Rob Aldi vividly recalls pulling a few all-nighters preparing his exhibit for last year’s Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival. A veteran exhibitor of two previous festivals, Aldi had extra motivation because this time he was showcasing his new business—Altieri Composites LLC.
“The month or two before the festival you go full-bore,” Aldi says. “It’s hectic. But the payoff is big and the day of the festival goes by in the blink of an eye. If you want to be an entrepreneur, how could you not be in the festival?”
Just as RIT President Bill Destler envisioned when he first introduced the concept of Imagine RIT six years ago, the festival serves as a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship throughout campus. Since 2008, Imagine RIT has drawn more than 140,000 visitors. It has jump-started new ideas, products, services and student-led ventures varying from Strong Arm Technologies (inventors of a lifting system that have won multiple startup business competitions) to BioTelemetrix (an award-winning non-invasive heart-monitoring system).
Add Aldi to the growing list of student entrepreneurs who are inspired by Imagine RIT. He recently earned his master’s degree in manufacturing and mechanical systems integration and showcased his composite material products at last year’s event. This included light and durable shafts for lacrosse sticks made from carbon fibers, as well as turbine blades used to generate wind power.
“The festival is a great way to meet people and tap into the Rochester knowledge economy,” says Aldi, of Stillwater, N.Y. “I was exchanging business cards with lawyers and engineers all day.”
In the past year, Aldi has further developed his products and has been working with Arista Power, a renewable energy company based in Rochester, as well as professional lacrosse players.
While families and RIT alumni are among the throngs on festival day, company recruiters and community entrepreneurs scout the festival for talent and the next big idea.
“One of the greatest results of Imagine RIT is that employers and community leaders have underestimated the breadth and depth of RIT’s capabilities and we have transformed the cognitive map of RIT as a national purveyor of left- and right-brain intellectual advances in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people globally,” says Barry Culhane, chairman of the festival. “We have multiplied the number of companies many fold with the festival. Imagine RIT has exploded the possibilities.”
This is good news for Mike Every, a third-year physics major from Saugerties, N.Y., who plans to launch his new idea at this year’s festival on May 4. Every is an amateur telescope maker who wants to put high-powered telescopes into the hands of the masses. Amateur astronomers, Every says, are looking to build their own instruments with cheaper, lighter mirrors that reduce the cost and weight of the optics. Every is developing a high-tech plastic mirror that could forever change the focus of the telescope landscape.
“Imagine RIT is the ideal venue for me,” Every says. “It will open the door and get my idea out to the public for the first time. I am confident it will gain interest in my ideas. I want to appeal to the amateurs first. Without the amateur enthusiasts in astronomy, you won’t have the professionals.”
If he gains momentum at the festival, perhaps Every can follow in the footsteps of Imagine RIT veteran exhibitor Paul Solt, who has participated in all five festivals as an exhibitor. Solt has parlayed his ideas into a growing enterprise. He is the creator of the Artwork Evolution iPhone/iPad app that allows users to create digital artwork. He has since created four additional apps, including “Photo Table” that has attracted more than 440,000 downloads. Solt, who earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2012 and is now pursuing a master’s degree, has his company set up in Venture Creations, RIT’s business incubator, where he is focused in creating more digital products, as well as teaching mobile-app development.
“The festival gave me an eye opener to user testing,” says Solt, of Fort Washington, Pa. “Prior to the festivals, I never had too much usage of my apps in person. Using the festivals, I was able to see that I needed to be more proactive in testing and getting feedback before big events. It also forced me to set deadlines, which made me work harder.”
An idea combined with passion and drive, Solt is now earning a modest income with his business. “I believe that I’m on the cusp of getting significant downloads and building up a revenue stream to support hiring employees,” he says. “The festival was a great experience to help me get to where I am today.”
The following tips for Imagine RIT exhibitors are provided by Paul Solt, a student exhibitor at every festival since its inception in 2008, and Barry Culhane, festival chairman. Nearly 400 exhibits are expected to be on display at this year’s festival on May 4: