By Kate Toporski, CFE Content Development Intern
Last winter was the first year The Startup competition teams took to the Stamps auditorium stage. An excited group of young entrepreneurs pitched their venture ideas to the backs of a panel of four local mentors, hoping to be selected for a mentor team. After a mere 60 seconds of pitching, 16 student startups were selected became a part of a four-month long journey to launch their business with help from The Startup’s funding, expert mentor connections, and on-campus visibility.
Now, The Startup returns, looking to transform another group of student ventures into The University of Michigan’s next best startups.
The CFE is hosting auditions for the competition January 12 at TechArb and January 13 at Design Lab 3 in the Duderstadt Center from 5 – 8pm. If you are working on a business and want to get a significant boost towards launching, or have a business idea you want to turn into an operating venture, come pitch! Details on the auditions, this year’s mentors and a “time slot” audition reservation can be found here.
Why should you pitch your idea to The Startup? Let’s check in with last year’s top three teams to see what impact the program had on their entrepreneurial experience:
Did you know bees need social networks too? Nick Zajciw, the Treasurer of Michigan’s Bee Keeping Club and founder of Hivelend, discovered that there was no efficient way for beekeepers and farmers to connect. It’s critical that farmers get regular bee pollination for their crops to prosper, but typical communication with beekeepers involved complicated phone tag or knocking on doors. Nick, and his partner Noah Hirschl, built a product to bring this process to the 21st century, creating an online platform where farmers and beekeepers connect and conduct business all in one place.
Their winning idea, first developed at MPowered’s Startup Weekend, headed into The Startup competition hoping to get the mentorship and funding they needed to launch it into a venture. Hivelend was selected by Adrian Fortino and Ryan Waddington’s mentor team, and worked through customer discovery and market-fit challenges until ultimately taking home third place and $3,000. “Throughout the Start-Up, our coaches helped us refine and pursue our goals for Hivelend,” says Nick. “We made so much progress in just one semester’s time.”
Through support from The Startup, Hivelend connected with the local agricultural industry and attended multiple beekeeper conventions (receiving overwhelmingly positive responses) post-competition. They were accepted into Ann Arbor Spark’s Best of Spring Boot camp and continued to work closely with CFE’s executive director, Tom Frank, in an independent study course throughout the summer. The team was then able to transition their successful website into a fully operating mobile app.
Today, Nick and Noah are part of the TechArb student accelerator cohort where they are focusing on creating revenue, growing partnerships, and growing their user base.
MPowered’s Startup Weekend is when it first came together for this team as well: four guys who had never met before decided it was time to change how people interact with politics. Muhammad Mazhari, Ritwik Biswas, Lawrence Young, and Carson Covell teamed up to make Ballot, a platform for citizens to easily access issues within their interest and voice their opinions on bills. By giving a short description of the bill, users can vote if they agree with it or not through the platform. Then, the data is shared with federal, state and local politicians and representatives in their region. With Ballot, politics is more relatable and easy to engage with.
After winning Startup Weekend, the team decided to stay together and apply for a slot in The Startup. Being involved in The Startup required an intense process of customer discovery, where the team spoke with not only citizens, but also local politicians, a California senator, and the CTO of the White House. By collecting this data, the Ballot team was able to work with their mentor, Doug Neal, to gain lots of feedback and create a concrete plan of how to move the venture forward.
After clinching 2nd Place and taking home $3,000, Ballot spent their summer ready to compete in pitch competitions across the state. Currently, Ballot is completing their iOS app, as well as their ballot predictor in Android. “Without the Startup and the mentorship it provided, we wouldn’t be sitting in Menlo’s Startup Garage today with a nearly tangible, useful product,” said Muhammad Mazhari. The team hopes to end 2016 with a finished product where citizens can vote for presidential and other political elections in addition to policy bills.
It all began in the summer of 2014 at a living wake for a dying, family friend. Allison Powell saw an inaudible, final farewell to Dr. Barry who struggled to form words and breath. ALS had taken control of his body, making contact and physical action nearly impossible. As a Biomedical Engineering senior, Allison found inspiration to make a more effective communication device for those struggling with the physical deterioration that results from ALS. The stars aligned when she met Kyle Bettinger, and created PuffBarry (a name tribute to Dr. Barry). The duo applied for The Startup and was selected to be on the Fortino/Waddington mentor team. In addition to excelling in the competition, they found themselves greeted by head of Michigan’s ALS clinic.
Unlike other devices, PuffBarry used a series of inhale and exhale patterns to send communication to a computer, something Allison explained operating similar to digital sign language. This product swept the judges off of their feet, bringing the team all the way to the final round. After months of experiments, interviews, mentor feedback and collaboration, PuffBarry claimed the first winning title of “Michigan’s Next Best Startup” with a first place award of $15,000 in addition to the $3,000 won in previous rounds of The Startup. After winning, PuffBarry continued their climb to excellence by speaking at the May 2015 TEDx event in Traverse City and at TEDx of U of M. PuffBarry’s story was heard by thousands.
After an exciting summer of internship work and research, and close mentorship from CFE, Allison and Kyle pursued an LLC. Unfortunately, during the LLC process, PuffBarry found a competitor in Israel with a product that was too close to theirs, and was unable to continue their venture. However, it wasn’t a waste of time or energy by any means, says the duo. Without the funding and support from The Startup, they would have never been able to explore the LLC process or patents, which was a critical step in their entrepreneurial journey.
“This experience has also applied to so many other facets of my life,” said Allison. “Whether it was following my passions or pursuing education outside of the classroom, winning The Startup was a huge success, professionally and personally.” Today, Allison and Kyle are finishing up their Master’s in Biomedical Engineering, and going on to work with global health projects.
Of the 32 participating student ventures, we’ll call them The Startup “alumni,” the majority are still in contact with their mentors from the program. Whether they took home the grand prize or not, students used The Startup competition to launch their business ideas into operating ventures that continue to grow, and shape their professional and personal experiences today.
Will your startup be the next to join this elite group?
Follow The Startup teams as they pitch and compete with #umichStartup on @UMCFE