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Laramie, WY 82071
Phone: (307) 766-2929

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If You Build It …

man holding a base for a small vehicle
Co-founder Christian Bitzas at the Laramie offices of Uplink.

The College of Engineering and Physical Sciences offers programming to fill workforce gaps and produces tech entrepreneurs ready to diversify the state’s economy.

By Micaela Myers

Christian Bitzas, UplinkRobotics

When Christian Bitzas, Brady Wagstaff and Oreoluwa Babatunde were seniors at UW, they came up with the idea of creating a robotic inspection crawler for home inspections. They decided to enter the Ellbogen Entrepreneurship $50K Competition and added a fourth co-founder, Zoe Worthen. They succeeded and were awarded $31,000 to start UplinkRobotics. UW’s IMPACT 307, a statewide network of innovation-driven business incubators, provided further support, office space and resources.

Wagstaff, of Evanston, serves as head of engineering (B.S. computer engineering, 2022; M.S. electrical engineering, 2023). Babatunde, of Nigeria, works remotely as head of software while working full-time as a software engineer for Qualcomm in California (B.S. computer engineering, 2022). Worthen, of Gillette, is head of marketing (B.S. business management for entrepreneurship, 2022; MBA 2023). And Bitzas, of Powell, serves as CEO (B.S. computer engineering, 2022; M.S. electrical engineering, 2023).

“UplinkRobotics was started in January 2022 with a mission to bring opportunities to the state of Wyoming and provide quality inspection robotics to inspectors throughout the country,” Bitzas says. “We’ve released two inspection crawler robots into the market and are working directly with home inspectors to change the industry and have plans to move into the first responder and surveying industries.”

Bitzas, who completed internships at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Raytheon Missiles & Defense in Arizona, knew his calling was in tech but didn’t see many job opportunities in Wyoming, so he helped create them.

“We are proud to be from Wyoming and be able to contribute to the state by creating opportunities in engineering and technology,” he says. “We have already funded senior design projects in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and have recently hired two UW student interns. Our goal is to bring opportunities to Wyoming so those who want to stay don’t feel like they are forced to move elsewhere.”

They credit UW, the College of Business and the Ellbogen competition for getting them where they are today.

“Everyone we have met on this journey of bringing a robotics startup to Wyoming has been supportive,” Bitzas says.

To students, he adds: “Staying in Wyoming is much easier with connections. Start early and reach out to faculty or people in positions that you want to be in. Use UW’s resources. Undergraduate and graduate research can lead to opportunities that keep you in the state. And if you want to start your own business, the College of Business, IMPACT 307 and many other organizations are there to help. In my opinion, Wyoming is one of the best places to find opportunities or start a company if you know where to look.”

State-of-the-Art Process Controls

In 2021, a new process control lab opened on campus as part of a partnership between the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and Genesis Alkali, which operates the world’s largest natural soda ash mine and production site near Green River. The lab provides UW students hands-on experience with a broad range of industry-leading technologies.

The demand for qualified process control employees outpaces the availability. Typically, process control is an area in which Genesis Alkali prefers to hire experienced people but, because of the shortage, the company wanted to take a different approach and donated $100,000 in seed funding to establish UW minors in process control and instrumentation.

Partnering with Genesis Alkali allows the Department of Chemical Engineering to integrate the latest technology into its process control program curriculum and research.

“Realistic hands-on experience is critical for top-notch engineers, and this lab allows our students to get that experience,” says Cameron Wright, dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

people looking at a display
Associate Professor Francois Jacobs teaches students Sahar Sewaid, Mohammad Karman and John Annor about structural analysis and design in the Construction Management Lab.
Construction Management Program Fills Workforce Gap

Those trained in construction management are in high demand — not just for building new homes and businesses but in many other industries such as mining and transportation. However, universities were not offering this training — that is, until the University of Wyoming recently launched its construction management bachelor’s degree plus industry certifications and high school courses.

“Spring 2022 was our first graduating class of 28 bachelor’s degree students, and in spring 2023 we graduated 42 more,” says Associate Professor Francois Jacobs. “We’ve had 100 percent placement before graduation.”

The mean starting income for these graduates is $75,911. Students leave with a degree plus five industry certificates, such as occupational safety and LEED (Leadership in Environmental Design), which employers appreciate. 

“Industry is very pleased about this,” Jacobs says. “At our spring 2023 job fair, we had 40-plus Wyoming construction companies come to recruit our students.”

Those already working in construction can earn certificates from UW, and more than 328 have been issued thus far. UW is also offering modules for high school career and technical education credits.

“We created videos, homework, classwork — everything — so the teachers can plug this into their class sessions,” Jacobs says. “As students pass module exams, they get a stackable credential. If they get all four, then they get a certificate of completion from us.”

By offering training for high school and college students as well as those already in the workforce, UW is helping the state tackle the deficit of construction workers from every angle.

Joshua Heiner, SLD Photonics

Another startup to come out of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences is the tech company SLD Photonics, started by former physics Ph.D. students Josh Heiner and Subash Kattel and former postdoc Joseph Murphy. The tech has application in camera technology and includes a single broadband detector for a spectrum of radiation frequencies that can span from 390-2200 nanometers with a featureless quantum efficiency (the percentage of incident photons that an imaging device can convert into electrons). This span includes the spectrum of visible light through near infrared. Currently, there is not a commercially available camera that can capture visible light and near infrared light. This innovation advances a camera capable of spanning this light range and fulfilling this unmet need. The tech can be used in unmanned vehicles, medicine and defense and recently garnered SLD a $256,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant.

Heiner grew up in Turnerville, in Star Valley. After completing a quantum communications internship at NASA, his NASA mentor told him he saw him first as an entrepreneur. Heiner realized that this was true and began meeting with other Wyoming entrepreneurs and working with resources such as the Wyoming Small Business Development Center.

One entrepreneur told him that he sees it this way: “I take care of 52 families.”

Heiner says: “I hope to be there someday. It’s my dream that five to 10 years from now, someone with their degree in math or physics or another science can find a job in Wyoming working for a tech company as a full-time employee.”

Heiner joined forces with Kattel and Murphy as principal investigator for SLD, advancing research that started in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Now that I’m a business person, I’m really impressed with how my UW professors took off their professor hats and are open to collaborating,” he says. “They’re willing to help. I think the university is amazing.”

two photos - one head photo of a man, the other a man outside holding a hard hat
Branden Christiansen (left). Sam Kruger aboard an offshore oil rig (Courtesy images)
Branden Christiansen and Sam Kruger, Point Blank

Growing up outside of Meeteetse, cousins Branden Christiansen and Sam Kruger were always making bike trails through the sagebrush or building things and flying remote-controlled airplanes. Fast forward to 2021, after both had studied engineering at UW and Christiansen drew an elk tag. He didn’t have much experience shooting long range and had an idea for an electrically activated bipod rest. As he built his prototype, he ran things by Kruger, who was working in Texas.

“We began meeting with John Wetzel of IMPACT 307 and others from the Small Business Development Center,” Christiansen says. “They have been amazing. With their help, we have been able to learn what is involved in starting and running a business. They also have helped us obtain seed money. These programs have been instrumental in getting Point Blank off the ground. Our plans going forward are to finish developing the electronics and get them certified so we can begin production. Once we do get up and running, our biggest goal is to provide good technical jobs to people who want to stay in Wyoming.”

Kruger, who earned his mechanical engineering degree from UW in 2009, was able to move back to Powell, Wyoming, and works as a global applications engineer in the oil and gas industry while he helps with Point Blank.

“Wyoming was a great place to grow up as a young person,” he says. “After moving to the large cities and working on a global team, I realized that Wyoming is the place that I would like to live and raise my kids. Wyoming has offered a great lifestyle for my family while also allowing us to gain an education and participate in many things.”

To students, he adds: “Utilize your resources. As technology advances, there is more opportunity to reach a larger market. Branden has shown an example of how to do this, as Point Blank utilizes local companies for components while reaching outside of Wyoming for customers and expertise.”

Christiansen also works a day job while advancing Point Blank. He serves as a charter pilot and flight instructor for Choice Aviation in Cody and also flies air attack over forest fires.

“Wyoming is part of who I am,” he says. “Every line on my family tree comes from the Big Horn Basin for three to five generations. The people here are great, friendly and trustworthy.”

Contact Us

Institutional Communications
Bureau of Mines Building, Room 137
Laramie, WY 82071
Phone: (307) 766-2929

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