In early August, four Tulane students were given one weekend to invent a commercial product from scratch, then present their idea and a prototype to a panel of judges. But that was only part of the challenge: They worked while being filmed for a documentary-style television series that will air across the country and online.
Twelve college teams, including the crew from Tulane University, participated in the third season filming of "Make48" — a competition in which contenders have 48 hours to come up with an idea for a product and to create a physical prototype. Their product must fall into a specific category, which is revealed minutes before the clock begins ticking.
(Past "Make48" segment themes included innovative or eco-friendly household products.)
The Tulane team members are Kyra Rubinstein, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering; Luke Artzt, a junior studying engineering physics; Jesse Williams, a recent graduate of Tulane’s School of Architecture; and May 2018 graduate Matthew Nice, who finished in biomedical engineering.
Although the competitors were not accustomed to having a film crew follow them around, Nice said he and his teammates felt more pressure from the actual contest requirements than the cameras.
“It was nerve-racking to work on something and not know whether or not you’re infringing on a patent,” said Nice, a 22-year-old Virginia native who has family in New Orleans.
“With the cameras, they tried to be as minimally invasive as possible,” he said, noting that the videographers did occasionally get in the way.
“There might have been a moment that was organically happening, and they wanted to capture it,” Nice said. “So they would rush over, interrupt our conversation, and ask: ‘Hold on, what were you saying? Repeat that for the camera.’ ”
Since the team comprised three engineering students and an architecture student, they lacked experience in making a business pitch, Nice said.
“That was more out of our comfort zone than doing the design aspect,” he said.
Nice learned about the competition through Cedric Walker, professor emeritus of biomedical engineering and manager of Tulane University’s Maker Space.
The on-campus Maker Space building provides students and faculty access to modern prototyping tools like laser cutters, a 4-axis CNC milling machine and 3-D printers, along with traditional hand tools and power tools.
“Dr. Walker got an email saying there was going to be a tryout, so I signed up, tried out, and then eventually the team was put together,” Nice recalled.
The filming took place Aug. 10-12 at Stanley Black & Decker, a major tool and hardware manufacturer, in Baltimore, Maryland.
“We had every piece of equipment you could think of. We also had a full team of tool technicians to help them build their prototypes,” "Make48" CEO Tom Gray said. “The prototypes, naturally, were extremely well created and well done.”
Gray noted that the college teams competing in season three “were very laid back,” in comparison to the older inventors who’ve appeared in past seasons.
“They sort of waited until the last minute, which was quite interesting,” Gray said. “There were machines still running five minutes toward the end. That goes to show you how tight it was with the clock.”
The season includes 20 episodes, with the teams' first 48 hours of brainstorming and product creation spanning five of those episodes. The second half of the season reveals the three top inventions, which are chosen by judges, and follows their path to the market.
Season three of "Make48" debuts in September 2019 on PBS — roughly a year from now — and then becomes available on Amazon Prime Video.
Regardless of the competition’s outcome, however, the show offers all of the contenders a chance to work with new tools and materials; collaborate with fabrication experts; and network with influencers in the invention community.
“Being able to participate in the competition was really great in and of itself,” Nice said. “The highlight is that at the end of 48 hours, you have made — from absolute zero, not even knowing what the category is — a physical working prototype and a pitch on why someone should buy it.”
Nice, who hopes to work in an engineering design firm, also enjoyed meeting the other participants.
“It makes you really excited and proud of your own work, and just excited to see how amazing all of us are, or (how amazing) people are in general, just to do all this stuff,” he said. “It was really fun.”