January 22, 2016
Software that squeezes more life out of electric vehicle batteries. Healthy meals in Red Box-style vending machines. Technology that could let quadriplegic people control a wheelchair or even a car with their eyes. And a non-profit that offers community coding classes in Detroit.
That is just a sampling of the 21 ideas that will compete to be the last one standing in a unique, semester-long student venture competition called The Startup. The contest kicks off Friday at 12:30 p.m. in Stamps Auditorium.
After hearing pitches, a panel of local venture capitalists will pick who ascends past the first round and gets to 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.
This video offers a a glimpse of the mentors' excitement and preparedness for the competition.
The competition, created by the College of Engineering's Center for Entrepreneurship, 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 LSA. "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."
A team in a more formative stage is EVer Solution, which has built a "big data" analytics tool for electric vehicle batteries that gives new insights into battery health and how the driver affects the battery's life.
The software is designed to increase both the efficiency and adoption of electric vehicles, which could, in turn, benefit the planet, says project leader Ziqi Guo, an undergraduate in computer science and engineering.
"As a startup team in an early stage, we really need a lot of advice and valuable critiques to help us move forward," Guo said. "We think The Startup is a unique opportunity in the sense that we can work with our mentors for almost four months, which can really bring our idea to another level."
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 MBA from the Stephen M. 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 year's runners-up is Ballot, an app that helps engaged citizens stay in touch with local elected representatives, and 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 and a U-M alumnus; Adrian Ohmer, principal at Invest Detroit/Detroit Innovate and a U-M alum; and Evan Ufer, partner at Plymouth Ventures.
The competition is part of the CFE's ongoing programmatic and academic efforts to support students, faculty and researchers at all stages of entrepreneurial discovery and ambition.
Those interested in participating as an audience member in The Startup this semester can do so at Stamps Auditorium from 12:30-1:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, Feb. 12, March 25 and April 15.
Sessions are held during the Entrepreneurship Hour class. Those not currently enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Hour are asked to enter the auditorium from the second level, via the black stairs in the lobby.