The Heart of Innovation
when connecting your smartphone or tablet to the Internet from your friends’ homes is as seamless as doing the same from your own domicile or even motor vehicle, you might have Ceara Byrne to thank.
Byrne, who is slated to begin her doctoral studies in human-centered computing this fall at Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science, is working on just such a project at the AT&T Foundry™ in Technology Square.
The South Texas native has been working at the Foundry since November 2014 as part of a 10-month-long internship at the telecommunications giant’s innovation center. There, she and other Georgia Tech students tackle challenges and look for solutions that AT&T can take to the marketplace.
The students are not only tasked with coming up with creative solutions to real-world challenges, but they’re also expected to identify other issues and come up with possible solutions.
“There’s nothing like being thrown into a project where they say ‘you will figure it out,'” Byrne said. “There’s been a lot of trust placed in me, and I think their experience with Georgia Tech students has been so positive because most of us do figure it out.”
AT&T is one of several major corporations that have opened innovation centers at Technology Square in recent years — in company with ThyssenKrupp, Panasonic, Coca-Cola Enterprises, and The Home Depot, among others. They have done so seeking to tap into a vibrant network of startup entrepreneurs and a culture of innovation and collaboration.
And while the nature of their respective industries is different, there is one key common driver for the companies’ presence at Technology Square: Georgia Tech students.
AT&T’s effort is part of its move toward being a technology company, not just a telephone business, said Joanie Twersky, the Foundry’s senior marketing manager. A component of that strategy is tapping into Georgia Tech’s students, who are not only potential employees, but also the next generation of leaders and customers.
“Part of the Foundry’s purpose is to embody openness and collaboration,” Twersky said. “The purpose is to make AT&T part of the Tech ecosystem here in Atlanta, and the talented ideas and energy that the students from Tech bring to the Foundry are very much in line with that vision.”
The innovation centers that have clustered in Technology Square are decidedly different from research and development units typically found at a company’s corporate headquarters.
Sure, like corporate R&D departments, there’s a lot of study, analysis, and testing out of new ideas and solutions. But because they aren’t embedded at headquarters, there’s more flexibility and opportunity for creative problem solving.
“We deliberately said we wanted to break out of our corporate grind and process to create a group in this environment specifically to get out-of-the-box thinking,” said Thomas Felis, vice president of ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas’ research innovation center at Technology Square.
The center, which opened a little more than two and a half years ago, is focused on the ideation stage of innovation. Being in Technology Square and embedded in its startup entrepreneurial culture helps support that core focus because most of the projects are on a three- to six-month cycle.
That quick pace is part of the appeal for the company wanting to be in a community of students, Felis said.
“We want to have that outside, fresh perspective beyond the corporate process and toolset, which can really hamper creativity,” he said. “Every project we do here has the potential to be commercialized. They become part of our portfolio used to evaluate new technologies and solutions for our customers.”
The innovation centers stress that their student interns are working on real-world projects that have potential to be implemented or commercialized. That was something that appealed to Andrew Evert, a rising senior pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at Georgia Tech.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said Evert, one of several interns hired by ThyssenKrupp Elevator for its summer program. “The possibility that something I’m working on could be used in thousands of elevators across the world for testing or analysis makes it interesting. I’m hoping to one day get into an elevator and see something that I’ve worked on. That would be really cool.”
One of the projects he’s working on is creating code for algorithms that control various aspects of the elevator rider’s experience. For instance, these algorithms address vibrations of the moving car as it travels between floors.
It’s challenging work, Evert said, but fun.
“It’s like a puzzle or game to try and take a task that you can easily say in words and then make a computer do it,” Evert said. “Specifically, this algorithm is multiple scripts and functions, some of which are almost a thousand lines long. They all work together to accomplish a task, so it’s kind of interesting and fun to fit it all together.”
The student interns say they like the challenge of hard work and being given real-world problems to tackle. They enjoy making substantive contributions.
Xin Zheng, who is pursuing his master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, and Pratik Gangwani, a rising senior studying computer engineering, are summer interns at ThyssenKrupp Elevator. They are working on a project related to a Destination Dispatch device. The system allows patrons to select their desired floor on a kiosk, which, in turn, tells them which elevator to use. It groups people going to the same floors in the same elevator, minimizing wait times and also the length of time they spend actually riding the elevator.
Zheng’s work on the project is on the Android application side. Gangwani’s role includes system integration, verification, and testing.
“This is something that we’ve been told is going to be deployed so it needs to work properly and it needs to have that element of user-friendliness,” said Gangwani. “It’s a great feeling. I know the work that I do will actually be implemented to help optimize an existing system. As an engineer, it’s really cool to have that in the back of your head.”
Interns are given some parameters with the projects they are given, but not so much direction that they can’t show the full measure of their potential. That’s by design, said John Avery, a Georgia Tech alumnus who is engineering group manager at Panasonic Automotive Systems’ innovation center.
Much of what’s done at the innovation center is centered on proof-of-concept development and the creation of software and hardware prototypes for clients.
“It’s real work; it’s not make work,” Avery said. “The stuff that they’re working on does get shown.”
Last year, for example, Samer Mabrouk, an electrical engineering major slated to graduate in December, worked on a prototype design for a presentation Panasonic was planning for an auto show and exhibition.
“We had to program and design the boards ourselves,” said Mabrouk, whose focus is embedded systems. As part of that work, he had to code and design buttons for a steering wheel and dashboard prototype and he also worked on creating the software for another board to use in testing.
This year, Mabrouk is working on a project designed to create a clearer auditory experience when signals are transmitted through wires between auto speakers and amplifiers.
“They trusted us a lot with our work. You’re not just an intern,” Mabrouk said. “If you can come up with something new, if you can make it look better, if you can make it work, they give you more space to do that.”
The students, who come to Panasonic via Georgia Tech’s co-op program, are paired up with mentors who give them guidance. Panasonic also gets to see how they might fare as potential full-time employees after graduation.
“They have to be able to figure out things that aren’t specified,” Avery said. “At the end of every semester we have a presentation day where they present to the senior management on what they’ve been working on for the previous semester. It’s a chance for them to take credit and ownership for what they’ve been working on.”
Students are also challenged to stretch their skills into areas where they might not have as much experience.
Pooja Srikrishnan, for example, said most of her projects had focused on hardware issues before she joined Panasonic as a co-op student this summer.
Now Srikrishnan, who is pursuing her master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, is working on more software-related projects, such as a modular embedded initiative. It’s a customized hardware and software platform for Panasonic’s infotainment systems.
“Working on more system-level software that’s closer to the operating system is very challenging,” she said. As part of her project, she’s working with a cross-functional team whose members are on the software side.
“It’s a good learning experience, and I probably could not have gotten better mentors in this field because this skill set is something that every big company is going to expect you to have, but no one is going to teach you to do that.”
At the onset of the project, she was focused on correcting minor bugs in the systems, but now she is looking to implement a new feature and examining if the software will allow it to work or not.
“I think that having software as a skill set for a hardware person is just going to open up opportunities,” Srikrishnan said. “It lets you have some sort of experience where you say, I might not be a software guy, but I can transition, I can jump from role to role. It’s all a learning experience.”
One of her co-op colleagues, Jacques Florence, a doctoral student pursuing an electrical engineering degree, is assigned to the same modular embedded project, but he is tasked with security.
His specific assignment is looking at integrating security between consumer and automotive electronics.
The challenge, Florence said, is that consumer electronics technologies have shorter development cycles than their motor vehicle counterparts. The idea is to develop a device that could update those motor vehicle electronics and do so securely.
“The concept of the modular embedded is to have a device that you can plug in and out of the car and you can update this device separately to always have the newest technologies in terms of consumer electronics for your car,” Florence said.
Because the device is something that can be plugged in and out, he’s looking at how to make it secure to prevent malicious software or other disruptive programs from being installed.
“It fits my level, they give me some independence in what I do. I can make my own design choices, and I learn a lot,” Florence said. “I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. I will have an impact on their products and on the future of automotive electronics.”
But beyond giving interns the opportunity to work on meaningful projects, innovation center leaders want them to seriously consider Atlanta as a place to build a career in technology.
Twerksy, of the AT&T Foundry, said she thinks the strategy is working and perceptions are changing.
When the Foundry first opened in 2013, she said, it received a handful of applications from students for its internship program. Applications to work at the Foundry have tripled since then.
“Long-term, that will hopefully mean being able to keep more talent here in Atlanta,” Twersky said. “Not losing talent to other states, but keeping them right here in Atlanta where we need it.”
Péralte Paul is a business and technology writer in Georgia Tech’s Institute Communications and the Enterprise Innovation Institute. He’s a former newspaper reporter.