Tim DenOuden felt his nerves start to fray as he waited for his turn to take center stage.
The junior majoring in computer information systems was part of a trio competing in the Bronco Startup Challenge, sponsored by Poly Founders, Collegiate Entrepreneurship Organization (CEO), the College of Business Administration, and the Student Innovation Idea Lab (iLab). Only one member of DenOuden’s BioScope team could be the representative on stage. The team practiced power stances backstage, making their bodies ramrod straight with their fists firmly planted on their waists to build confidence.
When DenOuden walked on stage, he managed to subdue his nervous energy. At the end, BioScope was the first place winner of the $10,000 prize for a device that attaches to a cellphone and turns it into a microscope, and DenOuden and his teammates were about to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality.
“It was kind of a blur,” he said of the two-minute presentation. “The iLab was helpful because we did a mini competition to see who got into the Bronco Startup Challenge. They made it more realistic by bringing in people with real-world experience.”
Heading into this year’s Bronco Startup Challenge on May 18, aspiring entrepreneurs received extra guidance and preparation at the iLab’s inaugural iStartup Academy. The seven-week, non-credit course taught participants about the ins and outs of entrepreneurship.
After learning how to come up with a marketable product, conduct research and make a pitch to potential investors, academy members competed to see who would be selected to participate in the Bronco Startup Challenge.
Olukemi Sawyerr, director of the iLab, said the entrepreneurial spirit is thriving at Cal Poly Pomona. The 24-Hour Hackathon, Hackpoly, an innovation challenge for budding entrepreneurs put on by Poly Founders, drew around 600 participants. A startup weekend challenge last year put on by CEO and the iLab attracted 110 applicants and the seven-week Startup Academy run by the iLab and the CBA’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation drew 45 entrepreneurs even though students would not receive course credit.
“There is a real desire amongst our students to learn how to start their own business,” Sawyerr said. “There is a certain element of the Cal Poly Pomona culture that makes entrepreneurship attractive.”
Although the university has been holding the Bronco Startup Challenge for six years, organizers discovered last year that a lot of teams wanted to participate but didn’t know how to complete their submissions.
Non-business majors were at a disadvantage because they didn’t know how to calculate financial projections, identify target markets and project sales figures, Sawyerr said.
That’s why the idea for the iStartup Academy was conceived.
“We had to provide more help to students,” she said.
The academy included mentoring by business professionals, networking with entrepreneurs and learning how to pitch to prospective investors. Course presentation topics ranged from searching for a business model to developing a product to financing an idea. Participants received a certificate of completion.
For DenOuden and his BioScope teammates Alec Hasegawa, a junior mechanical engineering student, and Lauren Keyes, a junior majoring in physics, the iStartup Academy helped them sharpen their product pitching skills.
The trio entered the academy as a team. They developed their device, which couples with a smartphone to become a microscope, about a year ago as part of the College of Business Administration’s NASA-CPP Business Startup Program, which includes a technology commercialization course.
Keyes said she didn’t have any marketing experience before she got involved in NASA-CPP and the iStartup Academy. She had asked a professor to recommend a research project she could get involved in and he suggested NASA-CPP.
“I had no idea what it was,” she said. “As it went along, I liked it more and more and got excited about the business aspect of things.”
Vincent Hsiao, a fellow participant in the NASA-CPP program, also was enrolled in in the iStartup Academy. His team, StraightUp, finished third in the Bronco Startup Challenge for a wearable device that coaches users to having a better posture. Hsiao believes that having good posture can relieve back pain, fatigue, and overall stress.
Hsiao, a junior majoring in international business and marketing, said he has always been entrepreneurial, but programs such as NASA-CPP and the iStartup Academy helped provide him with resources and tools for the next steps in his career path.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said of participating in the academy and the Bronco Startup Challenge. “Participating in all of the other previous events on campus helped prepare me for the Bronco Startup Challenge. First place would have been nice, but more importantly, we were able to gain awareness and get feedback from presenters, judges and investors to help us launch our business.”
The top ten teams that pitched in the Bronco Startup Challenge were invited to participate in a 12-week summer program sponsored by the iLab to further develop their business ideas. The program will be taught by Mike Miller, co-founder of Wild Horse Labs. BioScope and StraightUp, along with Plastic Crafted and UFO, will participate in summer pre-incubator program.
Bronco Startup Challenge Awardees:
First Place ($10,000 prize) – BioScope, a combination of a microscope and mobile application that is as powerful as a lab microscope, affordable and portable.
Second Place ($3,000 prize) – HoloNext, a web-based platform that allows uses to personalize photos and 360-degree videos with a simple click.
Third Place ($1,500 prize) – StraightUp, a health management device that provides the user with accurate data tracking, live feedback and 3D visuals of the spine’s curvature.
Wen Chang Award for Most Scalable ($1,000 prize) – UFO (Unidentified Fidgeting Object), a stress relief and focus aid that’s customizable to the user’s fidgeting needs.
Crowd Favorite ($500 prize) – MaxRep, a fitness tracking device that attaches directly to the weights at the gym and records workout information.
SACS – a service that allows college students to turn their textbooks into a business by renting out their previously purchased textbooks every quarter to future students.
Plastic Crafted – eyewear made out of non-virgin plastic to clean up the ocean and the streets.
Work Foundry – helps businesses and individuals improve relationships and communication skills in the workplace through an interactive training website and mobile application.
Mobile Mechanics – a mobile application platform that connects the customer and the mechanics where customers can request auto repair services at their location with price fairness, quality and time convenience.
Fantom – In collaboration with NASA engineers, innovated the structure of a fan based upon an existing NASA wing technology.