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Entrepreneur course kick-starts student businesses

by jmaloni

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Wed, Jan 22nd 2014 10:50 am
Clockwise from the far left are UB students April LoTempio, Vitchel Toussaint, Michael Sparks, Elena Ramona Stefanescu and Travis West.
Clockwise from the far left are UB students April LoTempio, Vitchel Toussaint, Michael Sparks, Elena Ramona Stefanescu and Travis West.

UB accelerates the learning curve for 10 promising Buffalo startups

by Marcene Robinson

Twelve classmates have joined the ranks of the University at Buffalo's first entrepreneurial boot camp for students, and up to five of them have a chance to win $8,000 in seed funding when they complete it.

The entrepreneurship lab, or eLab, is not your traditional course.

Forget homework and tests. Students spend three weeks during UB's winter session fine-tuning their business pitches, engaging potential customers and sizing up target markets.

At the end of the course, participants present their startup ideas to a panel of local business leaders and investors. The students with the most promising projects will win the university's new student entrepreneur fellowship, including $5,000-$8,000 in startup funds, mentorship and shared space in the UB technology incubator.

"The UB Student Entrepreneur Fellowship Program is designed to offer UB students the concepts and tools to function as an entrepreneur," said Robert Genco, D.D.S, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Professor and director of UB's office of science, technology transfer and economic outreach. "The lab helps them identify problems, develop solutions, and place their products in the market to benefit the community."

The student entrepreneurs will pitch products and services from shoes made of recycled taxi tires to a mobile application that connects students with their peers for tutoring and study sessions. Only a few classmates will win the fellowship. But they all will finish with three credits toward graduation - and invaluable experience.

"The real product of the class is a better understanding on how to size-up opportunities and present them to others," said Martin Casstevens, UB business formation and commercialization manager for STOR. "We expect them all to establish businesses. Even if they fail, the skills they learn will enable them to take their next idea forward."

The course, which is a joint effort among UB's Entrepreneurship Academy, School of Management and STOR, is led by Genco and Yong Li, associate professor of operations management and strategy in the UB School of Management.

Open to both undergraduate and graduate students, eLab accelerates the startup process for students who already have entrepreneurial ideas. The course brings in nine guest speakers from the local business community, and includes a trip to a Western New York Venture Association forum, where students can watch a pitch for capital in action.

The class focuses on customer engagement, asking participants to call potential buyers for feedback on products and services. The process prevents students from building products or services that people won't want, and helps them realize that an idea isn't feasible.

"When Mr. Casstevens contacted me about my entrepreneurial idea and how eLab could help, it seemed too good to pass up," said April LoTempio, a UB MBA student. "This is exactly the kind of hands-on work and practical knowledge I need to move my business forward. The fact that our final 'exam' is to make a presentation in hopes of winning fellowship funding just makes it even better."

Students who win the fellowship are encouraged to enter the Henry A. Panasci Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, a School of Management and STOR business plan contest that helps fund UB student start-ups. Recipients receive $25,000 in seed funding, business services and office space.

Some of the businesses this year's eLab students are starting include:

A bright idea: Stickerlight is a customizable and sound-activated light-up sticker for laptops. The startup placed second in the 2013 Panasci Competition, earning $10,000 in seed funding. Michael Sparks, the founder and an MBA student, converted the idea from a previous business he had: selling light-up T-shirts.

When the shirts lost profitability, Sparks tampered with the idea of adding circuitry to other objects, including binders. But when local DJs reached out to him to customize their laptop covers, he knew he had a business.

Stickerlight will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding.

We're not TOMS: The Atinga Project sells recycled taxi tire footwear made by artisans in Rwanda. The business promotes the sale of environmentally friendly sandals, boosts economic opportunities for African artisans, and challenges Americans' perception of Africa. The company placed third in the 2013 Buffalo Startup Weekend.

UB student Chris Way, the founder, met the artisans on a study abroad program to Rwanda. The Atinga Project was born after Way saw the effect the TOMS brand of shoes had on local businesses. When TOMS sells a pair of shoes, the company donates a pair to an impoverished community.

However, by giving shoes away for free, many artisans' businesses suffer. Way and his partner, Alex Burgos, a senior business administration major, are developing a partnership and collaboration with cooperatives in Rwanda and the West Side Bazaar in Buffalo. The collaboration allows Way and Burgos to sell the Rwandan artisans shoe without harming their market. They plan to launch their website in February.

The Classroom Market: B2Y Education bridges the gap between businesses and youth.

Putting together engaging marketing programs for youth can be intimidating for some organizations.

LoTempio, the founder of B2Y Education, uses her experience as a classroom teacher and curriculum writer to develop programs for her clients. Her services include everything from planning field trips and curriculums to providing Web content.

Preparing for Disaster: Earth Risk Systems accesses the risks associated with natural disasters, such as snowstorms, landslides and volcano eruptions. Elena Ramona Stefanescu, founder and mechanical engineering doctoral candidate, is developing software that estimates the cost of damages to property and the areas of people affected by disaster. With these estimates, engineers, governments and clients in the insurance and construction industries can better prepare for the catastrophes.

Study Group Expansion: WeStudy is a mobile application that connects college students with their peers for academic purposes. Vitchel Toussaint, the founder and a senior psychology major, decided to pursue the venture when he realized he was never short of friends for social activities, but had a hard time meeting fellow students who could collaborate on schoolwork.

The app, which was set to launch on iOS and Android mobile operating systems Jan. 20, categorizes students based on school, major, class level, strengths and weaknesses. Students can add "buddies," find tutors and form study groups.

Vibration Isolation: Emviss, or Electromagnetic Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System, is a manufacturer of electromagnetic devices that provide vibration isolation for machines that require high resolution and precision. These technologies are mainly used in research centers and hospitals.

Hosein Kerdar, the founder of Emviss and a civil engineering doctoral candidate, is developing a prototype and is raising funds for further development. The company's partners include the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Nikon.

Map It: Overlays is software that allows users to take their location-based data and view it over Google Maps. The software takes advantage of the public's familiarity with Google Maps, and offers businesses and marketers a dynamic way to visualize, compare and draw conclusions from data. The company founders are Vincent Schutt, a UB MBA student, and Surjya Ray, a UB electrical engineering doctoral candidate. Tobias Scott-Killian, a geography graduate student, is a partner.

Retaining Local Talent: West Worx is a student employment agency that connects college students with small businesses and startups. The company offers professional development services, as well. Travis West, the founder and a UB senior business administration major, watched many of his friends graduate and struggle to land jobs because of their lack of workplace experience.

West Worx helps students gain the necessary experience before they graduate. West said he knows there are opportunities for college graduates in Buffalo, and is working to retain the city's talent.

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