Engineer to Entrepreneur: Undergrad Designs Custom-Grip Mouse
- By Jess Clarke
Cullen Jemison ’19 plans an aerospace career to use his engineering and computer skills. But before he launches it, he’s gaining experience in a different kind of liftoff — as an entrepreneur.
He and friend Matt Giles are developing a business to manufacture their ergonomic computer mouse Thermouse. The product, which changes form to fit a user’s hand, won two business contests and is now finalist in the annual, statewide LaunchVT entrepreneurs’ competition May 5 in Burlington.
“I can’t believe it’s gone as far as it has. It’s exponentially taking off,” Jemison, of Starksboro, Vermont, says. “We started winning competitions and going to networking events, but we didn’t expect it to accelerate so fast.”
As he pursues a double major in mechanical engineering and computer science, Jemison also is learning about incorporation, patents, production, packaging and distribution, and creating a third-generation Thermouse prototype.
The venture began last September, when Giles, a first-year international business major at neighboring Champlain College, remembered an idea he’d had when he and Jemison were ninth graders at Mount Abraham Union school in Bristol. An avid gamer, Giles wanted more grip and comfort in a mouse. He thought of applying a plastic technology like that used to make some athletic mouthguards: heating a thermoplastic mold and making an impression to produce a customized mouse that fits an individual user’s hand.
Jemison and Giles considered the idea but didn’t pursue it until Giles discussed it with Champlain’s Build Your Own Biz director Robert Bloch. The name Thermouse is a play on thermoplastic.
“We were the right pairing,” Jemison says. “Matt wanted to start a business, and I like to do engineering. Revisiting the idea made a lot of sense.”
As Giles developed contest pitches and did other business tasks, Jemison created prototypes. He’s designing the third iteration now with a computer program he learned in a UVM mechanical engineering class.
The model consists of wiring that spreads electric heat to soften the thermoplastic and mold it to the user’s hand shape. A foam underlayer creates a more precise shape. The mouse will hold its shape unless it’s plugged into an outlet to reshape it.
“I’ve always liked doing this kind of stuff. It’s really cool to build something, starting from an idea with sketches and then building the whole thing from the ground up with a computer,” Jemison says.
Thermouse’s main distinction is that it’s customizable.
“Other ergonomic mice are just better guesses at how a hand is shaped. By molding to the user’s hand, Thermouse is perfect for that user,” Jemison says.
The pair made that point convincingly enough to win Champlain College’s LaunchVT Champlain business-pitch contest and the inaugural LaunchVT Collegiate competition, an achievement that qualified them for the LaunchVT event. They’ll use some of their $9,500 in prize money from those contests to produce Thermouse mice for testing by Champlain College gamers.
“I’m incredibly impressed with Cullen’s creativity and initiative,” says Marnie Owen, student services director for the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and Jemison’s adviser. “He’s only just embarking on his engineering education, yet he is already an accomplished designer and entrepreneur. As a Vermonter, I’m excited that Cullen and his partner are committed to manufacturing the Thermouse in Vermont.”
Bloch, an adviser on Thermouse, is impressed by their teamwork. “While they each have carved out general areas of responsibility, they are at their best when sharing ideas that cross over these lines. This is great to see at this early stage because it suggests a maturity and desire to seek the best answers,” Bloch says.
In addition to enjoying the engineering side of Thermouse, Jemison welcomes the introduction to business.
He and Giles are working with a lawyer to get a permanent patent on the moldable technology of Thermouse. Then they can sell the rights to produce the technology to other companies. The process could be used to make power tools or steering wheels — “anywhere there’s a grip that someone will be using for a long period,” Jemison says.
They plan to contact the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center for help with production, packaging and distribution, with hopes of starting production in Vermont by summer’s end. They're also attending networking events with potential investors.
The plan is to distribute Thermouse through Amazon. “That way, we can oversee the process instead of micromanaging. We can continue our studies,” says Jemison, a member of UVM’s Alternative Energy Racing Organization and saxophonist in the university’s pep and concert bands.
Despite this business education, Jemison will continue his engineering focus. He’s interested in an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory or aerospace company SpaceX.
After setting his sights high with Thermouse, a future in space is going in the right direction.