Accelerating first-time start-ups

The start-up process is messy and unpredictable. And student start-ups are certainly no exception. When teams that wow judges and win competitions move to the real world, the sheer enormity of the transition can be overwhelming. Licensing intellectual property, producing a manufacture-ready prototype, lining up customers, raising money—all critical and all daunting. The Foster Accelerator helps early-stage, student-led companies through those decisive first six months.

At  CIE, we believe it’s possible to create a TechStars-like program within a public university environment. True, we can’t pay a modest living wage to the founders. But we do look at the broad range of start-ups—and we don’t take equity.  In the Foster Accelerator, we provide six months of mentoring, a framework for achieving “reasonable but measureable” milestones, much-needed connections, and an incentive—as much as $25,000 in follow-on funding.  May not sound like much, but $25,000 can represent another three months of runway for a young company.

This year there are 10 start-ups in the Foster Accelerator.  There’s everything from consumer products (JoeyBra, Strideline,  MyPartsYard) to cleantech (SuperCritical Technologies, LumiSands, Green Innovation Safety Technologies) to service companies (PatientStream, Urban Harvest) and socially responsible companies (Haiti Babi and Microryza).

Does this work? It does!  In the last two years, we’ve worked with 10 companies—6 of which are still making progress.  Cadence Biomedical, which makes a medical device that helps people with mobility impairments walk, has raised $1.2M and is now selling a commercial product. Wander, formerly YonogPal , morphed from helping Korean students learn English via the web to a cultural exchange mobile app. And they were one of the top three 2011 “stand-outs” in Dave McClure’s 500 Startups. Stockbox Grocers just opened their first store-front location in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, selling fresh food in a “food desert.”

The Foster Accelerator started with a three-year grant of $240,000 from the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to create the Jones Milestone Achievement Awards. Since then, other donors have come on board to provide additional financial support. You can follow this year’s Foster Accelerator teams on the Foster Unplugged Blog. They’ll be writing about their experiences over the next six month.

Foster team wins national KPMG ALPFA Competition

Foster Team Wins National KPMG ALPFA Competition On August 13 and 14 in Las Vegas, an undergraduate accounting team from the UW Foster School of Business won the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance & Accounting (ALPFA) national case competition.

Sponsored by KPMG, the invitation only competition selects teams from 24 schools around the country to analyze specific public companies and present on key accounting policies, strategies and risks, and provide recommendations to help mitigate the firms’ risks.

The Foster team analyzed Tyson Foods, a public company headquartered in Arkansas. They worked throughout spring quarter analyzing and researching Tyson’s financial position. Foster’s team consisted of seniors Sonia Gorski and Ana Mendez and juniors Anthony Escobar and Gideon Vasquez.

“Our Foster team gave an extremely impressive presentation to the mock audit committee from KPMG,” says faculty adviser Patricia Angell, who coached the students. “Any firm would be honored to be represented by these polished professionals.”

The team was also supported by the local ALPFA chapter and KPMG managers Mark Turley and Lakshmi Kuduganti.

Challenges drive environmental innovation

Why are “challenges” so crucial in driving innovation?  We asked Connie Bourassa-Shaw, the director of UW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship about this, specifically in relation to the Center’s annual Environmental Innovation Challenge.  Here’s what she had to say:

We launched the Environmental Innovation Challenge in 2009 because we believe that “challenges” drive innovation, and we were looking to engage smart, passionate students in the quest to produce real, market-conscious solutions to environmental problems.  My story at the time was the Solar Car Challenge, which has been going on for the last decade or so. Most people know it. But the point is that we’re still not driving solar cars. That’s what I didn’t want to see. I wanted to see market results with the EIC.

So we narrowed it down to this: Tell me what the environmental problem is, tell me about your solution, show me that it works, tell me about the market opportunity, and demonstrate the potential for impact. Now, what we’re asking students to do is hard. Designing and building a prototype is hard. Getting it to work is even harder.  And we’re not interested in the $5,000 solution to the $500 problem. It’s got to be appropriate technology, especially when you’re looking at technologies targeted for third-world countries.

The Challenge is run by CIE (which is in the Foster School of Business), in partnership with the College of Engineering and the College of the Environment. We want cross-disciplinary teams–from undergrads to PhD students. We start the process with a fall quarter class–the Environmental Innovation Practicum. Those students walk through the process of thinking about and planning for the Challenge, which happens late March or early April. We get $25,000 from the College of Engineering to provide small grants ($500 to $5,000, but generally under $2,000) to teams that need prototype funding. We give all the money away.

This year (2012) GIST won the $10,000 grand prize. Barrels of Hope and Urban Harvest won prizes as well–and both went on to our annual Business Plan Competition, which follows the Challenge. In fact, about half of the EIC teams go on to do the BPC.

What happens is really interesting–students get caught up in the excitement of thinking about making this a real company. Many are very serious.

The EIC is full of great stories, and the “challenge” process itself is the key.