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Entrepreneurship gift to help students innovate

By Ariana Assaf, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 23, 2013

Students with innovative ideas may have the opportunity to turn them into reality thanks to a grant from an alumni start-up.

Weather Underground, a Ann Arbor-based Weather forecast website, has made a $500,000 donation to the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship to continue a week-long educational trip for students.

Beginning in 2008, the Weather Underground Start-up Trek educates students about the technology industry and connects them to alumni and professionals in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay area.

Jeffrey Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground, graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Science in 1982 and a Masters of Science in meteorology in 1983. He went on to co-found Weather Underground in 1995, and sold the company to The Weather Channel Companies in July 2012 for an undisclosed price.

Andria Stark, the marketing assistant for Weather Underground, said Masters founded the website while at the University and the company donated the funds needed for the trip in hopes that other students will have similar opportunities.

Students who have a proposed idea can apply to take part in the trek online by submitting a short video. Selected students are given the opportunity to pitch their start-up ideas to and receive feedback from investors and entrepreneurs.

CFE Executive Director Doug Neal said students not only receive hands-on educational experience, but also connect to alumni, including major players in the technology industry.

LSA junior Shiva Kilaru was chosen to attend last year’s trip after winning MPowered’s Start-up Weekend competition. He, along with recent LSA graduate Erik Torenberg, developed Rap Roulette, a start-up company that hosts cross-country rap battles online.

Kilaru said the pair ultimately won the competition by performing instead of presenting a more traditional revenue model.

“Before start-up weekend, I was pre-med, worried about taking the MCAT. Now I’m an informatics major,” Kilaru said.

LSA junior Dan Hoffmann, Kinesiology junior Harrison Forman, and Engineering sophomore Zach Mandell had similar experiences last year in founding StudentKit, an app that alerts students to academic and professional opportunities on their college campus based on personal interests.

Hoffmann said the opportunities the University offered on the trip gave him a better perspective of real-world entrepreneurial ventures.

“I walked away from the trip with an appreciation for the vibrancy of the Michigan entrepreneurial community and the diversity of ventures that are launched in dorm rooms and labs here on campus,” Hoffmann said.

The team left the trek with a second place prize and a new understanding of how to present themselves to investors. Hoffmann said practicing his pitch to professionals was an important part of the learning process.

“Although it is easy to think up seemingly novel ideas, the pressure-testing that comes with presenting that idea to others is crucial.”