The idea of starting a business while in college isn’t that crazy at the School of Business and Economics. In fact, student entrepreneurialism is growing with unique opportunities like business plan competitions that pay out big bucks and inspiring tours in Silicon Valley of successful “startups” like Facebook and Google.
“Shake the tree and see where the fruit falls,” says Dr. Andre Laplume, Associate Professor of Management in the School of Business and Economics—the fruit being entrepreneurial-minded Michigan Tech students. Laplume has been working closely with students and mentoring them through the startup process, while organizing major events and field trips to Silicon Valley.
Planting Seeds of Inspiration
Laplume organized the 2015 Bob Mark Elevator Pitch Competition. 40 student entrepreneurs applied and 26 pitched their ideas to an audience of more than 200, including 8 judges, 10 industry mentors, and 2 reporters. Students each had 120 seconds to pitch their business idea. “It’s hard for entrepreneurs to form a team and launch a venture without exposure. The Elevator Pitch gives them a taste of success,” says Laplume.
With support from generous donors, the Pavlis Honors College, MTEC SmartZone, and the SBE, the competition is one piece of a larger puzzle devoted to cultivating future entrepreneurs, and it starts in the classroom. Last September, Laplume challenged his Entrepreneurship class to crowdfund a business idea, pitch their disruptive innovations, and compete for prizes.
Management major Cedric Kennedy teamed up with classmates to complete the project. The result was Superior Filament, a company the creates 3D printing lament from recycled plastics using an open-source process. “Andre helped us realize we didn’t need a new idea. We needed to harness the existing skills of our team,” Kennedy says.
It’s not just business majors who fill Laplume’s seats, but an interdisciplinary group of students, including future engineers.
The idea grew beyond the lecture hall when Kennedy, Aubrey Woern (mechanical engineering), Josh Krugh (materials science and engineering), Amber Varacelli (computer engineering), Ryan Oshe (chemical engineering), John Klotz (mechanical engineering with a minor in alternative energy), and Natalie Pohlman (materials science and engineering) pitched their venture during the Elevator Pitch Competition last October. “The prizes gave students the tools to actually build prototypes, produce samples, and launch a website or app,” Laplume says.
By February, Superior Filament was in manufacturing and testing mode. They sent out lament samples and will debut three products this summer. “We learned that the most important part in developing a product or service is to survey our customers,” Kennedy says. “We’ll keep the headquarters in Houghton while I attend grad school next year. That’s another thing Andre taught us—not to put all of our eggs into one basket—to keep our regular jobs and future plans until the company generates enough revenue to not have to,” Kennedy adds.
The Elevator Pitch Competition was created by the late business professor, Bob Mark, who championed student innovators and entrepreneurs throughout his career at Michigan Tech. “We have the same mission Bob had—to boost the entrepreneurial spirit of the University,” Laplume says.
Planting Seeds of Inspiration
Electrical Engineering major Arick Davis was already doing exciting things before forming his startup, We Inspire. He interned with Goldman Sachs in New York City and led an international exchange project in Portugal. But it wasn’t until he took business classes at Michigan Tech that he understood how to form a team and launch a business. “I always knew I’d start a company, I just thought it would be later in life,” Davis says. “I already had everything on paper. Professor Laplume taught me the actual steps to take.”
We Inspire connects professionals–from doctors and police officers to engineers–with high-school students. The goal is to share knowledge and prevent students from not entering college, changing majors, or worse, dropping out.
Michigan Tech in Silicon Valley
While some students flock to beaches for spring break, one group of Michigan Tech students visited Silicon Valley. The students, vetted by a panel of judges, were asked to pitch, “Why do you want to live and work in Silicon Valley?” The group, co-led by Laplume and Director of Industry Program Development Adam Johnson, visited 12 companies and connected with alumni, including two who are employed at Google. Laplume explains, “We visited Facebook and Google, but we also met with young alumni who run their own multimillion-dollar companies.”
The first alumnus the group met was Adam Gibson at Skymind. His company aims to take-on the most advanced problems in data analysis and machine intelligence. Adam has raised nearly a million dollars and was on the Silicon Valley trip as a student just a few years back.
The group also visited Handshake. Alumni Garrett Lord, Ben Christensen, and Scott Ringwelski have raised around $10 million. They’ve sold their product to hundreds of universities, and tens of thousands of companies use their career-finder app.
A final stop was with Tom Porter at Porter Winery. “The winery was the most high-tech winery I’ve ever been to,” says Laplume. “Tom Porter uses an app to monitor and control everything.”
Big Harvest in New Venture Competition
In April, We Inspire and Superior Filament competed in Central Michigan University’s sixth-annual New Venture Competition. “The stakes were higher in Mount Pleasant. We had four teams, they had 21. Our teams returned with more than $20,000,” Laplume says.
Superior Filament earned Best Technology ($10,000), Best Pitch ($1,000), and Audience Choice Pitch ($250). We Inspire won $10,000 for Highest-Growth Potential.
E Club Feeds Momentum
Stepping into the role of advisor Laplume was able to provide a boost to the Tech Entrepreneurs Club. “It’s a community, a way to keep our student entrepreneurs connected and to build momentum."
This year E Club members built Huskies4Hire, an app for Michigan Tech students to find temporary work in the community. Students Adam Weber and Parshwa Patwa pitched their business at the CMU New Venture competition. “They make a great team,” Laplume adds. “And this all came about through connections in E Club.”
Grow Your Roots
To make it in business, Laplume says people must broaden their passions and expand their roots. “Passions can lead to saturated markets offering very low profits, and roots can prevent seeking the best market location for a business,” he says. His research centers on both start-ups and large, high-tech incumbents. He addresses questions such as how to enter the field, how to defend against tough rivals, who will win, and why.
Laplume’s industry experience in computer science and business analysis intersect in his own startup, Dr. Andre Laplume and MBA student Feng Xu. Launchscore.com, a partnership that includes colleague and econometrician Dr. Emanuel Oliveira. “At Michigan Tech, we focus on the 20 percent high-tech start-ups whose outlooks are unknown, but we can predict the outcome for the other 80 percent,” Laplume says. “That’s the mission of Launchscore: to arm small businesses like barbershops and ice cream parlors with data on competition, market, and location to predict potential earnings.”
Upping the Ante
Now that he has tested new ideas, Laplume has even bigger plans for the next Elevator Pitch to be held October 6, 2016. “We’re going to fill the Rozsa Center,” Laplume says. Prizes will be amped up, too. “We’ll award trips to Silicon Valley, larger cash prizes, and more business services,” he says.
“Our students will keep generating ideas and skills to take to market. The pipeline of opportunities we offer is always running.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.