Tech innovation isn’t just for engineering and science kids, say UBC iLab members

To many students who don’t come from technical backgrounds like science and engineering, the field of emerging technology with things like AI and the blockchain seem daunting and almost off-limits, with all the forbidding character of magic but much more math.

Third-year economics and math student Alberto Cevallos and a group of primarily arts students found themselves facing a similar challenge last winter. They had ideas about innovative ways to harness emerging technologies but lacked some of the technical expertise and support they needed to develop them.

UBC’s existing resources were geared mainly towards professors, and they could find no group devoted exclusively to facilitating undergraduate innovation.

Cevallos and that original group set out to change that and develop a space where undergraduates from all fields of study could be supported in their development of innovative technology projects.

Beyond just providing the resources for students to develop their ideas, one of the main goals of iLab is to build an interdisciplinary community of innovators, according to Giuseppe Cagliuso, iLab’s executive vice-president of business development.

“We want to get rid of that mentality of ‘these ideas and technologies are for engineering and science kids,’” he said. “We don’t want anyone to feel limited to only being at UBC for one thing.”

In January, they began laying the groundwork for what would eventually grow into iLab, which was formally constituted by the AMS in May.

The first stage of developing an idea through iLab is their pitch and meet event, where members select a few projects for the club to pursue out of all those pitched. The creators of the selected projects can then list their specific project requirements and match with members who have skills or knowledge they need to form their team.

Once the teams are formed, they would meet weekly to work on their projects and have access to a variety of resources, from AMS grants to biweekly mentorship from professors, who can help teams work through specific challenges.

In the spring, teams have the opportunity to present their work to local start-ups, industry representatives and angel investors during “demo days,” where they are able to receive feedback from individuals who are experienced in their field. Teams can potentially even land an offer of funding.

Some current iLab projects include a bot to help investors deal with the extreme volatility of the markets for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, a vertical lettuce farm monitored by AI and a natural disaster relief fund that utilizes blockchain.

Going forward, both Cagliuso and Cevallos want to see club membership grow, gain access to more funding and eventually move into a dedicated makerspace to further support the development of undergraduate innovation.

Cevallos has ambitious plans for iLab. An entire wall of his bedroom is devoted to an ever-expanding plan for the club’s development. What matters most to him and Cagliuso, however, is the preservation of the interdisciplinary culture of innovation and the engagement with emerging technologies that they have tried to foster through iLab.

“We want to secure the structure we’ve created with the iLab where it’s not just a community of students but a community of people who get things done,” Cevallos said. “We want to create that ethos and leave it on campus.”