In 2018, Kyle Pierre was a senior in electrical engineering with no prior internship experience. “My career beyond school always seemed so confusing. I could never quite see the picture of how I fit into the exciting world beyond the classroom,” says Pierre (BS ’19, MS ’21, electrical engineering). “But that changed when ACV paired with UB to conduct my senior design course. I finally got my first taste of what it felt like to be an engineer.”
Over the following 14 weeks of his capstone class, Pierre worked with classmates and professionals from ACV on a real-world problem: vehicle emissions testing.
While the project, which involved creating a volatile organic compound integrated sensor platform, was challenging and engaging, what really made Pierre feel like an engineer was the relationships he formed. “Above all, ACV has shown me what is vital to any engineer’s success—the support system you build through networking and sharing your ideas with others.”
Over the last few years, stories like Pierre’s have proliferated across the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as students have gained crucial hands-on experience at ACV, a Buffalo-based start-up company that applies innovative technology to the wholesale used car market.
No matter their background or discipline, students echo that ACV is an instructive and inspiring space for them to develop what they’ve learned in the classroom.
“The exciting part is that ACV is a local company where we see UB alumni who are invested in not only Western New York but in the university,” says Jennifer Zirnheld, Maxwell Technologies Inc. Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, who partners with ACV as part of her senior design class. “We see a true partnership between ACV and UB, in that they are investing their most valuable resource—their time and knowledge—to make a lasting impact on our students.”
ACV Auctions was founded in 2015 by Joseph Neiman (BS ’08 management), Jack Greco and Dan Magnuszewski (BS ’05 computer science) to provide high-quality wholesale vehicles to dealerships via a technologically advanced online platform. The winner of a $1 million 43North grant, ACV currently employs over 1,500 nationally, with about 300 people in Buffalo, including many UB graduates. The company has expanded into every state and, as of December 2021, had a market capitalization of $2.95 billion. It went public in early 2021—becoming Western New York’s first start-up unicorn.
The company, which was named the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Corporate Partner of the Year in 2019, has been committed to sharing its prosperity with the school from the beginning. ACV is an active supporter in the UB community, through initiatives such as sponsored research, student club sponsorship, and hackathons. Members of ACV’s leadership also serve in advisory capacities on the Computer Science and Engineering Department Advisory Board and in the School of Management.
But the company’s greatest contribution is less easily quantifiable: providing mentorship and professional development opportunities
“Our motto so far has been to ‘just say yes to everything’ because we really want to help take UB to the next level,” says Magnuszewski. “ACV’s involvement has been a win-win situation. For ACV, we get to come in contact with so many talented students. For students, they’re getting the challenge of working on real-world projects.”
This bridge from SEAS to ACV is no accident. It is the result of dedicated work, spearheaded by passionate UB alums who are now ACV employees.
Though he’s not a civil engineer by trade, a major designer of this bridge has been Phil Schneider, PhD (BS ’14, MS ’16, PhD ’18 electrical engineering), ACV’s senior manager of research and development.
Schneider, who lives by the motto, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” started at ACV in 2018. Immediately, he found ACV’s innovative spirit and dedication to Buffalo to be a natural fit for him. As a part of his role in R&D, he took over ACV’s SEAS partnership, which was ripe for growth and formalization.
“The skills that UB gave me space to practice, I’ve translated to ACV,” says Schneider. “Now I’m growing a team, helping cultivate this talent—things I’ve already done at UB. My advisors were incredibly supportive– they allowed me to create, invent, do research– and gave me a lab space. But most importantly, they gave me a whole community and ecosystem that I could leverage.”
While ACV has been supporting the school for years, Schneider saw an opportunity to grow it through more direct connections between ACV professionals and students. Schneider’s goal was for ACV to provide students with the needed real-world experience that could prepare them for successful careers after graduation.
He began by reaching out to his mentor Zirnheld. They worked
together to weave ACV into her senior design course, giving electrical engineering students the opportunity to apply their skills to a problem
related to ACV’s work.
“Advancing through the UB SEAS program, I was able to grow my understanding of the engineering process and complete research in fields of science that have direct impact on industry today,” says William Giegerich, a senior in electrical engineering who is currently an intern at ACV. “ACV has provided me with the opportunity to apply this knowledge to real-world problems and truly grow as a professional engineer.”
As part of his internship, Giegerich works with UB alums and ACV research engineers Maggie Donnelly (BS ’18, MS ’20 electrical engineering) and Livio Forte (BS ’16 mechanical engineering, MS ’19 aerospace engineering), to design and implement new ACV products such as the virtual lift.
Donnelly credits her time in UB’s Energy Systems Integration Lab, led by Zirnheld, with inspiring her to pursue a career as a research engineer. “I became interested in designing electronics with projects like the RASCAL Robo-Ops Competition, which showed me how to bring the expansive ideas of R&D to real-life hardware,” says Donnelly.
“The entire R&D team made themselves available as an asset to work and consult with at any time of day,” added Giegerich. “Since joining ACV, I have been able to contribute and grow my technical skills through the use of classical computer vision, machine learning, data analytics and so much more.”
Schneider is of course happy when a student’s experience at ACV leads to a job at the company, but he’s also inspired by the many other ways it can propel a student’s career.
“You hear the stories about where some of these students end up, and where they take some of the work they’ve done with ACV and it’s just mind-blowing,” says Schneider. “These students are telling us, ‘I applied for a WNY Prosperity Fellowship because working with ACV inspired me to be an entrepreneur’ or ‘working with ACV helped me realize I was capable of going to graduate school.’ This partnership has had so many impacts I could never have predicted.”
One such unexpected outcome began with the development of a new product in 2018. Schneider and a few other ACV engineers created a tool called the audio motor profile (AMP), a microphone that attaches to a smartphone to record a car’s sounds, like that of the engine. These sounds, captured by the AMP in the field, can then be played to a potential buyer, helping them make an informed decision about buying a vehicle.
Forte, who was instrumental in creating AMP, reflects, “During my time at UB, I particularly enjoyed being involved with the tinkering lab and the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE). Now, this tinkering is my favorite part of the job, and allows me to contribute to the creation of new technology that enables inspectors to evaluate the value of our vehicles by detecting potential abnormalities.”
As is often true at a tech start-up, the turnaround on product development and manufacturing was fast. Once the product was out in the market, Schneider decided to turn to UB students and ask, “How can we make this model better?”
Dennis Fedorishin, who was an undergraduate in computer science at the time, used this opportunity to apply his interest in machine learning. He wondered if he could use audio samples to train a computer to detect what could be going wrong with a car.
It turns out he could and, three years later, Fedorishin is writing an NSF grant to build on this research. “Having this never-before-created technology allows our users to better understand the vehicles they are buying, in addition to saving ACV millions each year through avoiding covering repair costs,” says Fedorishin, who’s still working at ACV as a software engineer, while completing his PhD in computer science.
“I never could have imagined that me posing a challenge around this technology would turn into someone’s PhD, much less become a gamechanger for the automotive industry,” says Schneider.
For Schneider, Fedorishin’s story is a testament to not just anticipated growth but the unexpected gifts that are possible when you create space for a true education and industry partnership.
“Anyone can write a check. But working with a student for three years, getting them from point A to point B, that is what changes a life,” says Schneider.