The startup scene in Ann Arbor is growing rapidly, partly due to new student-run businesses at the University of Michigan. The Michigan Daily spoke to students who have begun their own businesses about their experience with entrepreneurship at the University.
Information junior Ian Herdegen and Engineering junior Jacob Glick struggled to find places to park on campus during their first two years at the University. Herdegen told The Daily this inspired them to start BUYMYSPOT, a website and app that allows community members and local businesses to rent their extra parking spaces.
“My freshman year, it felt like I was getting a parking ticket every week and going into sophomore year, it was kind of a similar deal,” Herdegen said. “There were a ton of people on Facebook, also, that had a similar issue … And we also noticed people that were looking to sell parking spots … kind of like leasing out their driveway space if they don’t have a car. So we figured, ‘Okay, we can kind of be like that middleman and connect the buyers and the sellers.’”
Herdegen said BUYMYSPOT has made about $17,000 in sales since launching in January 2020 and that the success of the app was partially due to the resources provided by the University.
When the University moved all classes online in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, Engineering sophomores Varun Jindal and Sam Forman found it much harder to connect with classmates. They created StudyBuddies, which matches students with custom online study groups, to help make up for the lost connections.
Jindal told The Daily the pair has worked with different groups at the University to make StudyBuddies successful.
“Both me and Sam are in this program called Entrepreneurs Leadership Program, which has been a huge help,” Jindal said. “They’ve kind of pointed us in the right directions for what pitch competitions to go to and what areas to think about. The Center for Academic Success (has also) been a huge help in pushing this forward and helping us gain credibility among professors.”
Forman told The Daily that professors and academic departments at the University have reached out in hopes of using StudyBuddies for their students.
“The School of Environment and Sustainability actually reached out to us to not only make study groups and assignment groups for classes that are optimized, but also for events … like orientation,” Forman said. “They’re going to be using us to … create friendships immediately, and that’s where we’re really headed.”
The Center for Entrepreneurship is a University resource that aims to help guide students who create businesses. Though the CFE is housed in the College of Engineering, Christine Gordon, Entrepreneurship lecturer and assistant director at the CFE, told The Daily the culture of entrepreneurship at the University is successful because it draws students and faculty from all colleges.
“We’ve (always) been open to all students in all schools and colleges from the beginning,” Gordon said. “And that was very important to the founders of the CFE … everything that we do is multidisciplinary. That’s the richness of learning and doing, is just to be with everybody. You get the diversity of thought and diversity of ideas.”
Gordon has taught a class called Entrepreneurship Hour, a one-credit course that features a different guest speaker every Friday. Past speakers have included Alex Kremer, director of worn wear and corporate development at Patagonia, and Rachel Konrad, the chief communications officer of Impossible Foods.
Gordon said the class is about inspiring students and building confidence.
“It’s a speaker series class emulated on the TED Talk, in that the speaker is really invited to share their journey … (centered) around our four themes of try, fail, risk and do,” Gordon said. “The students come out of there hearing what they need to hear, based on where they’re at, and it’s a class that meets them where they’re at. It’s inspiring.”
UpRound Ventures is a student organization that helps startups founded by current University students and alumni. Engineering junior Kelly Kwan, vice president of UpRound, runs the UpRound Fund, a recently launched venture capital fund. Kwan said the UpRound fund invests in a company called Slide, which allows people to share contact information with each other easily.
“We started raising our fund in fall 2020, and our goal is to help Michigan-affiliated startups … grow their ventures,” Kwan said. “We currently have 14k (dollars) in our fund and we’re still continuing to raise. Our first investment is with Slide, and we are planning on closing that investment by the end of the semester.”
Kwan said the UpRound fund also helps students experience what it’s like to work in the venture capital field.
“One of our missions of our club is to also give the students in our club the chance to be in a venture capital investor’s shoes, because what they’re doing is … they’re the ones conducting the analysis,” Kwan said. “They’re the ones deciding whether we should invest in them. And that’s a pretty rare experience to have for an undergraduate student.”
Engineering sophomore Jonathan Lin and Engineering junior Matthew Lichtinger often got frustrated when trying to share their contact information with new people. In February 2020 they decided to create Slide, the company UpRound invested in.
Lichtinger said he thinks Slide is especially important for college students who are constantly meeting new people and making connections with classmates.
“One of the big things we were struggling with as college students … was meeting people and trying to exchange contact information with them,” Lichtinger said. “You either have to read it off to them or give them your phone and have them type in their name, type in their number, send them a text and then give you back your phone, and that process to us is just super clunky. And so we really wanted to solve that issue. And what we’ve done so far, we believe we solved it.”
Slide allows users to create a profile with their basic contact information and all of their social media accounts. Users can then share their Slide profile to seamlessly give somebody all of their contact information and social media accounts.
Lichtinger said they were able to use many University resources, including from other student organizations, to help get Slide off the ground.
“(We went to) a student venture showcase where a bunch of startups could come and pitch,” Lichtinger said. “About two weeks after we did that, Robert (from UpRound) reached out to us. … We’re going to have a really awesome partnership, they’re going to thankfully fund us with a little bit of money, (and) that’s going to help us scale and grow to where we want to be.”
Lichtinger also told The Daily about the importance of having different U-M schools all working together in order to create Slide.
“One of the biggest resources that we’ve used is the law clinic … We’re both engineers, so that’s something we know absolutely nothing about,” Lichtinger said. “And the CFE … helped us develop our pitch. (There’s) a design and marketing group that we’ve been working with … and there’s a UX lab in the School of Information … There’s a ton of resources that just don’t exist other places, and I really don’t think we’d be close to where we are now without the help and support of the University as a whole.”
MPowered is a student organization housed within the CFE that encourages entrepreneurship across the University. Engineering senior Ellen Tsao, president of MPowered, echoed Lichtinger in emphasizing the importance of having many different perspectives.
“When you have a variety of perspectives of different majors, you’re going to have a better outcome,” Tsao said. “That’s especially useful when we’re planning our projects, because our projects aren’t just for engineers or Ross people … they’re for everyone to really engage with their inner entrepreneurship spirit.”
Tsao said there is a unique entrepreneurship community at the University.
“Everyone’s very down to help, as they should be, because that’s typical with how a startup culture is,” Tsao said. “Everyone’s kind of grinding and struggling a little bit and they’re here to help each other out. And I feel like that’s reflected really well in the (entrepreneurship) student orgs on campus.”
In January, LSA freshman Andy Lebowitz started Trellis, which is currently in the phase of beta testing where the product is being evaluated by intended users. Trellis allows users to create autonomous stock trading bots without advanced coding knowledge. Lebowitz said the entrepreneurship community was very willing to help one another out.
“There’s definitely a great entrepreneurial atmosphere at Michigan,” Lebowitz said. “Right now I’m in the V1 discord community, which is an online community where other Michigan entrepreneurs share ideas and get advice.”
Nicholas Moroz, assistant director of entrepreneurial practice at the CFE, said the University’s research capacity is one of the reasons entrepreneurship is so successful at the University.
“If you have the equipment to try to tackle significant challenges, societal challenges, that can lead to some really interesting opportunities to take that research and do something (large-scale) with it, rather than just simply knowing the small world of your dorm room and that’s where your ideas end,” Moroz said. “And it’s the difference between saying ‘I can solve that’ and ‘I will solve that.’”
When asked to summarize the entrepreneurial environment at the University, Gordon said one word came to mind: “vibrant.”
Daily Staff Reporter Justin O’Beirne can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect Christine Gordon’s title as lecturer, not professor, and to indicate that she taught Entrepreneurship Hour in the past.