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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / February 

$2 million gift endows department head chair in mechanical engineering

February 12, 2018

Three people pose for a photo.
Nick and Becky Des Champs with President Tim Sands.

Alumnus Nick Des Champs of Las Vegas, Nevada recently donated $2 million to establish a faculty chair in the Department of Mechanical Engineering within Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

Des Champs' gift creates a generous fund under the direction of Azim Eskandarian, who now holds the designation of Nicholas and Rebecca Des Champs Chair in Mechanical Engineering.

"I am humbled, honored, and thankful to have received this professorship as the department head of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. On behalf of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and myself, I would like to express our deepest appreciation to Nick Des Champs, Becky Des Champs, and their family for this generous gift and the opportunities it creates for our department and students,” Eskandarian said. “This is setting a new legacy under their name for new discovery and findings and training students in our department.”

The gift comes at a time of substantial momentum for the department, which has continued to see the largest enrollment growth of any of the departments in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering over the past 10 years.

“We are extremely grateful for the generosity of Nick and Becky Des Champs,” said Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “The gift will certainly enhance the nationally ranked department as it pursues cutting-edge student and faculty research in focus areas like energy engineering and science, robotics and autonomous systems, additive manufacturing research, and nuclear engineering.”

With more than 1,100 undergraduates enrolled in mechanical engineering, the department is the largest specialized undergraduate program within the college. The undergraduate mechanical engineering program is ranked 14th nationally, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 list. The undergraduate experience is buoyed by the department’s two-semester senior design capstone projects, about a quarter of which are sponsored by corporate entities.

In 2017, the department saw nearly $18 million in research expenditures. Over the past five years, the department’s more than 60 faculty have netted 546 research awards from a wide array of federal and non-federal sources, including the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and NASA.

“Des Champs' gift will give us opportunities and resources which we did not have before to start research in very exciting and new areas,” Eskandarian said.

Des Champs' gift will also help Eskandarian advance numerous departmental priorities, such as promoting graduate student success, funding scholarships, and increasing departmental rankings.

“Our mechanical engineering department has always been up near the top in the country, and I’d like to see it stay that way,” Des Champs said.

Des Champs enjoyed a distinguished career in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC, industry after earning his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in mechanical engineering in 1962 and 1967, respectively.

Des Champs has a long history of generous support for Virginia Tech and is a member of the university's Ut Prosim, 1872, and Pylon giving societies. He also serves on the Department of Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board and is a member of the College of Engineering’s elite Committee of 100 and Academy of Engineering Excellence. Des Champs also served a term on the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board.

His path to education — and the confidence he gained as a result of it — is what inspires him to give to Virginia Tech.

As the son of a brick mason based in Henrico County, Virginia, Des Champs went to work for his dad after high school, and watched as most of his friends left to attend college. The following year, he decided he’d enroll at Virginia Tech’s extended campus in Richmond, opting for mechanical engineering because he was good with his hands and working on cars.

“Boy, I had to work my you-know-what off in the first year to try to get up with everybody else,” Des Champs said.

After his first year, Des Champs had a co-op position at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, as part of his studies. He’d return for six more academic quarters throughout his undergraduate career.

When Des Champs earned his bachelor's, he became the first in his family to earn a college degree. Later, he’d also make Virginia Tech history by becoming one of the first graduates of the mechanical engineering department’s Ph.D. program — the same program that ranked 22nd nationally in U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 list.

“Once I got out into industry, no matter where I went, I felt like I could compete with anyone,” Des Champs said. “Tech has an educational system that prepares you to actually graduate from college and start producing, be productive, and earn your company money on day one. It’s amazing.”

Des Champs' career took him to Atlantic Research Corp. in Washington, D.C.; Sanders Associates in Nashua, New Hampshire; and Donbar Development Corp. in New York, New York, before he started his first company, Des Champs Laboratories, in 1974.

The company produced air-to-air heat exchangers, just as an oil embargo forced the U.S. into an energy crisis. The company went from bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue in 1974 to bringing in nearly $5 million in 1981. The company later moved to Rockbridge County, Virginia, where it grew sales revenue to $37 million a year.

Des Champs never listed his company for sale, but when Munters Corporation approached him asking to purchase Des Champs Laboratories, he agreed and remained executive vice president, then later became a consultant. Today, the company is bringing in around $100 million a year and is focused on building cooling systems for cloud datacenters.

Des Champs, meanwhile, started up another company, Des Champs Technologies LLC, in 2015. The company has developed a new type of HVAC product. His biggest client? Munters Corporation.

Throughout all of it, he’s never forgotten Virginia Tech. Capping nearly a lifetime of giving to the university is this most recent, $2 million donation, going right to the department he says gave him the foundation for his confidence and career success.

“Tech gave me self-esteem, hands-on experience, and a good education,” Des Champs said. “It feels good in this case to know that for perpetuity the mechanical engineering department head will always, even with inflation, have a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to use to better the department.”

Written by Erica Corder

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