For student start-ups, a wealth of funding, feedback on campus

BY VERONICA MENALDI
For the Daily
Published October 2, 2008

Though the social networking website now has over 100 million users worldwide, Facebook was once run out of a single Harvard University dorm room. Helping to launch site were venture organizations and start-up funding.

For University students with similar business aspirations, the University offers them the chance to develop their budding business and start building it into potentially the next big thing — maybe even the next Facebook.

The University’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies offers several programs that connect students looking to start their own business with funding and training.

With the help of the Zell Lurie Institute, MBA student Chris Robart will soon launch Dusoto.com, a travel website focusing on international nightlife. He said the money from the Zell Lurie Institute went toward web development.

"Without the money from the Zell Lurie Institute, we still would have been able to start our business, but we would've had to commit more of our own money and it might have taken a bit longer to get things moving," Robart said. "When a business is self-funded, like ours, every little bit of money helps."

In the Dare to Dream program, interested students apply to the program with their business idea. There are three different stages a student can apply to: the desire stage, which provides $500; the assessment stage, which $1,500 dollars; and the integration stage, which provides $10,000.

The Zell Lurie Institute has helped launch many Ann Arbor businesses, including B.A. Maze Inc, Bubble Island, Caliente Grille, GetOutdoors.com, Spirit Shop Inc. and Wolverine Real Estate.

Business School senior Michael Parke said Zell Lurie provided him and the other members of his business with more than just money. He said that even without the Dare to Dream grant of $1,500 dollars, his company, Project Freestyle — an online platform with tools and applications for sports communities — still would have started. But the insurance the grant provided, he added, was priceless.

“ZLI helps reduce the risk for students who want to learn what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur,” Parke said. “As an academic institute, ZLI is investing in students' education, and that way students can learn and make mistakes that would normally cost a lot more in the business world.”

He said his team gained a lot of experience through the pitch competitions, grant applications, mentoring, workshops and internships that ZLI offers.

Robart said the programs offered by the Institute provide more than just monetary compensation.

"These programs force students to think deeply about the businesses they are proposing and provide validation for the business concept," Robart said. "Although the grants don't provide enough money to launch a company, they help offset the substantial expenses associated with starting a company."

He said students come up with the ideas, but as part of the programs they’re required to think through how their business model and determine if their idea will actually work.

"There are lots of great ideas out there, but not every great idea is a great business," Robart said. "A great business is different from a great idea because it has a sustainable business model. A sustainable business model is one that can drive revenues, pay for the costs associated with running the business, and support the growth of the business."

Robart said he began planning his business about a year ago. He and his business partners spent the first six months creating a visual model before taking the steps to create the website this summer. He will launch the website with nightlife information for Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Florence, and Rome in a few weeks time. He hopes to target university students studying abroad.

The Zell Lurie Institute also hosts the Michigan Business Challenge — an annual competition with a grand prize of $40,000. The contest requires students to present their business plans in front of a panel of judges. This year, DTE is providing a Clean Energy Prize, providing additional money for the best plan promoting energy efficiency, Kirsch said.

RPM Ventures, a startup business from Zell Lurie Institute in 2000, also provides money and assistance for entrepreneurs to start and build their companies. RPM Ventures is based in Ann Arbor and has many non-profit programs affiliated with the University for students, and also functions as a profit venture capital firm that invests in a variety of companies.

RPM Ventures has a 10-week summer internship program called RPM Ten that aims to help students start their businesses. Each team participating in the internship is given $25,000.

Through the University, the company also offers a class open to all students called Engineering 490 that helps students get the fundamentals of their businesses all planned out.

Marc Weiser, managing director of RPM Ventures, said the class is a "a business development class where students come in and get framework for their business. Students from all over campus are in the class, not just business and engineering students."

RPM Ventures is also a sponsor for many categories of "1000 Pitches," an entrepreneurship contest through the University granting top business ideas from University students, faculty and staff with $1,000.

Many business ideas around Ann Arbor were made a reality through RPM Ventures. Arbor Photonics, which develops fibers and components for short-pulsed fiber lasers, and Campus Roost, a local networking website for Michigan students to keep in touch with their neighbors to announce parties, study sessions, pickup games, and other events.

All the nonprofit programs RPM offers are run through the University and the amount of money given ranges from $1,000 to $25,000. The professional profit side of RPM not run through the University gives up to millions of dollars to potential businesses.

"It's much more selective. We look through thousands of applications and only select a few and invest in those," Weiser said.