The week of August 17, 2014

Meet the students behind 4 promising tech startups

By Dell

Dell has empowered communities, customers, and people everywhere to use technology to realize their dreams. Customers trust us to deliver technology solutions that help them do and achieve more, whether they’re at school, work, home, or anywhere in their world.

A college education has always been a means to an end. After putting in the time it takes to earn a degree, there’s the expectation of job interviews and an eventual career on the other side. These days, however, there’s no guarantee.

That’s why collegiate entrepreneurship programs, like the ones offered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center and the University of Southern California’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, aim to provide students with real-life startup experience, the kind that will directly affect their future. Graduates of these institutions can leave school with a business plan, seed funding, and the opportunity to lead a company they founded.

Alex McKelvie, chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises at Syracuse University, says every Whitman School of Management student has the opportunity to raise seed money—a securities offering that allows investors to purchase part of a business—even those outside the entrepreneurship track. Business majors, from marketing to economics, are required to take an entrepreneurship capstone class to learn how to pitch and ask for a $100,000 investment.

“In the past month, two of our students have secured $300,000 and $500,000 from angel investors,” McKelvie said.

While entrepreneurship programs were few and far between when Michael Dell founded PCs Unlimited at the University of Texas in 1984, the Snider and Greif Centers have been around since the early 1970s, respectively producing graduates as diverse as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff. Three decades later, so many of these programs exist that the Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine are able to publish top 25 lists at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

“Entrepreneurship provides the opportunity today to determine how the history books of tomorrow will be written.”

“I believe this generation, more than any other generation in the past, are more independent,” said Albert Napoli, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the Greif Center. “They do not like the structure of corporate America and want to be the masters of their own destiny.”

McKelvie added that students interested in entrepreneurship aren’t thinking about who they want to be when they grow up—they’re thinking about who they can be now.

“Students don’t want to learn from Steve Jobs or Bill Gates anymore,” McKevlie said. “They want to learn from people their own age.”

While these students may share some of the same reasons for wanting to be an entrepreneur, how they’ve approached entrepreneurship has been drastically different.

The Kernel spoke with six students to learn more about their individual career tracks.

James Shomar, Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises, Syracuse University

Graduate student James Shomar, 24, is CEO of Solstice Power, a high-efficiency heat and solar technology product designed to reduce the total energy costs of large energy-consuming markets. For Shomar, the attraction to entrepreneurship was largely cultural.

“I’m a first-generation American,” Shomar said. “My father was born in Lebanon, and my grandparents are Palestinian, meaning I come from a family that survived two civil wars before immigrating to the U.S. To have been raised with that background truly helped provide a humbling perspective of just how incredible the opportunity I’ve been given is.”

“I believe this generation, more than any other generation in the past, are more independent.”

Inspired to explore the renewable energy space while learning about the limitations of solar technology in an undergraduate sustainability class, Shomar’s drive to be an entrepreneur is chiefly altruistic.

“It’s great to be able to sell a widget for this or an app for that, but [entrepreneurship] is much, much more than that,” he said. “Entrepreneurship provides the opportunity today to determine how the history books of tomorrow will be written. It’s the way to turn revolutionary thinking into reality. To really shift the current paradigm, to truly shape systemic change, entrepreneurship provides the best platform to innovate.”

Shomar saw an opportunity for solar power in the industrial space and, with help from partners who are graduate engineering students, developed proprietary technology that offers three times the efficiency of conventional flat panels. As a result, Solstice Power’s product can supply the majority of a customer’s total energy at lower effective prices than traditional utility companies.

Shomar and Solstice Power recently won a $5,000 Fetner Prize for Sustainable Enterprise after competing in the 2013 Panasci Business Plan competition. Next up: vying for the $1 million prize in October’s 43North business competition. So far Solstice Power has edged out almost 7,000 entrepreneurs to be one of the 113 semifinalists. With two more rounds to go, the stakes are high. Shomar said winning the prize would provide him with the capital he needs to get to a production stage.

Photo of Evan Lodge (left) and Rob Hunter via Ted Fitzgerald/Boston Herald

Rob Hunter and Evan Lodge, Arthur M. Blank School for Entrepreneurship, Babson College

Entrepreneurship came instinctually to HigherMe’s Rob Hunter. At age 12, he signed up for eBay to sell VHS tapes and DVDs to customers worldwide, something he did all the way through high school.

“The VHS tape sales led to investing in real estate, the investing in real estate led to opening an ice cream store, the opening of an ice cream store led to the opening of seven ice cream stores, the failure of many of those stores led me to come to Babson and coming to Babson led me to starting HigherMe,” said Hunter, now 29. “It’s just always been a part of who I am—there was never a conscious decision to become an entrepreneur.”

Hunter’s partner in HigherMe is 29-year-old Evan Lodge, who says he met Hunter through Facebook while conducting a housing search prior to entering Babson’s MBA program. They bonded over a few episodes of Shark Tank and over time stumbled upon an idea that leveraged Hunter’s business experience and Lodge’s IT background.

The resulting collaboration, HigherMe, is a service that uses data and video to help retail and service employers find, screen, and hire better employees faster. Hunter feels they’re solving a problem he constantly struggled with as a small-business owner.

“There’s no good way to find employees for a retail store or restaurant,” Hunter said. “With my stores, I used to post a job on Craigslist and would get over 100 applicants that all looked exactly the same. There are a lot of job boards that help you find employees—and a lot of software tools that help you screen employees—but nobody has really bridged the gap, especially for retail and hourly employees.”

While Hunter and Lodge have already won two pitch competitions that netted them $30,000 in prize money, a potentially big boon could come this October. The HigherMe team will be wrapping up their residency at the MassChallenge accelerator and are in contention for one of its $100,000 prizes.


Sydney Liu, Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, University of Southern California (USC)

Nineteen-year-old TalentTrail CEO Sydney Liu’s path to entrepreneurship started in an unlikely place: the NorCal chess league.

“Growing up in a very science-oriented family, I was always primed to go the route of medical school,” said Liu (pictured above). “During my junior year, I began to realize I was much less passionate about biology and chemistry than others who were on the same track. What I really enjoyed doing was running the NorCal Chess League, an organization that I had started my freshman year of high school. If you talked to me about the chess league, you’d see my eyes light up. People told me that I should look into entrepreneurship because of my experience with the league.”

After spending several hours watching Jason Nazar’s entrepreneurship videos, Liu was hooked. While evaluating which business schools he wanted to apply to, Liu came to believe he’d best thrive in L.A.’s burgeoning startup scene and chose to enter the Computer Science and Business Administration program run by USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering.

Despite his relatively short time at USC, Liu’s company is off to a strong start. The algorithm-based service, which uses personality traits and other metrics to match interns with internships, has already won roughly $8,000 in prizes from the New Ventures Seed Competition and other events.

Currently in alpha test with a few hundred students and a dozen companies, TalentTrail will be rolling out in the Los Angeles area this fall with about 50 companies, including some nationally known names.

Logan Brown and Bradley Roofner, Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, the University of Texas at Austin

For these 21-year-old entrepreneurs, starting one business isn’t enough. After founding HatTee—a line of golf hats with built-in tee holders—Logan Brown and Bradley Roofner set to work on a hedge fund inspired by Warren Buffett’s philosophy of buying stocks for less than they’re worth. They’re not stopping there, either.

“Throughout our academic career, we’ve made it a priority to take complementary classes and develop skill sets compatible for a strong partnership post-graduation,” said Roofner.

The duo’s initial collaboration, HatTee, was intended to be the first of many projects Brown and Roofner would tackle together. From the get-go, they planned to license their intellectual property to someone else. To prove out their concept, they developed prototypes in their dorm rooms, set up a local supply chain, and talked with retailers. Three years after coming up with the idea for HatTee, the partners say they’re working toward a deal with a sports apparel company.

So what’s next for the pair after they graduate this May? Brown mentioned he and Roofner have already begun working on a mobile-trading application now that the grunt work for their hedge fund is complete. “HatTee was an entrepreneurial stepping-stone to bigger and better things,” said Brown. “We want to be on the capital allocation side as well as the startup side.”

Brown and Roofner’s preference to move from one idea to the next highlights the appeal of entrepreneurship—the ability to work on whatever you’re passionate about at that moment.

That’s something most schools take into account when building out their entrepreneurial curricula. McKelvie likened Syracuse’s program to educational cross-training. He said “entrepreneurship is dealing with uncertainty” and to pursue it you need to fully understand every aspect of business, from engineering to manufacturing to consumer psychology.

Napoli echoed McKelvie’s sentiment when he spoke about how USC prepares their students: The skills they teach “are what successful entrepreneurs use every day” to launch their respective businesses, whatever that may be.

“At the Greif Center we believe that you bet on the jockey and not the horse,” Napoli said.


Photo via Will Folsom/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)