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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute

Clint Cole, Digilent

Clint Cole (BS CS 1987; MS EE 2000) has contributed to saving perhaps tens of thousands of people as one of a small group to develop the world’s most popular portable defibrillator. A former paramedic, Cole went to work at engineering firms working on the development of portable defibrillators after his studies at WSU. He and a group of fellow research engineers left in 1992 to found Heartstream. The innovation of the Heartstream product entailed the use a bi-phasic wave form. In that way, the researchers were able to deliver a big jolt of electricity in a new way to the patient, cutting in half the energy requirements of earlier versions. Because of the smaller energy needs, the machine’s components could all be lighter and smaller, and the volume of the defibrillator was reduced by five times. The machines hit the market in 1996 and, soon after, the original group sold the company to Hewlett-Packard. Because of their portability, the defibrillators the researchers developed are now everywhere. Instead of waiting the crucial seven minutes for the paramedics to arrive, an airline attendant, a shopping mall employee, or a casino operator can grab the machine and get to a patient almost instantly.

“I was fortunate to be at the right time and place. We were motivated and capable of doing it. It was a compelling, fun project, and we ended up saving lives,’” says Cole. “All we had was a good idea, and we knew it.”

After selling Heartstream, Cole took some time off and began looking around for a new project. He wanted to do something where he felt there was a compelling need and where he might make a difference. He had always considered teaching, and so when he learned of a temporary opening at WSU in 1997, he decided to try it out for a year.

Having left a cutting-edge engineering position, he quickly noticed that the curricula at WSU had not been changed to take advantage of the latest digital design tools and methods. He started looking right away to begin bringing in new technology and design methods. When he learned that there was no budget for new computers, he bought several and brought them to campus in the back of a U-Haul.

A New Enterprise

Teaching entry-level digital design classes, Cole noticed that the simplicity of the circuit boards in use restricted students to designing and building only the simplest circuits. In the more advanced classes, they could only design the circuits on paper and couldn’t actually try them out. So, Cole began tinkering. Using a programmable computer chip that is used in industry, Cole designed a circuit board that could be used to design a variety of projects, from simple circuits to complex micro-processors. “You can program it to be anything, so it lends itself well to the educational environment,” he said. He started by building 15 circuit boards for his advanced class. For the next version, he built 400 boards, sending 300 of them to colleagues at other universities. They were well received, and demand started growing. Having practice with real circuit boards allows students to have better fundamental skills, more confidence, and be better prepared for the workplace, says Cole. With a former student, Gene Apperson, Cole moved off campus in 2000 and founded Digilent, Inc. to manufacture and market the boards to schools and colleges nationwide. The company continues to grow. Cole and Apperson have designed more than 50 products, and their products are in more than 400 universities worldwide. The company now has 7 full-time employees.

Once again, Cole doesn’t spend time thinking about his accomplishments, though. He is looking to continue to grow Digilent to where it has “staying power,” recently hiring a director. At the same time, he hopes that by hiring the director, he can continue to focus on teaching junior and senior-level electrical engineering courses.

“When I get up in the morning, there has to be some other reason to do it rather than just paying the bills,” he says.

Clint Cole with entrepreneurship students
Clint Cole with entrepreneurship students