Students on college campuses across the country are sporting an ergonomic single-strap backpack that redistributes weight evenly throughout the body to reduce stress on their backs.
A San Francisco, California–based company has created games that have reached the million-download mark.
Here in East Tennessee, a fitness business that addresses childhood obesity is making inroads at schools, and it’s working to train others to do so in their own communities.
All of these big ideas were brought to life by UT undergraduate students with the help of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Based in the College of Business Administration, the center aims to increase the number of successful entrepreneurs on campus and in the community. It helps students launch their own business early in their college career, gives them the opportunity to compete for seed funding, and connects them with mentors and resources—all critical components to becoming a thriving enterprise.
“It’s just inspiring to see that the university has a program for students to create their own businesses and gives them a chance to think outside the box,” says Jake Baron, creator of Casenova ergonomic backpacks. “Seeing other students creating businesses made me think I could do it, too.”
The idea for a helping hand came about in 2008 when former College of Business Administration Dean Jan Williams recruited Tom Graves, a retired Caterpillar executive, to establish a new venture-creation curriculum for undergraduates.
In 2010, the center was named the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation following a generous gift from Charlie and Moll Anderson. Lynn Youngs became executive director and Graves stepped in as operations director. At that time, UT also became part of the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers—an association of 200 universities around the globe that share best practices and foster entrepreneurship education.
Out of the Anderson Center grew three programs that provide seed grants to budding businesses: the undergraduate business plan, which is open to all students across campus; the Boyd Venture Fund for student-owned businesses; and Vol Court, which is open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and the East Tennessee community.
The center’s mission is twofold: developing talent and contributing to the “entrepreneurial ecosystem of the region,” Graves says.
“We have found that entrepreneurs typically stay where they start their first businesses,” he says. “The idea is to have them stay in East Tennessee. They create jobs, add value to the community, and become major supporters of charities and universities.”
Early on, a few students approached Graves about having a business plan competition for all undergraduates. Now in its sixth year, the competition has awarded grants to student ventures from a variety of majors and departments.
That’s how Aron Beierschmitt, of Oak Ridge, a 2013 political science graduate, connected with Graves and the Anderson Center. In February 2009, he created Foundation Mobile, a company that develops games for smartphones. He won second place in the competition and $3,000 to boost his company.
The company’s watershed moment came when Beierschmitt created Lumi, which was named the Apple Game of the Week and Editor’s Choice in January 2012.
Beierschmitt drew angel investors who have pumped almost $1 million into the business. His company, now called Foundation Games, has released six other titles, two of which have hit the million-download mark.
The startup has 50 full-time employees, including coders, developers, and designers in California, Australia, the Philippines, and Pakistan.
Throughout the process, Beierschmitt often turned to Graves for advice.
“It’s very isolating being an entrepreneur,” Beierschmitt says. “There had been this period when we were three to six months from running out of money but we couldn’t tell employees that. Mr. Graves has been there and done that so he was helpful to talk with.”
The experience of pitching at UT’s business competition gave him confidence in seeking and winning over investors. He was prepared to answer tough questions. He eventually would like to sell the company and become an investor, so he can mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes through Foundation Games, and I want to help other young entrepreneurs avoid them,” Beierschmitt says.
Getting It Right
Trial and error are an undeniable part of starting a business, and the Anderson Center helps students understand those risks. For every student idea that has taken off, there are just as many that didn’t succeed—it’s part of the learning process.
“We tell our students, ‘There is no such thing as failure, only feedback,’” Graves says.
Baron’s Casenova backpack had twenty-two iterations before finding the right material. While in China for a study abroad experience, Baron connected with a manufacturer. The backpacks are selling online and in college bookstores in Utah, Florida and Texas. A patent is being finalized. He plans to add laptop and iPhone cases and eventually expand into the military market.
Sometimes, students have had to completely revamp their ideas to make them viable.
Stacy Scott developed the PowerUp Fitness program to help children enjoy exercise and attack obesity. Her objective was to train teachers on how to use the program. Through Anderson Center-provided mentors, the Memphis native discovered that her business model should include certifying others as trainers, not doing it all herself.
She won a grant from the Boyd Venture Fund and through the Anderson Center found mentors who helped modify her business plan and financial projections.
“I have no background in business so that was the biggest learning curve,” says Scott, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science in 2010 and master’s in kinesiology in 2012.
Scott now has forty-one trained instructors. She also has trained many of the teachers in Monroe, Loudon, and Roane County Schools on how to incorporate physical education into the school day.
Mentors are integral to student success, whether it’s for finding additional sources of funding or creating long-term plans, she says.
“As a young entrepreneur, that’s the kind of thing you need,” she says. “Working with people who have done it in the real world is a source you can trust. You know you can disclose your ideas and finances because they’re not going to be stolen.”
Budding entrepreneurs often develop great ideas but do not have the technical skills to implement them, Graves says. The Anderson Center encourages students to build teams of people with a variety of skills. It also introduces them to area resources like the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center that can put them in touch with services to grow their company.
Graves is convinced the entrepreneurship mindset can be fostered in students long before they arrive at UT. As a result, the Anderson Center hosted its first summer camp for high school students in 2012.
The center also has a learning community, where freshmen of various majors live together in Hess Hall and take a 100-level class focused on the foundations of entrepreneurship, including business idea creation, vetting, and business plan development.
Getting a business off the ground in college is the best place to begin because of the free resources available to students, says UT senior Jake Rheude, founder of SummerSett Foods. Its signature products are the Momma Rudy’s line of buffalo chicken dips.
Through Boyd Venture grants, Rheude has benefitted from free legal, accounting, and consultants’ advice. He’s also had access to market research, which ordinarily costs upward of $70,000.
By the time the marketing major graduates in May 2014, he anticipates the company being fully operational. The Momma Rudy’s line of products will be launching in early spring at a select group of Pilot convenience stores.
The $25,000 he won at UT helped him and a business partner sponsor a contest among chefs in training at the Chef’s Academy in Indianapolis. The winner created the recipes for his dips. He’s now working on finding more investors to launch the company.
“In my generation, there’s a lack of ‘why not start something?’’ Rheude says. “I have no kids, no mortgage. I have a dog. Why not take this risk now when I don’t have those responsibilities? College is the perfect time to do so.”