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Fri, March 15, 2019
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A former University of Cincinnati physics student started a business to address his personal frustration over the difficulty of sharing research data.
Aman Tsegai founded data-analytics company Datazar in 2015 while studying at UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. The Cincinnati company provides a web platform for independent researchers, educational institutions and industry to collaborate on research projects.
“We do data analytics every day in physics, especially on the experimental side,” Tsegai said. “So the concept of the business wasn’t a huge jump. That helped me see the problem we were trying to solve was in sharing day-to-day research.”
Tsegai said his classmates regularly collaborated on research projects and shared their data using cumbersome methods such as email.
“That got out of hand very quickly,” he said. “We were working with huge amounts of data every day.”
Before, Tsegai had spent much of his high school years writing software and learning about web development. He knew there was a better way.
“You would never try to share code that way in software development,” Tsegai said. “It was eye-opening to me to see how much faster the software world was moving compared to the research world.”
The reason I got into science was to make a contribution.
Aman Tsegai, Former UC student and founder of Datazar
At UC he developed his own digital platform to share research. Soon his classmates were using it as well. Tsegai attracted his first investors and left UC in 2015 to devote his full attention to his company.
“The reason I got into science was to make a contribution,” Tsegai said. “This looked like a clear opportunity to improve how research collaboration is done and make it faster, better and more accessible. This is a great way to contribute, so I still feel like I’m in the research field.”
Tsegai developed the business through UC’s Bearcat Launchpad, a student-run and student-led club of aspiring entrepreneurs and an entrepreneur network, where he met his first start-up investors. But UC’s Lindner College of Business also boasts a more formal program called StartupUC that serves as the primary driver of new student businesses. Students can get college credit while developing their business plan.
And Venture Lab in UC's Office of Innovation gives companies ripe for development the chance to realize their goals in UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub. The lab specializes in turning new technology ideas into viable business opportunities.
StartupUC offers grants of as much as $10,000 to help aspiring businesses. Venture Lab offers significantly more through UC’s Office of Research.
So far, UC has prepared hundreds of students, faculty and alumni to start their own businesses, said Thomas Dalziel, a UC professor and executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Commercialization. The businesses run the gamut from body sensors that protect workers from hazardous materials to a niche retailer that sells licensed clothing.
“Having successful examples like Datazar inspires, motivates and informs the next generation of student entrepreneurs. It helps them fulfill their own entrepreneurial dreams,” Dalziel said.
UC has always had a strong relationship with business and industry. The university pioneered the world’s first cooperative education program in 1906 in which students spend part of the school year working for businesses around the world in their chosen field. It’s a storied program that has been often imitated but never equalled, said Gisela Escoe, UC’s vice provost for student affairs.
“Co-op gives students the opportunity to use their skills firsthand and try out their chosen profession,” Escoe said. “Students might have an idea about what it means to be an engineer or designer, but until they do it, they might not understand the skill sets needed or whether it’s the career for them.”
We have a co-op tradition that is more than 100 years old. It is very much part of our DNA.
Gisela Escoe, UC vice provost for student affairs
Generations of UC alumni who have benefited from co-op are now in positions at their own businesses to extend the same opportunities to UC students, she said.
“We have a co-op tradition that is more than 100 years old. It’s very much part of our DNA,” she said. “Our colleges collaborate with corporate partners to keep their curricula current and provide students the skills to meet the needs of business. And students come back from co-op with an understanding of what’s going on their industry.
“With our industry and faculty advisory boards, it’s much more of a partnership,” she said.
To build on its legacy, UC launched “Co-op 2.0,” part of UC President Neville Pinto’s strategic direction for the university called Next Lives Here. Starting next year, UC will provide career education, including opportunities for co-op and internships, to every baccalaureate student.
“It’s a proud UC tradition. What does that tradition look like in the next 100 years?” Dalziel said.
“One redefining moment was students having the ability to co-op for themselves by starting their own company.”
A pilot program this year let students with aspirations of self-employment spend their co-op rotation working in their own nascent businesses, Dalziel said.
Today, Datazar is introducing its products to an international audience. Tsegai’s clients include university students, independent researchers, educational institutions and private companies. Many of his clients are new startups like his, he said.
One of the platform’s biggest selling points is its ability to create interactive graphics to help explain the research. This is a big change from the impenetrable papers he read in his physics classes, he said.
“These papers are notoriously hard to read, even for experienced researchers,” Tsegai said. “So many of the papers I read as a freshman or sophomore I couldn’t understand at all. I would skip to the graphs and formulas.”
Instead of creating a static PDF, his platform provides more options so researchers can share their work in a more accessible way, he said.
“We made them superinteractive. You can make charts and visualizations that you can change based on user input. Video, audio — they’re like living, breathing research papers,” he said.
Ultimately, Tsegai said this helps researchers communicate their results more effectively to reach their intended audience. Tsegai thinks Datazar has a promising future because of industry’s growing interest in data science.
“It’s an industry on the rise with machine learning,” Tsegai said. “In the next 10 years, practically every product will have a machine-learning component to it.”
Tsegai said his advice to budding entrepreneurs is to have confidence in their ideas and take advantage of the resources available at UC to pursue them.
“Go for it,” Tsegai said. “If you’re going to do it, commit 100 percent.”
Featured image at top: Former UC student Aman Tsegai sits at his desk at his company Datazar. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services
The University of Cincinnati is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission and is ranked in the National Science Foundation's Top-35 public research universities. UC's graduate students and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.