ACI will serve as 'nexus' and play role in building Grand Rapids' tech landscape

Yulia Chiaburu earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from Grand Valley in 2004, decades before even imagining doing what she's doing now.

Chiaburu is the co-founder of the Mitten Project , an initiative by Grand Rapids tech leaders to create an open-source platform to share resources with tech startups in the area. The project's goal is to drastically increase the number of tech startups in the area.

Chiaburu, who works for Amazon Web Services (AWS), reconnected with Jonathan Englesma, professor of computing and director of the Applied Computing Institute in an effort to help the Mitten Project reach its goal by offering educational opportunities in the tech and entrepreneurship fields to the community.

eight people standing in front of projection screen, Cloud Community Education Series, generative AI with AWS
Yulia Chiaburu is fourth from left, pictured with other AWS employees at an educational event at the DeVos Center for Interprofessional Health. The event was hosted by the Applied Computing Institute.

ACI has hosted two developer immersion days, with a third planned in the fall, at the DeVos Center for Interprofessional Health. In January, about 90 people participated and learned about AWS cloud technology and generative artificial intelligence.

For Chiaburu, the best part of these events was the audience.

"It's been about a 50-50 split of community and students," she said. "We want to make sure with every event that we bring industry and students together to foster collaboration and innovation. The students have been phenomenal; they are curious, engaged and eager to experiment."

Usman Tahir Qureshi, a former graduate assistant who now works at ACI, attended the AWS event and said the content presented by local AWS solution architects related to several of his projects, including the GVSU Laker mobile app.

"AWS products help developers write efficient code quickly, and these events help our community of developers use AI," Qureshi said. "I'm using some of this in the 'Ask Lily' feature on the Laker mobile app."

room of people at long tables with presenter in front of projection screens, with language about coding and web development
The workshop by Amazon Web Services in January was the second of three events planned by ACI. The institute has teamed with the Mitten Project to offer more events to tech startups in the area to grow the tech landscape in West Michigan.

Qureshi earned two computing degrees plus badges in web/mobile development and cybersecurity. He said his computing education has prepared him well to work at ACI as both a graduate student and now a staff member. Industry clients bring their projects to ACI for students to work on, with faculty oversight, as senior projects or in teams.

"Taking the courses I did, with a hands-on approach in the labs, has helped me learn new skills. That type of education gives you the tools needed so when you're working with a client, they know you have experience and the mindset to get them a successful project," he said.

Englesma said ACI, with faculty expertise in app research, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and bioinformatics and high-performance computing, will serve as a nexus and create more opportunities for the West Michigan tech community to connect with other innovators.

After earning her degree and taking post-graduate courses with Engelsma, Chiaburu worked for Dematic as developer and then leader in research and development and software consulting units. She now leads a team of AWS solution architects, who help Digital Native Business customers with software solutions. Her team is mostly located in the San Francisco Bay area. Chiaburu said the opportunity to be at the forefront of innovation was very exciting.

"I wanted to be in the environment, where people are eager to try new emerging technology and see what business value you can unlock with it. The hyper speed of innovation is a huge motivator," she said.

She said the Mitten Project, along with partners like The Right Place and others, will amplify West Michigan's tech landscape.

"There's a strategy to grow the region's tech ecosystem. I stayed here after graduating because I wanted to see my community thrive and grow," she said. "The Mitten Project, with its open-source framework, will help others get started faster and realize what it takes to launch a tech startup in West Michigan."


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