Teaching Tech Transfer Through Music

July 27, 2009

After leaving the software industry to teach engineering, Bruce Jacob realized that something was missing from his classroom.

The associate professor and director of computer engineering at the University of Maryland at College Park said that developing new products was something he had enjoyed in his former career, but that his undergraduate students didn't connect product development with becoming engineers.

"We don't talk much about it in universities," Mr. Jacob said. "We tend to focus on theory. The implementation side is 'what industry does.' But there's actually a pretty significant intellectual component to really developing something from beginning to end."

Accordingly, he decided to form a company with some of his undergraduate and graduate students based on their research in circuitry and sounds. Although Mr. Jacobs made the initial investment, students are now contributing some money—along with a lot of research. The company, Coil LLC, develops guitars with tiny circuit boards to provide a greater range of tones than guitars typically have.

Mr. Jacob, who has played guitar since childhood, found that the instruments he bought off the shelf never quite had the sound he was looking for, or an easy way to create it.

At a concert, it's common to see musicians switch guitars three or more times, he said, because they can't get everything they need on one guitar. The circuit board Mr. Jacob designed, a finger-length device that fits into the back of the guitar, expands the range of tones a guitarist can activate. It uses a system of movable pegs to create multiple circuits that change the way the instrument sounds. While a typical guitar can produce up to five variations of one or two tones, Mr. Jacob's can produce as many as 15 variations of three or four tones.

It took Mr. Jacob and his students two to three years to go from the idea to the actual building of the guitars. Several students, who say engineering their own designs from start to finish was a welcome break from the traditional course work in their major, have continued with the project after graduation.

Coil has formed a partnership with a Korean guitar manufacturer to sell the instruments, and Mr. Jacob's students will soon see what was once just a project as a finished product, on stage in someone else's hands.

"I keep telling them, you don't have to spend millions of dollars to develop something," Mr. Jacob said. "If you have something in your head, somebody out there will build it for you."