It’s the unicorn of mythical student work experiences — become an essential team member in a student-run business, take on the tasks that challenge and spark your creativity most, enjoy ownership in the scope, process and product of each project, and build not only a resume but a real-life network of business and industry contacts that could launch an established career.
The thing is, this unicorn is real, and it lives at UW-Eau Claire.
Clearwater Labs at UW-Eau Claire is a group of Blugold self-starters who are building a solid and credible software consulting group in the Chippewa Valley, a 100% student-run company offering technology solutions to area businesses while providing high-impact educational experiences to Blugold students.
The traction Clearwater Labs has already gained is impressive, and a recent meeting with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, seems clear indication that momentum is gaining. Baldwin, who was in town promoting her new bill to support tax breaks for startups, had positive feedback for the student team and the mission of their center.
"Clearwater Labs is an innovative approach to carrying on our state’s proud tradition of entrepreneurship and advancing 'Made in Wisconsin' science, technology and innovation," Baldwin said. "When we provide students with the experience and skills businesses need, we will have graduates that can help grow our economy. And if we do more to support our small business startups, we will keep more graduates here in Wisconsin and create more jobs in our state."
This unique and exciting educational opportunity was co-founded by senior software engineering major Alex Stout from Baraboo, who serves as director of the Information Technology Commission of Student Senate. In 2018, the ITC was seeking approval of another innovation-related line item in the budget. Previous innovation line items supported by the ITC were the Makerspace and Virtual Reality Lab in McIntyre Library, both physical spaces dedicated to student creativity and exploration.
In tossing around thoughts for a new project, Stout came up with the idea of a student-run group for computer science students seeking to advance their industry knowledge — more of an idea or concept to cultivate than a physical project for the ITC to create.
“My purpose for this has been to create something that would empower students to be innovators, and for me to learn to manage a team of students effectively,” said Stout, who has been named chief executive and operations officer for Clearwater Labs. “In this role, I remove barriers of success for our software engineers and I plan strategically for the overall longevity of the project.”
The business plan is largely that of a software consulting firm connecting students to area businesses seeking technology solutions. The students work as a team to provide businesses with software products, a process that also gives them experiential learning opportunities in industry.
Stout describes the goal as “becoming a lighthouse for area businesses to interface with the university, creating a tangible product to meet their needs. Clearwater Labs will be a funnel for innovation — that central point where a problem finds a solution.”
First steps and early success
A key early decision for Clearwater Labs was to find an off-campus location, and they selected an office space in a shared work center in downtown Eau Claire known as Ivy Creatives. This space, the original home of Jamf Software, is now a coworking and collaboration space designed for technology entrepreneurs and managed by Pablo Properties.
Craig Mey, UW-Eau Claire’s director of campus learning and technology services, and mentor/supervisor for the Clearwater Labs project, explains the benefits and reasoning behind the move off campus.
“The team was clued into the Ivy space availability during a meeting with local stakeholders in the entrepreneurial happenings in Eau Claire,” Mey said. “It was a good fit because they wanted the company image to be free-standing and not dependent on the university as they move toward revenue generation and financial sustainability. In the Ivy Creatives space, they interact with other entrepreneurial organizations and have ample space for scaling a staff to accommodate the rapidly growing list of projects.”
Clearwater Labs already has an established record of building a team that innovates and empowers, taking calculated risks for profitable outcomes for students and area business.
The first major project for Clearwater was the development and January launch of the Parking Notifier, software designed to help campus and community members more easily comply with alternate-street parking regulations during declared snow emergencies.
This pilot project allowed Clearwater to establish an operational strategy, one that intentionally differs from the standard classroom environment of “top-down” decision-making.
“We operate under a system of bottom-up decision-making, using teamwork that does not rely on external direction,” says Grey Larson, a materials science major from Eau Claire, co-founder and chief business development officer for Clearwater Labs.
UW-Eau Claire’s Learning and Technology Services department provides vast numbers of experiential learning opportunities to students in the form of internships and student employment, and Mey is very pleased with the concept and execution that these students have established with their Clearwater Labs model.
“The real story about Clearwater Labs goes way beyond the parking app or any software they may develop,” Mey explained. “The innovation center is positioned to provide many students with experiential learning which is self-funded and self-sustaining. That’s the really amazing part.”
The team’s next project is something they refer to as the Energy Dashboard, a collaboration with the Student Office of Sustainability. The idea is to take data that the UW-Eau Claire facilities department already gathers about energy usage in university buildings and apply it to campuswide efforts to reduce energy waste.
“We are creating a web-based platform, a tool for the Student Office of Sustainability to use in messaging to students about energy awareness,” said Larson, who further laid out how this data can also be used in classrooms.
“This is data that our facilities staff is already collecting, and it will now be used by students in classrooms and projects dealing with issues of energy conservation and sustainability.”
Support for the energy dashboard project already has reach beyond campus, as the team entered the project into the Foxconn Technology Group's "Smart Cities — Smart Futures" competition. In March the team advanced to the third round of competition and earned a $1,500 prize.
A model unlike classroom or internship experience
Clearwater engineer Katherine Reiter, a senior computer science major from Tomahawk, explains why the Clearwater Labs operating model is so advantageous to students hoping to work as software engineers in industry.
“We’re already using the latest technologies not yet available in classroom projects. Rather than being handed a set of requirements by an instructor, we’re faced with a problem that needs a solution and are forced to think critically and creatively in a different way,” Reiter said.
“Because there is no set answer, we are more willing to take risks and try something a little scary, and we are still operating with a backdrop of fellow students all learning together from each step. If something doesn’t work in a class, it’s just a wrong answer and you move on. With this, we get to keep going and learn from failure. It’s a more beneficial way to learn, and more realistic. A company doesn’t just stop looking for a solution,” she said.
Steven Nelson, a senior software engineering major from Bloomington, Minnesota, describes why future student staff should not confuse this work experience with an internship, though it is similar in some ways.
“What sets working at Clearwater apart from my previous internship experience is being able to take ownership of tasks and see a project through from start to finish,” Nelson said. “It’s much more applicable to professional work because it’s less limited in scope and type of project.”
Attracting and retaining talent in the Chippewa Valley
In addition to the potential to attract innovative students to UW-Eau Claire, perhaps the greatest overall promise of Clearwater Labs is the growth potential for Chippewa Valley businesses as well as the ability to retain Blugold graduates.
Nick O’Brien of Pablo Properties, who manages the CoLab space, is excited about the possibility to grow the talent pool for leading-edge industry and business in the Chippewa Valley through the model Clearwater represents.
“While some of UWEC's best and brightest do indeed stay in the Chippewa Valley following graduation, unfortunately, a lot of the innovative talent that the university produces will leave for other cities with more robust professional opportunities,” O’Brien said. “I especially see this trend with innovative-thinking graduates who want to use their education and experience to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors with high growth potential.”
The goal of Clearwater Labs connecting eager and talented students to area businesses seeking technology solutions will have what O’Brien lays out as a three-tiered impact on talent retention in the city.
“First, they will directly connect high-potential students to area businesses that seek to be at the cutting edge of tech, research and innovation,” he explained. “Second, they will produce the opportunity for students to not only have firsthand experiences with community innovation efforts, but also have a personal stake in those innovation efforts.”
The biggest impact O’Brien foresees is in the more personal motivations students can develop for remaining in the Chippewa Valley after graduation.
“This model will inevitably create deeper student connections with business leaders, funders, employees and customers, helping students feel more rooted in the Eau Claire community,” he said. “Established connections to mentors, leaders and future collaborators will certainly play into a graduate's decision stay in this area rather than start over again in a bigger city simply because it is farther along in the world of innovation.”
There are some relative unknowns for Clearwater Labs in terms of exactly what projects come their way from the local business community, but they are being proactive in taking the steps needed to secure a solid future. That includes meeting with deans, the Foundation director, the data science master's program administration and representatives from Mayo Clinic Health System to discuss potential avenues of collaboration.
Another major step the team is pursuing is the possibility of helping to organize an event known as a hackathon hosted in Eau Claire. Stout explains the purpose of a hackathon, a competition in which teams have 24 hours to create a tech-based solution for a provided prompt, usually provided by a title sponsor company, and centered around a specific problem.
An event of this nature, the first in the area, will provide benefits for Blugold computer science students, the community and area businesses.
"Computer science students here are amazing. The quality of our education is fantastic, but there is a void in the application of the tools we learn in the classroom for business," Stout explained. "There is an untapped market for events and experiences for software engineering students."
There is little substitute for experiential learning, which a hackathon will provide, and it will also help create a talent funnel directly to industry through event sponsors.
"Sponsor companies will have access to the resumes submitted at the hackathon, and they also recruit, mentor and judge the contestants," Stout said. "This interaction can set us up with connections for partnerships and a talent pool in the future, so we are targeting Fortune 100 companies in the Minneapolis and Madison area."
Student job opportunities
As new project proposals come at a steady pace, the CWL team is always seeking more talent and innovative thinkers; this May, the project loses four graduating seniors, so interested students should reach out now.
Most of the current team are indeed computer science students, but as new projects are proposed by area businesses, leadership hopes to broaden the scope of their services to an even more comprehensive package for companies in need of solutions. The team can foresee the need for students to contribute to elements like marketing, graphic design, creative or technical writing — the list of potentially needed talent areas is truly limitless, so students in any major could have a matching skill set for a future project.
Contact Clearwater Labs team leadership at STOUTAB4384@uwec.edu to express interest in joining the team. Innovation comes in all packages, so even if you are not a coding wiz, you could potentially contribute to a diverse project team. First year students are also encouraged to reach out, as the longer team members are on board, the stronger the team can become.
Top image caption: Alex Stout and Grey Larson, co-founders of Clearwater Labs, along with student software engineers, make the best of rare opportunities for full staff meetings once a week in their downtown office.