Students vie for $18,000 in startup competition

Sunday, January 24, 2016 - 7:45pm

Last week, Entrepreneurship 407 was turned into a game show. T-shirts were flung into the crowd and “Eye of the Tiger” blared through Stamps Auditorium as students took their seats in the audience, as part of The Startup, an entrepreneurship event on campus.

The Center for Entrepreneurship created The Startup, an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to compete for $18,000 to launch their own startup business. The competition consists of four rounds that each emphasize different aspects of starting a business, and is run by the class. Students from across campus can enter products into the competition. Auditions to be in the competition happened on January 12 and 13, where 50 teams were whittled down to the 21 who participated in the first round.

“Every round of the competition stresses something else,” Engineering junior Robert Levy, who took the class last year, said. “One round will stress product development, one will stress customer discovery, so I learned a lot about the steps necessary to grow a startup, not just from the back end of building a product that is valuable but also going out and making sure that your product has value to other people other than yourself.”

During the first round on Friday, the judges had their backs to the participants, but if they were interested in their idea, they turned around and then became the team’s mentor for the rest of the rounds. If a judge didn’t turn around, then the team was eliminated. After the first round, the audience — the students of Entrepreneurship 407 — voted to determine which team would advance.

The competition is a valuable learning experience for both the competitors and the students of in the class, Richard Smith, a Ross School of Business alum, who has been attending the class for five years, said. He said the mentors help students to not only improve their businesses, but also improve the way they present their ideas amid a heated competition. Mentors are individuals associated with the Center for Entrepreneurship, who work with each team to improve their ideas.

“The first round, the students are rough,” he said. “But by the end of the semester they were smooth and polished and have content and have done work on developing the business plan, the marketplace or the product itself. They are always magnitudes better at the end.”

Additionally, Levy said mentors played a critical role in the development of the team’s ideas and businesses.

“In any venture you do in life you need people with more experience to help guide you,” he said. “And the mentors are a great tool for the people trying to make their companies really profitable.”

Maite Iribarren, Art & Design and Engineering freshman and a participant in the competition, said while she has a jewelry collection created and ready to be put into production, she was “here to learn something about the business side of it.”

Matt Gibson, director of undergraduate programs at the Center for Entrepreneurship and co-founder of The Startup, said the judges become very invested in the participants they are guiding — they defend their teams and encourage the audience to vote for them to advance.

“The judges become your biggest supporters and fans,” he said.

Thomas Frank, executive director for the Center for Entrepreneurship and co-creator of the competition, said students benefit from hearing the different pitches and ideas.

“This gives students in this class an opportunity to go on a entrepreneurial journey with a bunch of different startups,” he said. “They get this real sort of first-hand chance to see how people succeed, how they struggle, how they make progress, how they don’t, and it is not the kind of experience you can get any other way.”

Engineering sophomore Nick Morris, an instructional assistant for the class, agreed that the competition is a great learning experience as they are able to analyze and critique the different pitches. He said he was excited to learn about the various companies and different ideas.

LSA freshman Rachel Ordan, a student in the class, said she was excited to learn about the creative ideas of her peers.

“I’m excited to see the different ways that groups are innovative in finding new solutions to things that I can relate to,” she said.

The competition had a wide variety of startups. Iribarren, the jewelry designer, showcased products that she said take a different approach to how people wear jewelry.

“It’s for more than just accessorizing,” she said, “It's kind of like something you have with you always, like a toy or a mechanism that can entertain you.”

Engineering senior Tristan MacKethan presented a website called MSell that he said is a platform for people who want to buy and sell items in a market where items are sold in high volume around a particular time period — like football tickets in the fall or textbooks in the beginning or end of the semester.

LSA freshman Kyle Zaoitell, another competitor, created a website called Wage Pit which allows League of Legends players from around the world to make wagers against each other when they are playing the game.

The Startup finalists in years past have been very successful now after the competition, Frank said.

“The team that won (last year) went from having an idea for how to help ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) patients communicate through puffs of air to bringing all of these medical factors out of their advisory board filing a provisional patent,“ Frank said.

During the first round on Friday, Gibson said the judges were looking for ambitious and confident teams that they think will be able to go the distance.

“They want something that can be a viable business,” he said “But maybe even more than that they are looking for students that are really ambitious and looking to make something happen. They want to see that commitment and willingness to take it to the next level.”