Student entrepreneur ecosystem combats lack of structure


Mark Capapas

Cody Bainbridge, sophomore in Engineering, buys coffee from the Robot x Coffee Machine outside of Grainger on Apr. 14. The robot serves between 100 to 200 cups a day.

By Ethan Simmons, Staff Writer

The entrepreneurship community at Illinois has plenty of resources but lacks connective tissue.

According to entrepreneurship figures on campus, students stagnate while shuffling between these resources, inching closer to the dreaded “wantrepreneur” stereotype: All talk, no action.

Manu Edakara directs the iVenture Accelerator, an incubator for rising student startups on the Illinois campus. iVenture provides funding and training for rising projects in yearly cohorts.

“What I’ve noticed is a large influx of students who are quick to call themselves founders, CEOs, and attend a lot of feel-good programs, where students might be entrepreneurial but not necessarily an entrepreneur,” Edakara said.

Noah Isserman, faculty director of the iVenture Accelerator, said the term wantrepreneur doesn’t accurately describe students, who may be too busy with classes to start a venture.

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    Isserman said the glamorization of entrepreneurship is more so the problem among young founders.

    “As the barriers to put up a website and call yourself a CEO are approaching zero at this point, I think that it does create a new challenge for when you’re trying to support seriously motivated, seriously interested student startups,” Isserman said.

    Nick Arnett leads the 1517 Fund, a San Francisco-based accelerator for young founders. He sees young wantrepreneurship as a perception problem created by media portrayals.

    “Ever since the media and the entertainment industry started to glamorize Silicon Valley, glamorize startups, you certainly had an uptick in people who wanted to be the founder of the next Facebook but didn’t really know how tough of a journey that can be,” Arnett said.

    The perception of most successful entrepreneurs being college-age whiz-kids is patently false. According to an April 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average age of a successful founder is 45 years old. Only 10% of the highest-growth startups are helmed by founders under 30 years old.

    Connecting the ecosystem

    At the University of Illinois, there are eight main organizations for entrepreneurship, three more student organizations and dozens of recurring startup events on campus.

    According to Michael Usachenko, president of student entrepreneur group Founders and senior in engineering, the Illinois “entrepreneurship ecosystem” lacks structure.

    “Right now when someone starts a startup, they’re still up in the air,” said Usachenko. “There’s this inherent lack of a pipeline, and that’s what Founders is trying to build out.”

    Stephanie Larson, associate director for the Technology Entrepreneur Center, said she wasn’t aware of the problem until a student made a blog post mapping out all of the campus entrepreneurship resources.

    “We were like ‘come on guys, we should be able to do this ourselves’,” Larson said.

    In August of last year, Larson and representatives from the other seven campus entrepreneurship groups met to synthesize the “Ecosystem at a Glance.” They finished it in a little over an hour.

    The challenge lies in how differently these resources are applied. Founders’ events like the 54 startup weekend are geared for beginners, while incubators like the iVenture Accelerator and iCore are meant for student startups with significant traction.

    “What we’re trying to do as an ecosystem is have more ways to link all the different things that are happening across campus,” Edakara said.

    Using the resource web

    Connecting the ecosystem on campus is critical because when student startups make full use of the University’s entrepreneur resources success stories have followed.

    Two years ago, Mark Van den Avont, a junior in engineering, broke his spine in a gymnastics accident. This incident inspired him to found HexNest, a startup looking to prevent injuries with safer sports mats.

    Since founding in the fall of 2017, Van den Avont has made full use of campus resources. He joined the 2018-19 cohort for iVenture, won the $10,000 second-place prize in last year’s Cozad New Venture competition, and won $1,500 at Founders’ Forge startup weekend a month ago.

    “We’re spending a lot of money just on engineering. Every day, every week there’s something that we need. So this money is going to go right to use and is going to help us build our product,” Van den Avont said after winning first prize at Forge.

    YummyFuture, a U of I student-led automation business, was picked up by Y Combinator last April, a startup accelerator that invests in early-stage companies. Their first product is an automated coffee shop, where a robotic arm prepares espresso products for customers.

    Founder Guangzhe Cui and his team first set up their coffee-bot late last semester in front of Grainger Library. The Founders RSO noticed their innovative technology and invited them to a startup career fair.

    From there, the YummyFuture team went through the iVenture Accelerator and won an Amazon Alexa voice control unit for their machine through the Cozad competition.

    Student struggles

    Even when young entrepreneurs get their ideas up and running, there’s a host of common issues they run into. The proverbial “product-market fit” snares many student startups early on.

    Resonae is a two-month-old student startup on the Illinois campus. Students Megha Natarajan, Jessica Yoon, Angela Yoon and 2019 graduate Tredayne Cabanlit won $1,000 at the 54 Startup Weekend competition in October, successfully pitching their idea after only three days of work.

    Originally named Sullivan, the team conceived an application that would teach the deaf how to speak, providing visual feedback on the sounds users spoke into their mobile devices.

    However, after reaching out to Disability Resources & Education Services on campus, they learned their product was “potentially offensive” to the deaf community and would solve a problem that was already fixed with American Sign Language.

    “We don’t have any connection to the deaf community, we’ve never talked with them, we don’t have any relatives that are deaf. We came in there like ‘we want to help them’ when we haven’t gotten any input from them,” Natarajan said.

    After a successful bout of customer discovery, the team pivoted. Instead, they’d use their proposed voice technology to help language-learners master tough foreign syllables.

    “I’m really thankful to DRES for pointing that out before anyone was hurt by it,” Jessica Yoon said.

    Venture capitalists across the board preach the same starting step for students. Talk to your potential customers.

    “Try to get a sense of how big of a problem is this really, because you may get to the point where you have the product and find out people aren’t really interested in paying for it,” Arnett said.

    Moving forward

    There are a few measures in place to bring the campus entrepreneurship community closer together, and steer students away from wantrepreneurship.

    SocialFuse is a monthly event that connects students with startup ideas to students that have the skills to make them happen. It’s essentially startup speed dating.

    “A lot of times business students have an idea but can’t code, while engineering students might have the skills to make an idea happen. We started SocialFuse for that reason,” Larson said.

    Founders’ Usachenko is working on a “pipeline portal” for student startups, where new founders can register their startup and move through the ecosystem chronologically.

    As for the wantrepreneur idea, Usachenko preaches caution when applying the label.

    “You could define me as a wantrepreneur. I have stuff I want to build, I just can’t focus on them right now.” Usachenko said. “A more productive definition of this term would be someone who’s started something, has a landing page, you put on a big show but there’s no substance behind what you’re doing and you’re stuck in the same place for a long time but you still say you’re an entrepreneur.”

    Aside from team assemblage, access to capital or using the proper resources, successful entrepreneurship almost always starts with a good idea, one where the founders have felt their customers’ pain.

    “Most startups don’t make it. Most startups fail. The founders that have an emotional investment in solving that problem, that problem is what keeps them up at night. Those are the ones that will push through the bad times and the good days,” Arnett said.

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