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Three's Company for UND Innovation Fellows

Posted on 3/24/2016

Benjamin Olson, Innovation Fellow. Photo by Jackie Lorentz. Benjamin Olson, Innovation Fellow. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Two UND students recently got a boost in their career trajectory from an invitation-only national group that fires up the entrepreneurial spirit.

Emily O'Brien and Daniel Daffinrud were selected to join the Epicenter University Innovation Fellows, a National Science Foundation-funded national group that helps people turn ideas into real projects. They join Benjamin Olson, UND's first Innovation Fellow.

"Emily and I are a leadership team," Daffinrud said. "We both have experience and a vision for how to make our entrepreneur ecosystem expand across the community, which is probably what set us apart from the other candidates" for the Epicenter program.

Emily O'Brien, Innovation Fellow. Photo by Shawna Noel Schill. Emily O'Brien, Innovation Fellow. Photo by Shawna Noel Schill.

Epicenter-also known by its longer name, the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation-empowers student leaders to innovate and create. This effort is directed by Stanford University and VentureWell, another national program that encourages invention, innovation and entrepreneurship on university and college campuses.

O'Brien, a graduate student from Lakeville, Minn., earned her undergrad degree in entrepreneurship and business management; she works at the UND Center for Innovation. Olson first interested her in the program along with Tim O'Keefe, executive director and chair, School of Entrepreneurship at the UND College of Business & Public Administration.

"The program fit with what I was trying to do," said O'Brien, who is president of Dakota Venture Group and serves on the College of Business & Public Administration Advisory Council (BPAC).

"Dakota Venture and BPAC helped give me the skills needed to prepare me for this program," said O'Brien. "It made me realize how to communicate efficiently, and I am now able to gauge the interest of people and react accordingly."

Daffinrud, from Bismarck, N.D., a senior studying accounting and entrepreneurship, is interning at the Center for Innovation; he also works at SkySkopes, a local unmanned aerial vehicle company.

"I am a big believer that no matter what field you want to pursue, you must have critical thinking skills," said Daffinrud. "The point of the organization is to spread entrepreneurship and innovation across campus."

Daniel Daffinrud, Innovation Fellow. Photo by Shawna Noel Schill. Daniel Daffinrud, Innovation Fellow. Photo by Shawna Noel Schill.

The Innovation Fellows involves a six week training program.

"You learn, and then you do," said Daffinrud. "The first step is to create an action plan for your campus; we chose to work with the Grand Challenge Program at the Jodsaas Center at UND."

The second step is to create a series of events for everyone to share ideas across campus. Fellows conduct extensive online research.

"Through this program, Fellows learn how to analyze their campus ecosystems for new opportunities, understand the needs of stakeholders at their schools, collaborate with peers from different disciplines and solve problems that have no clear answers," said Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, co-leader of the University Innovation Fellows program.

"All of these skills help Fellows make a difference in higher education as well as in the increasingly complex world that awaits them after graduation," she said.

"There are many other people who are interested in the same things as you; the key is to connect with them," said Daffinrud. "In this case, our common ground was in the sectors of entrepreneurship and innovation."

By Amanda Menzies, University & Public Affairs student writer

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