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Turning Challenges Into Opportunity

Jordan Inacio poses with the working, ornamental Lehigh doorknob that he recreated in his Lehigh Methods in Prototyping, Modeling and Testing technical entrepreneurship graduate class. He has turned manufacturing and selling prototypes of the doorknobs into a viable enterprise.

Ask Jordan Inacio ’11 ’12G ’17G what inspired him to earn three Lehigh degrees and transform not one, but two graduate projects into active business ventures, and he will likely answer, “It’s all about challenges. I love challenges. I feel in life, if you’re not being challenged, there’s no reason for living.”

From a young age, Inacio knew that he wanted something more out of life than the “daily grind”; he wanted to create, to set his own path, and to lead rather than follow. Even — or perhaps especially — if that innovation came at the price of a lot of hard work.

“I’ve always wanted to make stuff and be in charge of my own destiny,” said Inacio, who has earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and master’s degrees in energy systems engineering and, also, technical entrepreneurship. “That’s why I came to Lehigh and enrolled in the technical entrepreneurship program: to see what the next chapter of my life is, to challenge myself and see what I can accomplish.”

This work ethic stems from a persistence that Inacio learned early in life. Growing up as a first generation American, college was a hard-earned privilege. His parents left their respective countries of Angola and Portugal to start better lives in the United States, and Inacio, who is the first member of his family to graduate from college, looks to their determination to fuel his own.

“I was fortunate enough to be in America, in a society and area where I can grow and learn and try to become successful. I kind of owe it to my family, because they went through so much when they were younger to come to America and to get me here. I have to show them that I’m grateful for that,” Inacio said.

Class Assignment Spurs Reproducing the Lehigh Doorknob

Persistence is also what led Inacio to turn his idea for the “Making It” assignment in Lehigh’s Methods in Prototyping, Modeling and Testing class into a viable enterprise— manufacturing and selling prototypes of ornamental Lehigh doorknobs.

The graduate-level technical entrepreneurship assignment instructs students to make anything they want using any available manufacturing process. Inacio said he chose to make a Lehigh doorknob, because it was something that had caught his interest when he was an undergraduate.

“As an undergraduate in the mechanical engineering department in Packard Lab, I would see these doorknobs every day. I forget when I finally noticed them and how beautiful they are, but I was like, ‘Wow, these things are really cool-looking, they must be really old.’ I was curious if I could buy one,” he recalled.

After doing some research, Inacio found that he could not buy one. In fact, as he would later discover, they are so old that they are no longer being produced, and there are only a limited number left in storage to replace ones that break in Lehigh buildings. Once the inventory runs out, they will be gone. Though this would eventually become the premise of his business, Inacio’s interest in the doorknobs lapsed until he encountered the “Making It” assignment during his graduate studies and chose to re-create the doorknob that he had coveted as a younger student.

Originally, Inacio just wanted to use the “Making It” assignment as an opportunity to make a doorknob for himself. But when he presented his prototype to the class, the overwhelming response he received got him thinking about the possibility of expanding the project.

“When I showed it to the class in my presentation, they loved it. They said, ‘You have to sell these’,” he remarked. “In the back of my mind, I wanted to continue working on it, but in my technical entrepreneurship program, my [main] project was not the doorknob; I had a completely different project.”

That project is Inacio’s second company – a line of products designed for pet owners to easily and humanely train and entertain their pets. At the time, he was more focused on developing this project, which won the Baker Institute of Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation’s EUREKA! Ventures Competition and currently has a patent pending. However, this past summer Inacio began channeling more energy into creating the doorknobs.

From Project to Company

Even after the overwhelmingly positive feedback he received in class, Inacio was still unsure if the doorknobs were a viable product for a company. To test his product, he displayed his doorknob at the GRaD Experience fair during Lehigh’s 2017 Reunion Weekend. The GRaD Experience allows alumni to see the research and projects that current graduate students are working on. Despite his concerns, the doorknobs were a hit.

“Everyone at the fair loved it, they wanted to buy them right then and there,” he said. “It was good experience getting feedback from alums and getting reassurance that people want it.”

Inacio also entered the doorknob in the Baker Institute's iPrize, a "people's choice" award competition held at the institute's annual Innovate! Celebrate! Awards Dinner and won first place. He used the prize money to further expand his product, which will be sold at the Lehigh bookstore, as well as online. Inacio hopes that sales will begin by the end of August 2017.

Although the fruits of his labor are beginning to pay off, Inacio doesn’t intend to stop there. He plans to continue his education by pursuing a Ph.D. at Lehigh, while also expanding his company wherever possible.

“It just goes back to that persistence thing,” Inacio said. “The whole moral of my story, I guess, is persistence. If anyone gives me a challenge, I just take it. I didn’t give up, and that shaped who I am today.”

Carina Bonasera ’19

Photos by Ryan Hulvat