According to a recent study, 53 percent of working Americans have considered starting their own businesses. But how do individuals make the transition from an aspiring to a full-time entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurship faculty members in the UTSA College of Business have devised an innovative curriculum that combines both academic and experiential components to provide students with the education, experience and exposure that they need to be successful entrepreneurs.
“Entrepreneurs need to be passionate about learning how an idea can transform into a company,” said Anita Leffel, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship. “We want to bring out the entrepreneurial intent in students.”
Blending academic content with the real-world realities of starting a business, entrepreneurship faculty not only educate students about the essentials of becoming an entrepreneur, but also require that students participate in a start-up venture before graduating.
As seniors, entrepreneurship majors enroll in a practicum course taught by Leffel. The class culminates in the creation of a business plan for the $100,000 Student Technology Venture Competition sponsored by the UTSA Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship (CITE).
UTSA established the semi-annual competition in 2007 when it observed that its engineering students were developing new technologies, and its business students were writing business plans, but neither group continued their efforts beyond turning in their projects for a grade.
Financed by the Texas Research & Technology Foundation, the competition also receives support from Cox | Smith, the San Antonio Technology Center, Rackspace, the UTSA colleges of Business and Engineering and the UTSA Vice President for Research.
“Being an entrepreneur is more about action than analysis,” said Cory Hallam, director of CITE and assistant professor of entrepreneurship. “CITE’s programs are focused on using analysis to drive action, and that is the key to launching new business ventures. We are helping to unlock the inner entrepreneur in our students.”
In the classroom students follow the Stanford roadmap for taking an innovative product to market. They divide into teams of three, select the prototype they’ll be working with and meet with a professional mentor.
“My last semester was my toughest at UTSA,” said Lauren Anzaldua, ’13, vice president of operations for Cyclosa, a second place finisher in the 2013 competition. Her team invented a gear shifter that works on both chain and belt-driven bicycles and is lighter, quieter, stronger and more efficient than traditional shifters.
“I was trying to launch a business and compete in the competition. We learned by doing. How do you get a sales tax permit? How do you legally structure your company? It was all hands-on.”
In addition to the academic lessons, the teams must blog about their progress, provide weekly updates to the class and spend countless hours outside of the classroom talking with potential customers, manufacturers and lawyers. Their final assignment is a six-minute pitch and a fully-developed business plan.
“The heart of the class simulates the dynamics of a real startup: chaos, uncertainty, impossible deadlines and conflicting input,” said Leffel. “The concept is to make this so hands-on that they are ready for the real world. We’re providing them with the platform to experiment with a built-in safety jacket.”
With the competition in place, UTSA’s students are now developing marketable technologies, forming viable new companies based on those technologies and launching them in UTSA’s incubator program. Recent competition participant Justin Stultz, ’13 has turned this class project into a full-time job.
Stultz and his Leto Solutions teammates completed the business plan for Aquilonix, a thermoelectric cooling system that adds comfort and improves hygiene for prostheses users.
“The UTSA entrepreneurship program gives students real-world experience, the ability to network with like-minded students and the opportunity to have access to mentors who have decades of experience in the industry,” said Stultz, regional sales manager for Leto Solutions.
The teams are judged by local academic, business and entrepreneurial experts on their technology, business plan and presentation. At the close of the daylong competition, the winning teams have the opportunity to pitch their companies to potential investors.
In addition to a cash prize, the winning teams receive consulting services, marketing services, office space and other benefits to support them in getting their projects off the ground. The competition now offers the largest award of all undergraduate business planning competitions in the nation.
Daniel Mendez, a 2010 mechanical engineering graduate and current MBA student, won the competition his senior year.
“The competition taught me to fully understand the market that you’re trying to serve,” said Mendez, founder and chief technology officer of Invictus Medical. “It is also important to realize that you don’t know what you don’t know. I had the passion, the statistics, the data, but not the experience. The most important thing that I did was hire a senior leadership team.”
“This is one of the best programs in the U.S., and over the years I have seen the quality and caliber of the companies and presentations grow tremendously,” said Randy Goldsmith, investor-in-residence at The Texas Technology Development Center and CITE competition judge. “We have had the opportunity to fund the first-place winner from four competitions ago, and we are seriously considering funding the other winners as well.”
Since the competition’s inception, 650 students have participated, more than 85 company ideas have been pitched and a dozen patent applications have been filed.
“While nothing can fully prepare someone for how much work is involved in starting a business, the skills that we have learned as part of our entrepreneurship program help make the transition to the real world a lot less scary,” Stultz concluded.
“I’ve learned to ask the right questions,” said Anzaldua, who is also launching Indigenous, an online high-end clothing boutique with a social conscience. “This program gives entrepreneurship students an advantage.”
While the results are apparent, what means the most to Leffel is that the students and alumni are developing their own entrepreneurial ecosystem. “They are networking with each other to further their business development. That is the most valuable outcome of this program.”