Wayne State University

Technical Writing Initiative partnership with TechTown supports student careers and startups


Lisa Podnar is facing a professional challenge. Her client, the manufacturer of a biometric gun lock, wants to convey that his product is manufactured in Detroit. But, because select components are made outside the country, the Federal Trade Commission will not approve a “Made in the USA” stamp.

Podnar’s team has designed a website mockup for their client, and their solution is to include subtle hints indicating the company’s Detroit base. The homepage background is a large photo snapped by Podnar on the Detroit riverfront, featuring the Spirit of Detroit, the Ren Cen and an American flag at half-mast. The “About” section explains the client’s roots in metro Detroit; his affiliation with TechTown Detroit, the Wayne State-affiliated business incubator that is a hub for Motor City innovation; and his belief that, given the city’s manufacturing history and “get it done” ethos, his product could not be made anywhere else.

The approach is worthy of any high-priced marketing firm. But Podnar is an undergraduate in Professor Jared Grogan’s Technical Communications 3050 class. And this is no textbook exercise. Omer Kiyani has been developing IDENTILOCK—a quick-release gun lock that uses fingerprint-recognition technology-- working closely with the Labs team at TechTown. Kiyani is on the cusp of becoming a true Detroit startup success story: an automotive engineer who has helped design airbags, he left the comforts of full-time employment to pursue an idea he knew could make a difference. He’s certain his product can save lives, and after the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, he felt he needed to bring it to market.

In January 2016, two and a half years after entering TechTown’s Venture Accelerator, Kiyani launched IDENTILOCK at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Kiyani and his company, Sentinl, have received a wealth of press coverage. But media attention does not directly translate into sales, and Kiyani needed to pre-sell enough units to start production, as well as attract additional investment. It’s the age-old chicken-egg startup conundrum—you can’t generate sales without marketing, you can’t pay for marketing without sales.

Grogan and the WSU Technical Writing Initiative could not have entered the picture at a better time. Kiyani had just returned from Las Vegas when Grogan and Professor Jeff Pruchnic met with TechTown’s Labs team to discuss possible collaborations. The match was obvious.

“The complete context of this project makes a writing teacher happy,” explains Grogan, who worked briefly in advertising before pursuing research and teaching at Wayne State. The fact that Kiyani’s product is designed to have social impact made the project especially appealing, he adds.

Launched in 2015, The Technical Writing Initiative is being developed alongside the Rhetoric and Composition Program’s award-winning Community Writing Initiative, in which WSU students provide communications and marketing support to community organizations. As the Sentinl project demonstrates, the writing may be highly technical, intended for general audiences, or both. Last year, Grogan’s students wrote code, conducted user experience and user interface analyses, and developed a marketing strategy for Golfler, a highly touted app for ordering food and beverage on the golf course that was developed by Wayne Law students and alums.

For the Sentinl project, establishing the company’s Detroit cred isn’t the students’ only challenge. Gun safety is a controversial issue, and the students realize the importance of conveying Kiyani’s unique position as an engineer, the father of young kids and a card-carrying member of the NRA. Podnar employs a “language-level strategy” and suggests three succinct statements to feature prominently on Kiyani’s website:

We are parents.

We are engineers.

We are gun owners.

“The most interesting aspect is trying to show the engineering and technology and then to try to comply with the different ideas of gun owners and make the site gun-owner friendly,” says Podnar, a third-year transfer student majoring in dance.

Another member of the team, Shelby Imboden, a second-year mechanical engineering major, designed a brief online survey so Kiyani can learn how customers heard about his product and collect demographics. Imboden presented her concept to Kiyani at TechTown one Friday afternoon. His response? “Why didn’t I think of that?”

The user manual team faces different challenges, such as finding a consistent, user-friendly way to describe the “backup redirect true manual override,” essentially a key that must be used the first time a new user is added and that also unlocks the gun should a backup means be necessary. Third-year mechanical engineering major Mahsud Uddin is one of the most engaged members of this team. He plans to pursue a career as an automotive engineer, but he’s confident his technical communications experience places him a step ahead. “Looking into the different aspects of how things are done, looking at the thought process by writing it out and working with people of different backgrounds, all of that is very valuable,” he says.

Civil engineering major Austin Smith is the de facto project manager of the user manual team. The role seems to come naturally, so it is surprising to learn that he is a first-year student. Demonstrating soft skills that belie his age, Smith politely but firmly pushes each member of the team to commit to deadlines and makes sure to ask for thoughts from a team member who has remained quiet throughout an animated discussion. Have you managed projects before? I ask him. No, he says, this is his first time. Are you an oldest sibling? I ask. He is.

“They learned a lot about project management, a lot about the role of reflection and metacognition,” Grogan observes. “At the same time, their work is written in documents that give them signposts as they move forward.”

In addition to the website and technical manual, Grogan’s students, both undergraduate and graduate across three classes, are assisting Sentinl with social media strategy, blog posts, an e-book and market research. The experience the students gain is invaluable—and marks just one of many ways Wayne State, TechTown and Detroit’s entrepreneurial community benefit from the ever-evolving partnership between the university and the nonprofit business hub it founded with Henry Ford Health System and General Motors in 2000.

“The students gave me a user’s insight on my website and digital communications,” Kiyani explains. “They’re not my customers or my audience, but they’re learning to be experts in the field. They were able to use a critical eye and view it unbiasedly.” Kiyani continued his work with two student interns from the TWI program over the summer, and Grogan is planning to work with another TechTown incubation client, CarePRN, in the fall.

“Having TechTown literally partnered with Wayne State is so beneficial,” Grogan says. “I think this is going to be a flagship collaboration.” 

This article was originally published on the Wayne State Alumni Magazine website. For more information on the Technical Writing Initiative, visit http://www.clas.wayne.edu/Composition/. For more information on Sentinl and IDENTILOCK, visit getidentilock.com.