Cory Hewett traces his entrepreneurial spirit to freshman year of high school when he purchased a spiral gumball machine and placed it in a sports bar in Peachtree City, a community south of Atlanta. By his senior year, he owned and managed more than 25 gumball and vending machines.
Those early experiences helped him launch Gimme, a startup that has introduced hardware and an app to make vending machine operations more efficient for owners. But Hewett adds that the lessons and skills he’s gaining at Georgia Tech are crucial to further developing Gimme.
“At Georgia Tech you learn how to solve problems, build practical things, and prototype your ideas,” Hewett said. “These skills give you the background and confidence to be an entrepreneur.”
Hewett isn’t the only student exposed to such lessons. Faculty and administrators plan to make entrepreneurial confidence a signature feature of undergraduate learning at Georgia Tech. Through a combination of faculty-led and student-led programs, Georgia Tech is creating a startup pipeline that leverages the campus’ maker culture and encourages students to push their ideas even further. Possibly hundreds of student startups could be launched in the next three years.
“The most important thing for us at Georgia Tech is graduating students who are going to be successful in a very rapidly changing international arena,” said Stephen Cross, Georgia Tech’s executive vice president for research. “We want our students to be well-versed in innovation and entrepreneurism.”
Students are learning some of these skills in courses and programs led by faculty.
During Startup Summer, teams of students spend 12 weeks assessing their ideas, participating in customer discovery, and meeting with potential investors. In the Startup Lab course, students hear from entrepreneurs about their experiences and then form teams to develop startup ideas. In the GT 2803 course, students work in interdisciplinary teams and explore opportunities for invention and discovery.
Students are also learning some lessons more independently. The Startup Exchange meets weekly in the library and provides students with a collaborative hub to share ideas, successes, and failures. Invention Studio is a design-build-play space where any Georgia Tech student can experiment with different tools then build and prototype ideas.
“Our vision is to offer a platform of programs for undergraduate entrepreneurs, beginning with their first day at Georgia Tech and continuing throughout their time here,” said Raghupathy Sivakumar, the Wayne J. Holman Chair Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Sivakumar leads CREATE-X, a newly launched initiative to enhance undergraduate entrepreneurial confidence. (Georgia Tech alumnus Christopher W. Klaus has provided significant funding for CREATE-X, an accelerator for undergraduate startups.) Sivakumar is also involved with Startup Lab, Startup Summer, Idea to Prototype, and other entrepreneurial efforts on campus.
And, there is strong demand for these programs. About 30 students signed up for the first Startup Lab offered in 2014. This spring, more than 120 registered. Last year’s Startup Summer pilot saw 79 teams apply for eight spots.
No one expects every student to launch a startup. Those who prefer to work for established companies will thrive if they are entrepreneurial, said Ravi Bellamkonda, the Wallace H. Coulter Professor and Chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.
“The idea of intentionally providing the opportunity for students to explore entrepreneurism as part of their traditional education is a powerful one,” he said. “Can you create entrepreneurs? I like to think we can.”
So, You Want to be an Entrepreneur
Students at Georgia Tech who have big ideas have multiple avenues to transform these ideas into startups, and they can participate in these startup programs simultaneously.
More information about these programs and others can be found at www.create.gatech.edu.
Class for Credit
This student group officially meets every Friday at 4 p.m. in the old rehearsal studio on the first floor of the Library. But, students meet and work there informally nearly every hour of every day, sharing their ideas, successes, and failures.
This is a design-build-play space open to any Georgia Tech student. It is for students — managed by students. Students from all majors are encouraged to experiment with the cutting-edge tools, machines, and printers.
This is an undergraduate course — typically for freshmen and sophomores — that helps students explore opportunities for invention and discovery. It is also called: “Your Idea, Your Invention.” Students work in interdisciplinary teams.
This living-learning community is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors. It is centered on the lean startup methodology, with the community working collaboratively to evaluate business models, build actual startups, and create viable products and prototypes.
This course begins with students hearing from a different guest each week about his or her experience in a startup or entrepreneurial environment. Students then team up to develop a business model for a startup idea of their own.
Startup Semester is not a course. Students apply and, if selected, they enjoy access to veteran entrepreneurship mentors, meet with potential investors, and work with group software and guest speakers.
This is an annual innovation competition for undergraduate students. First place finishers win $20,000, plus a free patent filing, and an automatic spot in the summer cohort of Flashpoint, Georgia Tech’s business creation and innovation program. The second place prize is $10,000, plus the patent filing and Flashpoint spot.
IDEA TO PROTOTYPE
This is for students who want to advance their ideas for a potential value-creating product by performing basic research, analysis, and testing leading to a proof-of-concept prototype.
This is a faculty-led, student-focused 12-week program. It allows student teams to launch startups based on their ideas, inventions, and prototypes. The teams come in with a clear hypothesis and, in exchange, receive grant money, mentors, lessons, exposure, and intellectual property protection.
Startup Gauntlet is a six-week startup lab for first-time or experienced entrepreneurs. Each week, hypotheses are made about the world, interviews are held, and results reported in a group setting in front of an expert instructor team. The result is an evidence-based startup business model, which must be developed before even building a prototype.
Working with students and faculty, VentureLab helps create startup companies based on Georgia Tech research and ideas. Since 2001, it has launched 150 companies that have attracted more than $700 million in funding.
Students who successfully complete VentureLab may want their next stop to be the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC). ATDC helps transform fledgling ventures into viable businesses. It is one of the nation’s premier technology startup incubators.
The annual InVenture Prize is among Georgia Tech’s more established and well-known programs that foster entrepreneurial spirit. Since 2009, this contest has rewarded students with cash prizes and free patents for big innovations that aim to solve the world’s problems. The first place prize is $20,000 plus a spot in Flashpoint, Georgia Tech’s startup accelerator program.
“The culture we have underway started with InVenture, and now we are moving on to the next phase,” Bellamkonda said. “Does the idea stand up to commercial value, and can it survive on its own merit? Have the students caught the entrepreneur bug? Are they thinking of the second and third big idea?”
It’s safe to say that Rachel Ford has the bug.
The biomedical engineering student came in second in the 2014 InVenture competition as a member of team Sucette, which redesigned the pacifier to fit more naturally with a baby’s mouth and growing dental structure. It also changed colors when the baby has a fever.
She continued working on the device during last summer’s Startup Summer program. As a result of that program and learning more about consumer and market demands, Sucette now emphasizes the “smart” design aspect of the pacifier, which enables a change in color to let parents know when their child is becoming sick. It changes color internally when fever is detected, and externally when temperatures may pose risks of heat-related illness.
“What I’m doing now is so different from what I learned in my technical engineering classes,” Ford said. “But I would not have been able to do any of this without what I’m learning in the startup classes and programs.”
Ford is also part of a startup that produces a device that helps people understand what’s going on with their cars: FIXD.
The device is plugged into a car’s diagnostics port, just underneath the steering wheel, and connects the car to a person’s smartphone via Bluetooth. It explains the cause behind an illuminated check engine light, diagnoses the seriousness of the problem, and provides repair estimates. The sensor also delivers updates on when the car needs repairs and regular maintenance.
Ford and John Gattuso, another member of the team, developed the company during last year’s Startup Lab course and continued working on it during Startup Summer. Since then, they have raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter and are accepting pre-orders for the device.
FIXD wasn’t the group’s original idea, however. They first considered a device to make regular breast self-exams easier to complete. But after interviewing about 80 women, they realized this wasn’t a feasible idea for a startup.
Faculty in the Startup Lab told them to pivot to something else. That advice — combined with a call Gattuso received from his mom when her car’s check engine light came on — led the team to create a diagnostic tool for cars.
“Our original idea failed, but it led us to a successful one,” Gattuso said. “The programs here let us know it’s OK if our first ideas fail, and then they show us how to turn what we’ve learned into an even better idea.”
Faculty members aren’t the only ones helping eliminate the anxiety students can feel when starting a company. Student entrepreneurs are mentoring one another and sharing what they’ve learned.
Partha Unnava teaches entrepreneurship and customer discovery to students participating in Startup Semester. Students don’t get course credit for the 10-week program, but they are exposed to the entrepreneurial mindset, meet potential mentors, and learn about acquiring seed money.
“It’s about supporting one another and sharing what we’ve learned and making people realize they can do this, and they can do this now while still in college,” he said.
Unnava is a former Georgia Tech student who withdrew from school to focus on launching his company, Better Walk, which redesigned the crutch to minimize underarm pain. He got the idea after spending six weeks hobbling uncomfortably on crutches after breaking his ankle.
The invention landed him in the 2014 InVenture Prize finale. Shortly after that, President Barack Obama was trying out the crutch at the first White House Maker Faire where Unnava presented him with a letter on behalf of 150 universities expressing their commitment to strengthening their maker movements and services.
Then earlier this year, Unnava was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, which features “game-changing entrepreneurs.”
Not all students will see that same success and only a small percentage will ever start their own companies. But the goal is to provide the opportunity to all students, regardless of their major, said Steve McLaughlin, the Steve W. Chaddick School Chair and Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
“We want to support entrepreneurial confidence and give our students another skill,” he said. “Startups and established companies value employees who are creative and entrepreneurial.”
Not only do students learn about entrepreneurship and business, they also gain the technical skills that allow them to address today’s challenges.
Hewett’s Gimme hardware plugs into a port just inside the door of vending machines and communicates with the mobile application. The app takes information from the vending machine about sales and cash on hand, making it easier for owners to manage their routes and know when to replenish supplies.
“I knew this was an issue for vending machine operators, and it’s at Georgia Tech that I learned the technical skills to fix it,” Hewett said. “If you want to create your own job, this is where you learn to do it and how to do it right.”
Laura Diamond, of Georgia Tech’s Institute Communications, writes about entrepreneurship and student issues. She is a former newspaper reporter.