Writing and reporting by Nena Farrell, Haley Brucato and Julia Middlemiss
At a campus surrounded by Silicon Valley and the tech boom, it’s no surprise that technology has begun to shape the SF State campus through a variety of student entrepreneurs, app developers, engineers and designers — but also the aim of the University itself.
A close look into various departments, students and faculty showed a huge community of brains that could launch the next tech giant, or even the perfect local app that SF State students and San Franciscans need. Whichever one it may be, there’s no doubt of the brainpower behind the technology flowing from SF State’s doors, even if it’s not the first school in the Bay Area that’s thought of when tech comes to mind.
If you were to guess what kind of app students were creating at SF State, a first guess might not be a party locator app.
But that is exactly what Randy Tovar and his business partner Jimmy Felix came up with in October of last year, while in their first semester at SF State.
“It was a Friday night and everyone said ‘what’s goin’ on tonight Randy,’ no one had any idea of a party or event,” Tovar said. “Me and Jimmy were hanging out in our dorm room thinking of ways to get rich and I had a moment where I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have an app that could tell you where the parties are at, with photo sharing, video sharing, guestlist and all that.”
An idea was born, and the partners have just gotten legal rights to the App “Spots”, after Tovar’s uncle gave him the advice that the most important step was to protect the idea.
Their app now has a trailer, and the duo is learning to code and looking for programmers.
Getting even bigger traction is the app two information systems majors, Jeff Carpenter and Afsheen Agahi, came up with. An award-winning app, it’s focused on catching shoplifters with the ability to take a photo of the alleged shoplifter and upload it to the store’s server.
Since the information systems department partnered with SAP American University Alliance Program in 2012, SAP has given recognition to apps like Carpenter’s and Agahi’s. SFSU information systems students have also received awards for apps including a mobile water conservation app.
Carpenter and Agahi declined to respond to interview requests from Xpress.
But apps aren’t only getting made by SF State. Apps are also making a beeline for campus — and the administration is more than happy to bring them in.
A great example of that is the Tapingo app.
It’s an app that will now sync with SF State’s food vendors, allowing students to place a mobile order and pick it up when they arrive at their favorite eatery rather than waiting in line. The only place on campus that has anything similar is Ike’s place downstairs, but Tapingo will offer this to students for other vendors on campus.
“Overall, SF State is an exciting campus that is set up really well for mobile ordering,” said Ben Anderson, Tapingo director of campus sales. “The University is looking closely at ways to leverage technology to improve campus life and Tapingo was one of the things they were interested in.”
It was a match quickly made, since SF State’s administration was just as interested in bringing Tapingo onto campus as the app was.
“It is important the campus takes a lead on obtaining new technology that will make life easier for the students, all the way from ordering sandwiches to registering for classes,” said Lyle Margerum, business management senior and Operations Manager for various cafes on campus. “We are in the tech capital of the world, let’s take advantage of it.”
While information systems is an obvious department to look to in search of tech, a huge portion of technology at SF State comes from departments like art and design.
One example is Trevor Myers, a 31-year-old graduate student in design who sells eclectic design pieces through Etsy and his website, behance.net/trevormyers.
He has several designs, but an interesting combination of tech and design is a tree lamp that has fruits for lights. Which doesn’t sound exciting — until the design “lil oberon” reveals the fruit lights are rechargeable and removable, and can be taken off the tree to be used as portable night lights.
Although SF State designers are competing with students from the Art center in Pasadena, SF Art Academy, California College of the Arts, Myers said SF State is different from the other design schools.
“I think our department has more of a focus on human design. About really kind of getting in there…seeing an underserved group of people and thinking ‘I’m going to go in there and help them.’”
Another student that’s looking to benefit others with her design is Brianna “Bobie” Vilijoen.
As a designer, surfer, and a graduate design student, she’s identified that the inaccurate information on tidal currents and their strength, direction and timing is a problem for anyone who gets too close to the water. A Bulgarian native, she’s lived in the Bay Area for 12 years to pursue a career in combining her deep love of water sports with data design.
“You dont realize how dangerous it can be,” she said as she gestured towards the large ships in the water at Crissy Field. “It is a big shipping channel…the ships can’t stop for you. If you’re in their way you are in trouble, you have to avoid them.”
Vilijoen took it upon herself to meet science with design. Although two engineers at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies created the App called “Currents Cumalitive Work” in 2010, she is designing the best way to communicate what the water is doing in a visual sense.
With her research, she is combining the design and engineering that the Romberg Tiburon Center did, taking radio waves that bounce off water with multiple sensors around the bay.
Working with water has an entirely different meaning for students in the conceptual information arts department. The department combines artistic vision with basic computing and gave a set of students the landscape of Lake Merced to create their projects.
From this program, projects range from tracking the lake’s currents with a board covered in rubber duckies to a robot that goes around the lake using color sensor, showing there’s no lack of ideas when art and tech combine.
“Some students are interested in sound, others say, motion or gesture. So they could sort of do what they want, but within the context of the technology we’re using and the general ideas of bringing aspects of research and human computer interaction, and using those again in an arts context,” said Carlos Castellanos, an SF State grad and visiting professor to the CIA department.
The program has given students plenty of room to create their own side of the projects, and get hands-on experience that goes beyond simply being an art student, as Kyle Bray found this semester.
“I learned tons of things that I hadn’t before, especially concerning Arduino and stuff, I didn’t even know what an Arduino was before coming to this class,” said Bray, a 21-year-old junior and BECA major. “I do think that State is in the position to prepare us for, you now…the coming reign of terror of Google.”
It’s not only students that are creating a name for themselves in tech and entrepreneurship — but faculty as well.
College of Business Dean Linda Oubre is not the typical college dean. Although she does not have a PhD, she is not a scholar, she is a business woman and a successful entrepreneur of over 30 startups.
“I’ll tell you what companies tell me,” she said. “I talk to a lot of startups and corporations…they love our graduates because they roll up their sleeves and get things done.” This is the kind of experience that has made her own career successful. She got in there and executed her big ideas.
Students ideas come from them wanting to solve basic human problems, what she calls “social innovations” of their time. SF State students are not looking to make money on the next Apple company, said Oubre, but instead are community focused — they want to solve social problems.
“Students get the best ideas from themselves and each other,” Oubre said. “We train leaders who look like their customers — we have the diversity in gender, nationality, ethnicity and students who are just used to dealing with diverse populations, that is what sets us apart.”
Oubre said that students need to remember Apple started in a garage and most of the innovation that is happening in the Bay Area is from a company of four to six people. All the companies had to start somewhere.
“Use your brain and your gut and your heart,” she said. “You don’t always have to analyze everything, just trust yourself.”
Her vision for the future of the College of Business is creating those connections with corporations who need great future leaders and building services with a career center for all business students.
“I really think we need to build a pipeline of leaders for the Bay Area,” Oubre said. “The key way is connecting with organizations…you guys need jobs and corporations need great future leaders.”
But as they have seen, there isn’t just business behind these great ideas, but purposeful design.
The heart of start-ups and inventions at SF State come from the design industry department, and Mark Ciotola said it is no accident that he teaches there, having worked on several start-ups, done research for NASA and worked on 3D projects.
“They created (my) course because there were so many inventions and start ups coming out of here,” said the design and industry lecturer. “Students are charged early on to create things and come up with a solution to a problem with no pre-established conclusion.”
SF State has been at the cutting edge with computer science he said, although some don’t see the light of day, there are others that do.
“It is tough with computer applications to get the type of publicity for anyone who tries to do an app,” Ciotola said. “There are only a few big success stories and the odds are stacked against you.”