.”
The four students used their fryer to cook Tater Tots for several audiences at the end of the semester, including the school’s administration and Board of Trustees, followed by a sales pitch from Smith. On the third presentation, Smith said it all came together and he really nailed it.
“That was a learning experience that can’t be taught,” he said. “Getting the feedback from that was huge.”