UTSA Catalyst Lab Connects ‘Hire-Ready’ Graduate Students to Startups

By Iris Gonzalez
Catalyst Lab is a UTSA program linking graduate students to advanced tech jobs in local startups.

Each summer, college interns gain valuable industry experience while working on projects for startups across San Antonio. Increasingly, local founders are finding what they need are graduate students knowledgeable in advanced technology. The growing need for highly-skilled graduate students led to the creation of Catalyst Lab, a new internship program at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).

The executive director of the 80/20 Foundation Alexandra Frey recalled a conversation with Scaleworks co-founder Lew Moorman in 2018 that inspired the creation of the new internship program.

Frey suggested Moorman consider Students + Startups, the summer internship program connecting college students from across the U.S. with San Antonio-based startups as a possible source of talent for Scaleworks companies. However, Moorman emphasized startup founders in the Scaleworks’ portfolio of companies needed machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) graduate students who were “hire-ready,” able to work on advanced projects from their first day.

Frey connected Moorman with UTSA graduate student Parsa Yousefi. He interned with Filestack, a Scaleworks company that offers a developer service for file uploading. Filestack was looking for someone with deep experience in image and video processing with advanced machine learning expertise. After completing his internship, Yousefi joined Filestack as its machine learning engineer.

“We were so impressed with the candidate that we offered him a full-time job after the internship and he is making some great contributions to our content platform,” Filestack chief executive Sameer Kamat said.

That early success led the 80/20 Foundation to partner with UTSA Open Cloud Institute (OCI) to launch the Catalyst Lab.

“We saw the need for this program to connect top-tier graduate students at UTSA to engineering, computing, and scientific internships at companies in San Antonio,” Frey said.

UTSA’s Open Cloud Institute oversees the internship program and selects graduate students who are ready for the workforce, said OCI co-founder and assistant director Jeff Prevost.

Students receive a $20 hourly wage, with companies paying half and the 80/20 Foundation funding the balance. Students also receive college credit for their Capstone project completed over the course of a summer ten-week full-time internship with a San Antonio startup. The program typically runs from June 3 to Aug. 5 but may be customized for the graduation-ready graduate student.

“These students studying these specialized skills at the Open Cloud Institute are getting recruited by companies outside San Antonio or by local big companies,” Prevost said. “We want to provide this talent for local small- to medium-sized businesses that lack corporate recruiting budgets.”

Prevost said Yousefi was the “beta” student for the program when it was still an idea last summer.

“We need to make sure students know they have an option to work here as well as in other places,” Prevost said. “Catalyst Lab is focused on connecting the dots so our startup community benefits from local talent sources. If you build the pipeline locally with local universities, we can link students to local opportunities.”

For its first summer Catalyst Lab is starting with about 10 graduate students as it continues to structure the internship program for growth. Specific talent needs include students skilled in machine learning, AI, data science, cloud computing, software engineering, big data, and advanced engineering.

Catalyst Lab has placed Jonathan Lwowski, a UTSA graduate robotics student in its College of Engineering at the robotics startup Plus One Robotics. Lwowski is completing a Ph.D. course of study in cloud-based intelligence in robotics, which matched well with Plus One’s focus on AI-enhanced robotics capabilities.

Read more: San Antonio Startup Plus One Robotics Raises $8.3M

The idea is to grow Catalyst Lab beyond these its initial three focus areas of advanced cloud computing, machine learning, and robotics as the program “listens to startups to learn about their changing needs for talent,” Prevost said.

The new internship program will give graduate students an opportunity to gain real-world experience while in the program and could lead to a job offer after graduation, Prevost added.

“Catalyst Lab is meant to place people in companies who can make an immediate impact,” Prevost said. “We are looking for students who are impact players who can make a difference on Day One.”

There are a few available slots for students pursuing a master’s or Ph.D. degree. Students who are eligible to graduate from UTSA in December 2019 can apply to Catalyst Lab here.

“AI is a cutting-edge technology—like the internet was in 1995, but in the next 10 years it will be an integral part of every single business and the skills needs will be enormous,” Moorman said. “Programs like this are not only important but essential, to fuel the growth of companies in San Antonio and worldwide.”

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