Undergrad entrepreneurs graduate inaugural business-building program
Rachel Ford has an entrepreneur’s heart. It was evident when she was a Girl Scout in Powder Springs, Georgia, organizing her troop’s ‘Operation: Cookie Drop,’ in which cookie buyers were encouraged to buy a box to send to American fighting men and women overseas. And it was evident last week at the graduation for the inaugural Georgia Institute of Technology Startup Summer, when two enterprises that she co-founded were in the mix of eight undergraduate student teams pitching their products and services to a group of faculty, mentors, fellow students and potential investors.
What makes Ford’s accomplishment so remarkable is that 79 student teams applied to be part of the final eight that qualified for the Startup Summer program. So, the odds weren’t in her favor.
“I was just thrilled that I managed to get into the program, but to have both of my teams get in is an amazing accomplishment. But it’s a testament to the teams, not one person,” says Ford, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering with a minor in finance. “I was blessed to have two good teams to be part of. It was luck and serendipity, and a lot of hard work.”
The graduation (August 15 at the Technology Square Research Building, or TSRB) showcased the results of all that hard work, the culmination of a 12-week summer program. Eight companies with working prototypes, gave startup presentations in the TSRB auditorium, real-world training that may net real-world results for these teams, all of them made up of undergraduate students – recently graduated seniors, mostly. It was a day of celebration for a new program that might be heralding a change in the undergraduate educational experience at Georgia Tech.
“I think we are at a point in time where this eventually will become the norm in all universities, and I’m thrilled that Georgia Tech is taking a bold step in terms of leading this kind of movement,” says program coordinator Raghupathy ‘Siva’ Sivakumar, a successful entrepreneur who has started two venture-backed companies, and is a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), which supported the pilot Startup Summer effort, along with the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME).
The Startup program is, “part of a larger initiative to have 'entrepreneurial confidence' be a signature feature of a large number of Georgia Tech undergraduate students of all majors,” explains Ravi Bellamkonda, the professor who chairs the Coulter Department. “The idea started with the realization that students increasingly want to work for their own startups and businesses. Also, larger companies value employees who are creative and entrepreneurial and take initiative. These two aspects combined to create a burning question in my mind. What if Georgia Tech designed a set of experiences where students create their own jobs as a part of their experience at Georgia Tech?’’
The answer to that question led to a fruitful collaboration and partnership across many university departments, spearheaded by the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and the Executive Vice President for Research’s office. They needed someone with entrepreneurial experience to help lead the program, and Sivakumar was glad to step in.
“As an entrepreneur myself, I’m passionate about this program, which provides a platform for students that are interested in entrepreneurship,” Sivakumar says. “Our broader vision, going forward, is to create a bouquet of programs for undergraduate entrepreneurs, from the first day a student lands at Georgia Tech until they leave, giving them the knowledge, skills and experiences to pursue their own opportunities when they go out into the world. Startup Summer is one key aspect of that, and only the beginning.”
Sivakumar offered a class for sophomores and juniors, ‘Startup Lab,’ in the spring that he’ll bring back next spring. His co-leader in Startup Summer, Ray Vito (professor emeritus in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering) offers a freshman/sophomore level class, ‘Your Idea, Your Invention.’ “These are just examples,” Sivakumar says. “Our vision is really to have 20 such programs, all through the education process of an undergraduate student.”
Sivakumar, having already created venture-capital supported companies (including, most recently, StarMobile and Asankya) was a logical choice to lead the program, with an instructional team that included Vito, Keith McGreggor (director of VentureLab at Georgia Tech), and Tech alum and entrepreneur Sanjay Parekh. These guys were tasked with choosing from among the 79 applicant teams.
“The biggest challenge going forward will be keeping up with the demand,” Vito says. “There is a lot of student interest. We looked at 79 teams, interviewed about 30 of them, and there were at least five or 10 teams in addition to the final eight that could easily have benefited from this experience. It took a fair amount of work on the part of the teams. A lot of it was in developing the technologies, and taking what they learned and essentially putting it to good use. The presentations went great today, and they seemed to all come together at the last minute. But then, the Tech culture is a last-minute culture.”
Sivakumar envisions a time in the not too distant future when the Startup suite of programs is helping to create up to 100 student-led companies a year, with a longer-range goal of 300. But creating little enterprises is not the only aim of the program. It’s more like a targeted bonus.
“Its not just about starting companies, which only a small percentage of our students might do,” says ECE professor and chair Steve McLaughlin, who partnered with Bellamkonda in helping to launch the program (and provide a major chunk of support). “Its about creating leaders and equipping our students with a life skill over and above the superior education they get as engineers, scientists, and business graduates.”
In the summer program, eight teams went through 12 weeks of entrepreneurial training, most of that time spent on identifying potential customers and market needs. It took a lot of intent. One team (Filitic, an apparel analytics company) flew across country to meet with different clothing companies. Another team, Unmanned United, a drone technology company that spent a lot of time working outdoors.
“They practically went and lived with farmers in South Georgia,” Sivakumar says. “It’s one thing to hypothesize the problem, but another thing to actually be embedded with the customer and understand what their problems are.”
The other teams were Sucette (which makes a pacifier that changes colors when the baby is running a temperature, or it gets too hot outside for safety); Narvaro (which offers revolutionary, 3D telepresence for hyper-real virtual experiences); Gimme (which makes software that vastly increases efficiency for small to medium vending machine owners); Cloudpin (which offers an easier way to wirelessly share content with people nearby, opening up new avenues for location-based digital marketing); SonoFAST (which incorporates an innovative polymer pad for medical ultrasound procedures, replacing the need for messy liquid ultrasound); and FIXD (which has developed a plug-in sensor and an app that helps you understand your vehicle by translating your check engine light).
“What does this light really mean? In reality, this light can mean over 7,000 things,” says John Gattuso, FIXD co-founder, who gave his company’s presentation. “So a few months ago I get a call from my mom. She says, ‘John, I’m driving home from work and my ‘check engine’ light came on. What does it mean? Can you help me?’ Me being 500 miles away, I wasn’t much use. I told her to go home, go to a mechanic and they’d be able to figure out. It turns out the problem was a malfunction in the airbag system. My mother’s life was in danger, but because this light is so vague, she was none the wiser. Her car was talking to her but she was not able to listen.”
Each of the companies set up a table with information and demonstrations, and all were busy fielding questions, showing off their product or service, or explaining the technology behind it. The multi-talented Ford spread her time out among the two companies she helped start– Sucette (where she has utilized her biomedical engineering education and product development skills developed at DuPont, where she worked under a co-op arrangement), and FIXD (where she is putting her finance education to work in more of a business development capacity).
“I’m trying to bridge the gap between science and business,” says Ford, who dreams of being a CEO and a soccer mom – she wants to have it all. “When I worked in industry, at DuPont, I found that you really need backgrounds in both.”
The Startup Summer teams were generally comprised of two to five students. Each team had a mentor that worked with them along the early stage startup path. For Chris Klaus, the former Georgia Tech student who launched the multi-million dollar ISS (Internet Security Systems), then founded (and still leads) Kaneva (a 3D virtual world that supports 2D web browsing, social networking and shared media), this meant answering a lot of one on one business questions.
“What’s a startup? How do we reach customers? How do we set up a set up a web site? That kind of stuff,” Klaus says. “I acted as a sort of advisor, or coach, for Narvaro. It’s a 3D telepresence concept that has never really been explored before. It’s been done in science fiction, but now we have the technology, and it’s about to explode, within the next 12 months. So I saw this as a unique opportunity to jump in and provide some guidance, offer any lessons that I stubbed my toes on along the way.”
The difference between the Startup program philosophy and a typical business school approach, Klaus says, “is like the difference between researching how to drive a car and actually driving the car. You’re going to make mistakes, everyone does, but you’re going to learn much quicker if you get in the car and drive.”
And the program is exactly what it implies it is – a start, not the end all, but a first step toward starting a viable business.
“It sort of accelerates the learning curve for student entrepreneurs,” observes Lee Herron, vice president of commercialization for the Georgia Research Alliance, who has spent most of his career starting bioscience companies and helping others do the same. “I’m not saying it makes them entrepreneurs, but it accelerates the learning curve. These were some very polished, well-coached, well rehearsed pitches, and some unique ideas.”
Herron wonders if this does mark the beginning of a change in undergraduate education, a new element to the experience. Bellamkonda and McLaughlin both believe it very well could be that, and more.
“We believe that Startup Lab and Startup Summer are just the beginning of something big, not only for engineering students, but all Georgia Tech students,” McLaughlin says. “The idea that we are giving students the exposure, experience, and confidence to create their own jobs is exciting to students and increasingly important for their careers and lives in general.”
Bellamkonda also sees the potential for economic benefits rippling throughout the Atlanta region.
“One very likely outcome of this initiative is going to be a large number of student led startups that can vitalize the Atlanta economy further,” he says. Still, he maintains that the primary aim goes beyond the rapid creation and rise of fledgling companies. He wants to help create a new entrepreneurial mindset. “I honestly believe that this entrepreneurial confidence in Georgia Tech undergrads is going to be transformative in terms of their ability to be successful leaders, no matter what they pursue after they graduate.”
Written by Jerry Grillo
Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology & Emory School of Medicine
313 Ferst Drive, Suite 2120
Atlanta, GA 30332-0535
Last revised August 1, 2017