TCU wants to raise $1 billion. Find out why

The TCU marching band closed out the ceremonies for the Lead On, A campaign for TCU, in Schollmeier Arena on the campus of TCU, Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.
The TCU marching band closed out the ceremonies for the Lead On, A campaign for TCU, in Schollmeier Arena on the campus of TCU, Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Special to the Star-Telegram

When Liran Ma’s mother visited from China a few years ago, Liran noticed something troubling — his mother could no longer hear high pitched sounds like a microwave ding or a fire alarm.

The TCU associate professor of computer science took the logical next step and had an audiologist check his mother’s hearing. She would need hearing aids. The trouble: they’re not cheap, averaging $3,000 to $7,000, so Ma decided to try to fix the problem himself.

“I’m a computer scientist, so I made an app for that,” Ma said.

That app, which will debut in the Apple App Store as early as December, is called Sounde and works like an amplifier. Using a person’s audiological profile, basically what an individual can and cannot hear, and the phone’s microphone, Sounde amplifies hard-to-hear frequencies and plays them back in near-real time.

That’s the kind of cross-department research and innovation TCU wants to continue and that the school will ask donors to support as part of a $1 billion fundraising campaign. Part of that money will support the school’s endowments, while part will be spent at the discretion of donors.

It’s the largest campaign drive in the school’s history.

Unlike a $250 million campaign in 2012, which at the time was the largest drive and focused primarily on expanding TCU’s buildings, this money will be mostly devoted to people and programs.

Lead On

Called Lead On: A Campaign for TCU, the drive began Thursday at the Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena and Amon G. Carter Stadium Champions Club with speeches and booths devoted to innovative research like Sounde. Nearly 1,000 prospective donors gathered to hear “Dear TCU” letters from current students, graduates, faculty and staff who shared what the school meant to them and what they’ve been able to achieve.

Campaign co-chairman Ron Parker called the drive “TCU’s defining moment.”

“This is about us collectively and what we want to create as a holistic community of global leaders, citizens coming out of this university,” Parker said.

School officials are hopeful TCU and the Fort Worth community will support growing the university’s research footprint. Nearly $600 million has already been raised from about 44,000 donors. The last drive for $250 million ended with more than $430 million raised.

The idea is that TCU will be able to leverage $1 billion into attracting and retaining top professors while also providing scholarship opportunities to students, along with new grant possibilities to fund student and faculty-led research. That portion accounts for $750 million. About $250 million will be devoted to building renovations.

“Now the dollars are used to support students. That’s the real key,” said co-chair Dee Kelly Jr. “It’s not just bricks and mortar anymore.”

Scholarships may be crucial to getting young talent to TCU. Like many private schools, tuition and fees are not cheap — about $64,000 altogether for the 2019-2020 school year. From ranchers in West Texas to young men and women from inner cities, Parker said he hoped scholarships would reshape the student body.

“We want to make sure that our student body is reflective of the population that we support and serve,“ he said. “It affords us the opportunity to have more control and more structure, over what those classes actually look like, as opposed to just being, you know, rich kids going to school.”

Sounde app

The app Ma created isn’t for everyone, he said. It’s meant to complement hearing aids.

Sounde didn’t go from Ma’s computer to the App Store overnight. It took an interdisciplinary team that included several students and professors from across TCU and roughly three years of research and development.

Rodney D’Souza, director of the TCU Neeley Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and three business school students, Devan Peplow, Mavis Tang and Maddie Kingsbury, developed a business plan and formed an LLC to market and manage Sounde. The group has applied for permission to work with TCU’s Miller Speech and Hearing Clinic to further develop the app.

TCU officials are hopeful donors will be able to fund projects like Ma’s Sounde app, which received donor-funded grants as seed money. His students were also able to get iPhones through the school’s Science and Engineering Research Center.

Using money from the Shaddock Seed Fund, supported by Bill Shaddock, the Neeley Institute began a program this year that attracted more than 30 students from 12 disciplines to compete for grants to fund their projects, D’Souza said.

D’Souza has molded the experience working with Ma into a new class offered for the first time this semester called Venture Builder. Business students work with those in engineering to develop, brand and market products.

Peplow, who graduated in May and now works for Tech Fort Worth, said the experience working with Ma and the Sounde team has been instrumental early in her career. She’s able to take the dos and don’ts she learned building and launching Sounde to mentor fledgling companies seeking help from the Tech Fort Worth incubator, she said.

“I never thought I would do, you know, a startup company in college,” she said. “It really goes to show if you get the right people together stuff can really happen quickly.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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