University program encourages high school innovators

By Michael Sugerman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 4, 2014

Two years ago, members of MPowered — one of the University’s main entrepreneurship-focused student organizations — went into classrooms at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School to pilot a program of small entrepreneurship workshops for students.

After receiving positive feedback, MPowered established the initiative as a permanent program called Startup High School, and expanded to cater to schools in Metro Detroit for the 2013-2014 academic year, offering workshops only to students who are selected through an application process that involves pitching startup ideas.

This year, Startup High School will enter its third cycle, seeking innovative high school students not only from Detroit and its surrounding suburbs, but also from Grand Rapids. The group’s online application closes Dec. 31.

Engineering sophomore Eric Yu, co-director of Startup High School, said in the program’s first official year, the organization received more than 350 pitches from high school students in Detroit. This time, it’s aiming to garner more than 1000.

Yu said the program is divided into three parts. During the first semester, members of Startup High School visit high schools, present to students about the organization and encourage them to submit pitches through the group’s website. Pitches are accepted on an individual basis.

The top 30 to 50 students are selected to compete with the ideas they pitched, which leads to step two: a series of entrepreneurship workshops hosted by Startup High School on a weekly basis to help the students develop their projects and prepare them for launch.

This year’s workshops will begin in February, though the group is still trying to find a central meeting location. Yu said Startup High School members might be dispersed individually to teach workshops at local centers given the expanded audience.

At the program’s end, the students attend a final summit where they present to a panel of judges. The top five pitches are awarded prize money.

Business sophomore Ovijit Datta, another Startup High School co-director, outlined the criteria for a pitch’s initial selection into the program.

“We will look for what kind of passion does this student have?” he said. “Does he or she have any credibility in this area? What kind of (research and development) is required to create the service? Have they ever engaged with this idea before?”

One of the organization’s biggest goals, Datta said, is to expand participants’ perception of what it means to be an entrepreneur.

“From textbooks, they kind of learn that an entrepreneur is someone who assumes risks in the factors of production … to pursue a venture,” he said. “But that’s really not the case. We really want students to realize that entrepreneurship exists in all fields outside of just business.”

Yu added that Startup High School encourages its high school students to consider entrepreneurship beyond the stereotypical technology project. He said the organization stresses the importance of social entrepreneurship as well.

“We decided that the best way that we could start is to have a program where these students have a chance to meet real entrepreneurs, experience entrepreneurial events,” he said. “And that was the original inspiration. We’re trying to give, introduce those students to entrepreneurship at a young age so they can get a head start.”

Datta said last year’s top prize winners reflected Startup High School’s mission.

The first place pitch was a text-to-speech application that could understand other languages, including English, Spanish and Swahili, among others, for the purpose of classroom note-taking. It won $2,000.

The second place pitch, named “Paradise Valley,” aimed to renovate an abandoned building in Metro Detroit and convert it into a music venue for high school and college musicians for a small annual membership fee.

“The scalability of the idea doesn’t have to be that large at first,” Datta said. “They just need to realize potential. And we can help them realize that.”

This year, Datta said MPowered is trying to unite its numerous branch organizations and integrate their missions because the ultimate goal is to expose students to entrepreneurship.

“I got involved in MPowered because I love mentoring others,” he said. “I love seeing when I can help them start from point A and end up at point B. It’s very remarkable to see how they develop as a person through their professional skills.”

A previous version of this story referred to Engineering sophomore Eric Yu as a junior. The story has been updated online.