During the first One Semester Startup at the University of Texas, 75 students formed 20 companies.
Thursday night, the students behind those newly formed ventures pitched their startups to about 200 people, some students, university faculty, press, investors and entrepreneurs, gathered at the University of Texas stadium’s Red McCombs End Zone Club.
The pitches ranged from game apps to financial software to a solar powered car docking station to a new car company that wants to make 100 mile per gallon cars. The ideas centered around social networking, mobile and clean energy industries.
Professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise Bob Metcalfe led the class along with Joshua Baer, entrepreneur and computer science specialist and John Butler, director of H.K. Entrepreneurship Center.
The class focused on fostering entrepreneurship among undergraduates.
Throughout the semester, about 50 mentors volunteered their time to help the students. They also got to listen to advice from successful entrepreneurs like Michael Dell.
Dell, who founded his computer company in his UT dorm room and then dropped out, spoke to the class a few weeks ago and shared his entrepreneurial experiences during a question and answer session with Metcalfe.
Out of the 20 companies, two admitted Thursday night that they would not continue beyond the end of the semester.
Elben Shira with VisualKite, a social media dashboard for businesses to display tweets, check-ins and promotions, told the crowd that the team of three built and then tested the concept and then decided that it would not work.
“We couldn’t figure out a way to scale,” Shira said. “The value we could produce was not worth the cost.”
All three of the founders are graduating soon and they’re going to work for local startups. Shira, a senior in computer science, graduates in a few days and will go to work for Mass Relevance.
He hasn’t given up entirely on entrepreneurship.
“It’s always in my head,” he said. “I feel like it’s inevitable that it will happen.”
Shira wrote a blog post a long time ago blasting UT for doing a poor job of fostering student entrepreneurship. So when he heard about the class, he signed up right away.
Magis Isotopes, which involves the magnetic separation of isotopes, also bit the dust.
Mariel Bolhouse, a senior in biomedical engineering, worked with a physics professor on the idea, which she brought to One Semester Startup.
“We’re working hard today to solve yesterday’s problems tomorrow,” Bolhouse said during her pitch.
The university funded the venture with $400,000 in research money, but it will take three years before the technology is ready for commercialization. Bolhouse will graduate soon and move to San Francisco.
“I’m going to find another startup,” Bolhouse said. “It’s something that I enjoy doing.”
The experience she gained in class has ignited her entrepreneurial spirit.
“It was a really good learning experience,” Bolhouse said. “You get to learn the business by doing it.”
Solspot plans to continue on and is already working on a prototype of its electric vehicle solar car charging station.
“We believe the future is in solar energy,” Agee Springer, chief engineer for Solspot said. “We also believe the electric vehicle is part of that future.”
Solspot is working with an electric vehicle manufacturer in India to create its canopy car charging stations.
Solspot breaks ground Jan. 4th on its first prototype at the J.J. Pickle Research campus. The structure will be complete by the end of February, Springer said. He expects to have the final model in production by fall of 2012.
One Semester Startup gave Solspot connections to further its product.
“We had already been incorporated when we joined the class,” Springer said. “We were struggling to find our way and now we are way further along.”
To date, Solspot has bootstrapped its venture, but now the company is looking for angel funding, Springer said. One member of his team will participate in the next One Semester Startup, he said.
“It’s been a really fantastic experience,” he said.
Solspot also worked with mentor Julie Haugh, who runs a solar power monitoring systems company Greenhouse Computers. Her solar technology helped Solspot develop its product, Haugh said.
Predictable Data, which corrects, standardizes and appends missing database information for marketers, also plans to continue. The idea began when Dwayne Smurdon and Tye Harrison entered a hacking competition and came in second. They decided to take their idea into One Semester Startup. Smurdon, a senior majoring in psychology and computer science and Harrison, a senior in computer science, already have customers. When they graduate, they’ll work on the business full time. The class has helped them immensely through mentorships and building a network, Smurdon said.
“It’s helped us to meet the right people at the right time,” Smurdon said.
Ben Dyer, chairman of TechDrawl and a mentor, applauded the class overall.
“I thought this was an extraordinarily well done course,” Dyer said. “I think there will be several real companies that come out of this venture.”
Zilker Motors was one that Dyer helped mentor that he thinks has a bright future. The company headed up by Mark Wise, a senior in finance and Chinese, already has $50,000 in angel funding and its first customer. It’s building the Z-100, a car that can go 100 miles on one gallon of gasoline.
“They have a lot of momentum,” Dyer said. “They’re hell bent on making a successful business out of it.”
Zilker Motors needs $9 million to take its car to market. It’s currently raising stage one funding of $500,000 and another $500,000 during stage two, in which it plans to complete a prototype within 9 months. The cars will sell for about $55,000 to $60,000, Wise said. He needs to sell 1,080 to break even.
“What One Semester Startup has helped us do is get us involved in the local investment community,” Wise said. “Also, the wealth of knowledge and experience the mentors bring is just phenomenal.”
The next One Semester Startup begins in January and Baer, one of its creators, plans to change a few things. He wants to attract students who already have a company underway. He wants people who are passionately committed to their project.
“I think this class really exceeded my expectations in some ways. The university made it easy for us to work. Overall, I was impressed with the students” Baer said.
Some of the companies will get angel and venture funding to continue on, Baer said. A number of venture capitalists and angel investors attended the pitch session.
“A lot of these students were going to do this with or without the class,” Baer said. “The class didn’t make them do this.”
Next semester’s class will have fewer students and fewer companies, Metcalfe said. He’s looking for well formed teams to work on companies together. Some of the students in this class had varying levels of commitment to the project, he said.
Russell Hinds, an angel investor, mentor and managing director of RSH Ventures, thought a lot of the companies were too early in their development for funding, but he planned to follow a few.
“It’s like a rock band, you don’t know it’s going to last,” Hinds said.
But Hinds praised the students’ innovative ideas.
“It’s nice to be on the cutting edge of new ideas that are coming into this world,” Hinds said. “This is the birthing place for new ideas.”