Five teams of students received seed funding and nine months of intensive mentorship in unique entrepreneurship program

When Floyd Pike founded Floyd S. Pike Electrical Contractor, Inc., in North Carolina in 1945, he had a crew of six, a salvaged line truck and the insight that electric utilities would need contractors to keep up with post-WWII grid investment demands.

That dream more than 70 years ago has evolved into the Pike Corporation, with 8,000 employees providing engineering, construction and maintenance services to hundreds of electric and gas utilities across the United States. The evolution of the Pike Corporation would not have been possible without a continued focus on entrepreneurship that has given the company the ability to adapt to changing market conditions and customer demands while keeping an eye on the future of technology and its role in the industry.

“The entrepreneurial spirit has always been critical for us,” said Eric Pike, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Pike Corporation. “It gave us our start and enabled us to reinvent ourselves again and again to meet the challenges of new markets, new technologies and new regulations.”

While he was a student at UVA, Eric’s son, Will, worked with the School of Engineering and Applied Science to build a year-long, fourth-year capstone project in partnership with the Pike Corporation.

This successful collaboration with the University, along with the Pike family’s desire to give back to the Engineering School, led Eric and Will to work together to fund and help design a unique initiative that gives teams of students the opportunity to build their own skills as entrepreneurs and to transform innovative ideas into marketable products and services.

The first five teams accepted into the Pike Engineering Entrepreneurship Fellows Program will present their projects to a panel of successful members of the business community and compete for a $50,000 prize during an event on April 26 and 27.

William and J. Eric Pike

2016 UVA electrical engineering graduate Will Pike (left) and his father, J. Eric Pike, lead the North Carolina-based Pike Corporation and envisioned a unique program that would provide a path for success for entrepreneurial-minded students.

In building the program, Eric and Will combined elements of Will’s experience as a student with Eric’s business experience and network of industry experts to provide maximum educational impact to student entrepreneurs in an environment focused on the student educational experience. 

“We wanted to create an environment in which supporting the fellows, protecting their financial interests and creating a path for long-term success is paramount,” Eric Pike said. “When participants come back to us and tell that they would not have been able to achieve what they did without the program, we’ll know we are on the right track. That will be very satisfying.”

“My dad and I were considering ways to give back to UVA Engineering and decided that an entrepreneurship program combining access to industry veterans, mentorship and funding would best position students for success,” said Will Pike, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in electrical engineering and now serves as a Director of Operations for his family’s company.

Helping Students Develop as Entrepreneurs

The $50,000 Pike Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is the culmination of a year-long process designed to help the Fellows mature as entrepreneurs while they develop their products. To participate in the new Pike Engineering Entrepreneurship Fellows Program, student teams must submit applications in April or May to an admissions committee. The applications must include videos of their pitches or presentations.

The winning three to five teams are introduced in August at the School’s annual SPARK: Faces of Technology Innovation event. For 2017-2018, the inaugural year, more than 20 teams competed to become Pike fellows. Five teams, totaling 10 students, were selected.

The fellows embark on a nine-month program designed to help them refine and develop their products or services. They are paired with established entrepreneurs and professionals and check in weekly with the program’s administrators, Elizabeth Pyle, associate director for technology entrepreneurship, and Alexander Zorychta, coordinator for student entrepreneurs, of the Department of Engineering & Society.

“You can read all about entrepreneurship in a book, but you don’t really understand it until you start working with a mentor who asks hard questions, challenges your assumptions and forces you to match your product to the reality of customer demands and desires,” Pyle said.

Pyle and Zorychta also organize workshops and regularly bring all the Pike fellows together to exchange ideas. In addition, each team receives a $5,000 seed grant it can use for such tasks as customer discovery and project development. Teams are also encouraged to compete in the University-wide Entrepreneurship Cup and such regional and national competitions for entrepreneurs as the ACC InVenture Prize where one of the Pike Fellows, Ashwin Karthikeyan, took first place this year with his venture, InMEDBio.

The experience of Pike Fellows Varundev Sukhil, a doctoral candidate in computer engineering, and Christian Howard, a doctoral candidate in English, exemplify the benefits of this nine-month period of concentrated mentorship and support. The two graduate students formed Caelobotics to develop a mid-sized unmanned aerial system that campus police and other law enforcement agencies could use for such purposes as crowd control and crime-scene investigations.

They particularly appreciated insights gained from their mentor, Rick Kulow, a veteran entrepreneur.

“As an engineer, I was trained to focus primarily on making something work,” Sukhil said. “Rick helped me understand that I needed to see our project from the perspective of an investor.”

Howard appreciated the time Kulow took orienting her to the language of entrepreneurship and stressing the importance for entrepreneurs of always thinking several steps ahead.

Creating Long-Term Relationships with Industry Mentors

The nine-month program culminates in April with a two-day event, the Pike Engineering Entrepreneurships Fellowship Program: A Celebration of Engineering Excellence. It includes a Student Technology Project Fair open to any student entrepreneur, followed by an evening program for the on-Grounds entrepreneurial community, this year featuring a keynote address by John Nisi, Worldwide Chief Technology Officer of Data and Artificial Intelligence at Microsoft.

A dinner follows for Pike Fellows and the judges who will determine the winner of the Pike Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship the next day. This year’s judges include Eric and Will Pike, Nisi and three investment industry veterans from well-established firms: Kevin D. Brown, 1996 alumnus of the McIntire School of Commerce and managing director of MSD Private Capital Group; Clay Dunnagan, managing partner of Anchor Capital; and Mark Pinho, 1999 McIntire alumnus and managing partner of St. Victor Group, LLC.

The following morning is the moment of truth for Pike Fellows. Each of the teams will make their presentations followed by a Q&A session with the panel of judges. Shortly after, the judges will deliberate and announce a winner of the $50,000 prize. Following the prize award, the Fellows and judges will adjourn to a celebratory lunch and workshop for the students to continue brainstorming their ventures with the Pike family and other judges.

“It was very important to us to maximize the amount of time that Pike Fellows have with the judges so that all the teams will be able to build relationships with the judges and benefit from their advice and perhaps, down the line, from their networks,” Will Pike said. “Access to the caliber of people we have assembled at their stage in a venture is very unusual.”

2017-2018 Pike Fellow Teams


Manufacturers of commercial unmanned aerial systems have focused on small products for hobbyists while companies such as Boeing concentrate on large, military-grade systems. Caelobotics is closing the gap by developing semi-autonomous robotic systems that can bring real-time intelligence and long-range imaging solutions to campus security, law enforcement and scientific and agricultural agencies.


The current generation of thermal imaging goggles are unwieldy and expensive. HeatSight is creating thermal imaging goggles featuring two sensors that interface with a microcontroller enabling the display of a detailed thermal image of the area in both sensors’ fields of view.


InMEDBio is developing a safe, cost-effective and comprehensive wound care dressing to help prevent infections and accelerate the healing of chronic wounds caused by diabetes, obesity and other conditions. Its product will be affordable for medically underserved and socioeconomically disadvantages patients.


In places like India, government agencies have banned such services as Facebook and Google, arguing that they privilege specific websites. Their solution has been limited, supplying computers to a small segment of the population and educating people to use them proficiently. ConnectMe is creating a platform for connecting those with cellular network access via their smartphones to mobile data content.


For those who believe in the long-term value of Bitcoin, mining provides a better response to price volatility than purchasing. CloudMine is making it simple for anyone to invest in crypto mining by focusing on usability, user-friendliness and security.

Pike Fellows Presentations at SPARK

SPARK: Faces of Technology Innovation was an event that introduced UVA Engineering's five 2017-2018 Pike Engineering Entrepreneurship Fellows, teams of students who are developing their ideas for the marketplace.