Start Up Here

Start Up Here

UCF’s growing entrepreneurial culture is empowering students to successfully navigate their way from concept to launch.

By David K. Gibson

Look for a pingpong table in the center of an office suite on the first floor of UCF’s Business Administration Building. That’s how you’ll know you’ve found StarterSpace, where you’ll begin your entrepreneurial expedition.

A nearby stack of cards beckons, “Start Here: Explore UCF’s free startup resources!” The cards map out a serpentine path to success, one that starts at UCF’s Blackstone LaunchPad before winding into the Advanced Design Lab, Texas Instruments Innovation Lab, Harris Gathering Lab and similar places throughout campus. Classes and programs are available at different points along your trek, as are events such as the Joust New Venture Competition and Starter Riot, which feed into the Upstarts Student Venture Accelerator. That’s a rough idea of the journey through UCF’s starter culture, except, well, there is no single path.

Instead it’s an ecosystem, a multidimensional environment where there’s plenty of intellectual nourishment and a dire need for self-sufficiency. Like the startup world that student-founded ventures compete in, it’s a place to thrive — or die.


Find a Guide

“[The pingpong table is] the same height as a conference table and a lot cheaper,” says associate professor of management Cameron Ford, implying there’s a lesson there somewhere. In 2005, Ford founded the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, an initiative to help students of any major in any program create startups in the UCF community. In a world where just going to college no longer guarantees a job, his primary goal, he says, is to let students know that entrepreneurship is a viable career path.

By some estimates, as many as 14.6 million Americans are self-employed, and numbers are growing. Some of these independent workers will be consultants, but many of them — given training, connections and capital — can be entrepreneurs. As large corporations strive for efficiency, these starters have the potential to drive growth in the American economy.

Like the student entrepreneurs he mentors, Ford has had to disrupt the marketplace in which he works. Rather than teach students in traditional classes, he and his team — faculty, staff and community advisers, plus the combined power of their networks — serve as guides.

“We aren’t here to tell them if an idea is good or bad,” Ford says, “but to align resources from throughout the university and the larger community.” Most of the time, that means providing resources in the form of advice, mentors and connections. “Every venture has different needs,” he says, “and advising is expensive and idiosyncratic. But that’s what it takes to turn ideas into businesses.”

“The skills that benefit an entrepreneur — focus, personal mission, personal accountability, personal passion — are the skills you need to be a professional.”


Learn the Skills You Need

“What Cameron [Ford] is doing is consistent with the main trends of business over the last 30 years and with the need for business education to catch up to the marketplace,” says Paul Jarley, dean of the College of Business Administration. “When I got to UCF [in 2012], I asked, ‘Who was the largest employer in the U.S. when the college was founded in 1963?’ The answer [was] GM. Back then, it would have been my job to get graduates jobs in companies like that, where they’d receive training, be placed in a department and spend the next 30 years working until they got the gold watch, the pension and health insurance for life. But the things that are rewarded today are differentiation and risk taking.”

Dr. Phillips Entrepreneur in Residence Michael Pape, who has extensive history in startups, explains, “Those of us in the ecosystem working with the students see entrepreneurship as a life skill. … What’s really different at UCF is that there is not a canonized curriculum. If you teach accounting, there’s a standard textbook, but when you get to entrepreneurship, there’s not a set way to teach. That’s what people have been trying to work through: How do you move ventures forward?”

To do so, he says, requires solving problems and taking risks — even if they don’t pan out.

Not all startups get started, for example. Sometimes the founders get busy with other things, stall out while raising capital or discover that their ideas aren’t as workable as they first seemed. But no one at UCF thinks any of that entrepreneurship training has been wasted.

“Being entrepreneurial is a skill you can develop, and you can be that way inside a company; it doesn’t have to be in your own firm,” says Associate Vice President for Research and Commercialization Tom O’Neal, ’95, who founded the UCF Technology Incubator in 1999, and today holds multiple executive roles in innovation foundations. “When I talk to people who are hiring, they want graduates who know 
a little bit more about business, more than just core competencies. They want people who understand entrepreneurial thinking,” he adds.

In departments such as engineering, where large companies still hire most of the graduates, those skills are a vital part of an education, according to Timothy Kotnour, director for engineering programs within UCF’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “The skills that benefit an entrepreneur — focus, personal mission, personal accountability, personal passion — are the skills you need to be a professional. If you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead a team.”


Ask for Feedback

“No one entering college is equipped to become a value creator, and precious few who graduate college are,” says Pam Hoelzle, associate director of UCF’s Blackstone LaunchPad, discussing a person who works with others for the benefit of a larger organization rather than for personal gain. “For the vitality of America, that has to change.”

Just off the Student Union’s bustling lobby, the LaunchPad — one of 22 similar programs at colleges across the country from UCLA to Cornell — is crowded most days at noon with hopeful UCF starters listening to Hoelzle and invited speakers. Students come to the LaunchPad with ideas inspired by their studies, hobbies or sometimes pulled out of the blue sky. For most, says Ford, it’s their first time learning about business from the ground up.

“We are a triage center,” says Hoelzle. “We assess where they are on the path and are constantly asking, ‘What do they need to learn next?’ ” While the LaunchPad connects students to resources, it also provides a safe place to practice entrepreneurial skills. A typical session begins with Hoelzle rather pointedly instructing students to introduce themselves to each other before the session begins, reminding them, “You never know who you’ll meet networking.”

In just more than two years of operation, the LaunchPad has hosted more than 5,000 students at lunchtime discussions, conducted some 3,300 one-on-one coaching sessions, and registered 1,355 startup ventures. Collectively, the most active of those ventures have raised $1.1 million in capital and hired 93 employees and 786 contractors. The top nine student ventures alone estimated annual sales of $10.1 million in 2015.

The LaunchPad isn’t the only point of entry into the startup ecosystem. The College of Business Administration’s weeklong Starter Riot of open houses, showcases and presentations attracts budding entrepreneurs, while the Joust New Venture Competition and similar programs lure those with more fully fleshed-out ideas. Competition winners are often shuttled into UCF incubators or given space in offices like StarterSpace.


Make Connections

“Business is a process of developing solutions,” says Ford. “It’s about evolving solutions over time as technology changes.” That statement applies to education as much as any other business, and education technology has been changing.

“The biggest thing that disrupted education is the Internet,” says Jarley. “[Information has] become commoditized. But perspective and relationships and experiences have not been commoditized, and the future of college education is about that.”

Providing perspective and relationships and experiences — the things that help students develop into individuals with (in business parlance) “unique value propositions” — requires individual attention. Notes Kotnour, “The whole journey is unique. What we’re trying to do is foster it in a way that’s unique for each person.”

But the question, says Pape, is how to provide individual attention yet gear it toward the many.

The solution lies in a robust back and forth. “The best learning happens when you’re sitting next to someone on a log and having a conversation with them; it’s been that way since Plato,” Jarley explains. “And one shouldn’t assume that the person on the log is a person with a Ph.D. behind their name — they can be community leaders, political leaders, people touching on the issues of the day.”

Hoelzle emphasizes that student entrepreneurs have to be the leaders. Starters in the program serve as fellows, bringing different skills, viewpoints and experiences — usually ones more in line with student entrepreneurs than Ph.D. advisers who are veterans of biotech startups. “Nothing has more influence than peers and predecessors,” says Ford. While big events like startup competitions motivate budding student entrepreneurs, they’re really more about compelling students to watch their peers take on the realities of the new business world.

“We want to teach students to see trends, marshal resources and take on risk, especially early in their lives,” Jarley says. “It’s not about whether they’ll start a new business tomorrow but about giving them the vision and tools to govern their own lives going forward.”


Meet the Starters

Teeps-mask-1

Teeps

Joshua Imel, ’14 and Terrence Donnelly
An app-building company that has hired one new employee a month for 16 months, and recorded $1 million in revenue in 2015 — all boot-strapped, with no help from investors

When you’re in that ecosystem, everyone’s at different stages. You hear stories about partners that didn’t work out or deals that didn’t close or losing investors. There’s so much knowledge floating around, I ended up applying all of that to help start Teeps.
Joshua Imel, ’14

UCF starter resources used:
Blackstone LaunchPad
Joust New Venture Competition


Jesse-mask-1

O’Dang Hummus

Jesse Wolfe, ’15
A line of hummus and salad dressings sold in Whole Foods and more than 400 Publix grocery stores in Florida

Entrepreneurship can be lonely. What UCF does is celebrate with you on those extremely good days and say, ‘What’s next? Let’s go!’ On the days you want to quit, they’re there to keep your head up. They keep you chasing your dreams.
Jesse Wolfe, ’15

UCF starter resources used:
Blackstone LaunchPad
Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership
Joust New Venture Competition
Starter Riot
StarterSpace
Upstarts Student Venture Accelerator


Feynman-mask-1

Feynman Nano

Jonathan Wachob and Brandon Carpenter
A fabrication technology that enables self-cleaning films for use in solar panels and other applications

STEM majors can make a huge difference — not for things like Uber and Airbnb, but for curing diseases or getting things into space more cheaply. We have to break down the belief that we have to wait for a business major to come around and make an idea into a business.
Jonathan Wachob

UCF starter resources used:
Blackstone LaunchPad
Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership
Joust New Venture Competition
Starter Lab
Upstarts Student Venture Accelerator


shoes3-mask-1

bSteps

Caroline Castille, ’15, and Odaimys Calderin, ’13

Revolutionizing dancewear with shoes that are ready for the studio and the street

LaunchPad offered help from every department, not just business. We got support from engineering, were connected to fashion club and swing club, and received support from all of them.
Caroline Castille, ’15

UCF starter resources used:

Blackstone LaunchPad
Joust New Venture Competition
StarterSpace
Upstarts Student Venture Accelerator