Technology that could let quadriplegic people control a wheelchair or even a car with their eyes. Healthy meals in “Red Box”-style vending machines. A non-profit that offers community coding classes in Detroit.
That is just a sampling of the 15 ideas still competing to be the last one standing in a unique, semester-long student venture competition called The Startup.
In the first round in January, a panel of local venture capitalist picked the remaining teams from a field of 21. The students still in the running will spend four months under their professional mentorship. In the next three rounds, voters in attendance will also have a say. Real-time voting is open to anyone in the U-M community and beyond, as long as you attend the competition during the Entrepreneurship Hour (ENTR 407) class period.
The competition, created by the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE), gives out $35,000 in prizes. The winning team takes home $18,000. But it’s foremost an educational experience.
“Students continuously ask us to connect them with mentors and alumni,” said Tom Frank, executive director and adjunct assistant professor at the CFE. “We realized when creating The Startup last year that it was more important to provide them a program where they can get advice and support to actually move their company forward than to award the shiniest pitch.”
Teams from across campus—and both undergrads and graduate students—have signed up to compete. Several are commercializing technologies that were born in faculty labs.
Neurable, for example, is working with the U-M Direct Brain Interface Lab to develop a non-invasive system that could let people who can’t use their limbs control machinery by moving their eyes. The team has already gone through the CFE’s National Science Foundation-funded Innovation Corps program to help it identify its target markets.
“Our intellectual property allows for never-before-seen, non-invasive, real-time control of technologies like wheelchairs and cars to people using only brain activity,” said team leader Ramses Alcaide, a predoctoral fellow in neuroscience in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. “We want to win The Startup so we can begin development of our final prototype and putting our life changing technology into the hands of users.”
Mentors know that the ventures they pick are a direct reflection of their reputation. To get a glimpse of the mentors’ excitement and preparedness for the competition, watch this video.
“With serious skin in the game, and their name on the line, they might even be looking for their next investment,” Frank said.
Adrian Fortino, a partner at Mercury Fund who received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2000 and an and MBA from the Ross School of Business in 2010, mentored last year’s winning team. He’s at it again this year, and not just to defend his title.
“The Startup is an engaging way for me to connect with the university’s most exciting student ventures,” he said. “I get to have a real impact in mentoring budding entrepreneurial talent, which is what I love to do.”
One of last years’ runner-ups is Ballot, an app that helps engaged citizens stay in touch with local elected representatives, today has a spot in Menlo’s Startup Garage and a beta version available for download.
Other mentors are: Jake Cohen, Partner at Detroit Venture Partners, U-M BA ‘04, JD ‘12 and MBA ‘12; Adrian Ohmer, Principal at Invest Detroit/Detroit Innovate, U-M JD ‘13; and Evan Ufer, Partner at Plymouth Ventures.
This competition is a part of the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship’s ongoing programmatic and academic efforts to support students, faculty and researchers at all stages of entrepreneurial discovery and ambition. The CFE focuses active learning experiences that are designed to teach the skills needed to successfully translate high-potential projects and ideas into the world. Beyond its classes, immersion treks, funding opportunities, student incubator and leadership programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, the CFE also provides extensive training programs to U-M faculty at the College of Engineering and beyond in transitioning technology out of the lab into market, and runs an external accelerator in partnership with the Zell Lurie Institute at the Ross School of Business, the Desai Accelerator.
Those interested in participating as an audience member in The Startup this semester can head to Stamps Auditorium on the dates listed below from 12:30-1:30 p.m. on Feb. 12, March 25 and April 15. Sessions are held during the Entrepreneurship Hour class (ENTR 407). If you are not a currently enrolled student in the Entrepreneurship Hour, please enter the auditorium from the second level, via the black stairs in the lobby, to avoid confusion with student attendance capturing.
This story was written by Sarah Bachleda, Center for Entrepreneurship.