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Two WVU engineering students build innovative idea into a software platform business

Two WVU engineering students build innovative idea into a software platform business

By the time industrial engineering students Kyle Gillis and James Carnes graduated from West Virginia University, they had already assembled an impressive list of accomplishments.

Winding road to success

Gillis grew up in Wheeling and Carnes in neighboring Weirton. Although the two did not cross paths until college, they shared similar traits of intense curiosity and preference for thinking – and working — outside the humdrum box.

Gillis entered WVU to study computer science. A classroom presentation changed his life.

“The presenter said industrial engineers were ‘the people’s engineers.’ By that, he meant you don’t have to work by yourself in a room, always crunching numbers,” he said. “Industrial engineering (IE) can be working on teams, solving problems, getting down on the floor and figuring stuff out.” 

His first few classes left him feeling that an IE degree would lead to a disappointingly ordinary workplace after all. He prepared to drop out, head for a big city on either coast and put his technology and communications skills to work. 

At that moment, one of the industrial engineering firms where he had applied for an internship called. That experience revived his hopes for what an IE career could be.

Carnes also followed an indirect path to his goal. In high school, he worked multiple jobs – busboy, pool cleaner, retail – and on the side, mowed lawns. He also had a talent for technology and began repairing computers, cell phones and other electronics for himself, friends, and family. He officially became a business owner when he turned 18 and registered his repair business.

He entered WVU as a biomedical engineering major because he wanted to integrate technology with prosthetics.

“I liked that the work would change people’s lives,” he said. “When I got to school, I realized I didn’t like chemistry or the sciences enough to do that. I was more interested in the design of prosthetics. That’s why I switched to mechanical engineering.”

He took a course working with SolidWorks, a solid modeling computer-aided design and engineering program. He enjoyed designing an object, printing it in 3D, cutting it with a laser and assembling it. But it still wasn’t all he wanted.

“I was more interested in the business side. I’m a very business-minded person,” said Carnes. 

His IE studies included business operations and applied to a wide swath of businesses, from health care to manufacturing. The flexibility appealed to Carnes.

“You can dabble in different things and see what you like,” he said. “When you know that, you can continue on the path to success.”

An Iconic start

Gillis and Carnes first met at West Virginia University at a social networking event hosted by a technology company. They shared a wide-ranging curiosity, fascination with technology, and a penchant for problem solving. 

Carnes became a repeat guest on Gillis’s YouTube podcast about life as an engineering student. 

“Our skills complement each other,” said Carnes. “Kyle is very savvy with marketing, video creation and things like that. I had a drone I had built, 3D printing and coding skills.”

The duo developed an idea for Iconic EDU, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education kit. 

West Virginia business resources help team score success

They entered the West Virginia Collegiate Business Plan Competition. The competition gives college students throughout the state an opportunity to put their bright business ideas in front of educators and investors. The students’ plans compete through three rounds, during which they receive feedback and instruction. 

They also took part in WVU LaunchLab competitions and several national business contests.

During the competitive process, the concept evolved into Iconic Air, a software startup pioneering a new way of emissions monitoring and data reporting for the oil and gas industry.

The Iconic Air software combines leak detection, operations, and emissions targets to align the data types into annual reports and prioritize solutions using machine learning and artificial intelligence to help organizations stay on track of their emissions reduction goals.

“We believe in a transparent, continuous, and automated process to ensure a frictionless transition as the world moves toward higher standards of climate change and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) reporting metrics,” Gillis said. 

As the partners were starting Iconic Air, the West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WVSBDC) was launching the Innovation-Technology (In-Tech) program. Created to help West Virginia businesses where technology is a catalyst for growth, In-Tech provides commercialization and technical assistance, as well as greater access to capital through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) opportunities. In-Tech also serves as the application portal to the West Virginia Entrepreneurship and Innovation Investment Fund.  

“I first met Iconic Air at the 2019 WVU TransTech Energy Conference during a networking event,” said Deborah Magyar, director of the WVSBDC In-Tech program. “They had heard some of the ‘buzz’ about the new West Virginia Entrepreneurship and Innovation Investment Fund. After learning about the potential for matching funds, they decided to pursue an SBIR award. Being a client of the WVSBDC In-Tech program gave them access to key information and strategies to plan how best to use available resources in their business.”

Small business with big feats 

Winning the $700,000 SBIR Phase II contract with the U.S. Air Force and being on the Forbes 30 under 30 list were high spots in 2020, said Carnes. Others included:

“The only thing that got us to where we are was the abundance of resources that we’ve been able to leverage,” said Gillis. “The resources are all over the state, in our schools, and local levels. Often we just don’t realize how impactful they can be on businesses.”

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