Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is The BusinessMakers Show, coming to you today from the offices of our partner, PKF Texas, and my guest is Shelly Brenckman, Startup Aggieland Marketing Coordinator, and Mays lecturer. Shelly, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Shelly: Thank you, Russ.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Startup Aggieland.
Shelly: Startup Aggieland is the culmination of a lot of different schools on campus, a lot of different colleges have come together to create a cross college program, lifting up all the students who are interested in exploring entrepreneurship and executing on their ideas.
Russ: Ok, so in 2016 I imagine there should be quite a few that are interested in entrepreneurship.
Shelly: That is correct. In the three years that we have been actually open, we have seen a huge cultural shift on campus and in the community as a result of the work that our students are doing and that our faculty are doing through Startup Aggieland.
Russ: Is there actually curriculum and even a degree plan, or a minor or something in entrepreneurship offered?
Shelly: We wish there was a degree plan in entrepreneurship. There is a movement on campus to pursue entrepreneurship as a career path, but right now we are pursuing a minor in entrepreneurship.
Russ: So how many students are in the program today?
Shelly: In Startup Aggieland, we physically touch about 1500 students.
Russ: So, are there actual courses, curriculum?
Shelly: There are. There are actual courses and we’re tying them all together under the umbrella of the Center for New Ventures in Entrepreneurship. We have a lot of cross listed courses with engineering, with architecture, with health science, with liberal arts, and they all tie in through Mays Business School.
Russ: Alright, so I guess it’s just an undergrad program?
Shelly: It used to be an undergrad program, Russ. When we first started out it was mostly undergraduates and when we first opened it was all male, and then we slowly started adding a lot of females. We’re about half females now, half male, but we’re also graduate students, Ph.D. students, and post docs, and this summer starting in May we recently opened the doors to faculty and former students.
Russ: Oh, my goodness. Isn’t that kind of unique in the category of what you do?
Shelly: It may be, I don’t know. We’ve been making this up as we go along and it seems to be working well. What it does is it brings a lot of high energy to a team, and it brings a lot of expertise, and it makes the teams more sustainable in their launch of a startup.
Russ: Sure. I’m sure it does. So, give me an example of bringing in a former student.
Shelly: Well, interestingly enough, there’s a new pilot program where we are putting rooms into a dorm for our guest entrepreneurs to stay the night or two or three nights, and we have mentors in our program. We have a stable of 100 mentors, about 40 local, but we also have Aggie mentors who are flying in at their own expense, like Nathan Day, the former CTO of SoftLayer. We have Brian Kralyevich, the current Vice President of UX at Amazon in Seattle. He has come down several times. They work with our teams, they don’t take equity, we don’t take equity, we don’t own intellectual property. That belongs to the students or the faculty. The faculty have an agreement with the university that it’s licensed, but what we do is we just use the Aggie network. We tap into the Aggie network and the Texas network to prop these startups up and we work with other universities as needed to help their startups as well. I’ve worked with startups at UT several times.
Russ: Are you telling me you’ll let Longhorns come in and out of the…
Shelly: It’s all about the state. It’s all about the state of Texas.
Russ: Well that is so impressive. That’s pretty cool; pretty unusual.
Shelly: It’s a lot of fun.
Russ: And you are a lecturer in the Mays Business School, as you and I were talking about beforehand. I interviewed Lowry Mays; what a guy.
Shelly: Yes, Lowry has been a big supporter
Russ: That’s fantastic. So what do you lecture on?
Shelly: Introduction to Entrepreneurship, and it’s for freshman in our dormcubator program.
Russ: Ok, dormcubator.
Russ: I’ve been reading about that. Tell us about the dormcubator.
Shelly: The dormcubator actually came out of an idea that I put forth in CNVE, the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship’s annual Raymond Ideas Challenge. And I was a non-traditional student at the time, so that was 2012. I wanted to make sure the idea got out into the public domain, so I entered it into Ideas Challenge as House of Geekdom, and Graham Weston, an Aggie who at the time was Chairman of Rackspace, supported the concept as a freestanding program for students who are like minded and wanted to live together, play together, and work together.
Russ: And that’s what is exactly happening today.
Shelly: And that is exactly what is happening today.
Russ: I mean is it a section of an existing dorm?
Shelly: It is. We occupy the 5th floor. They put us up high because it’s quiet up there. We commandeered one of the lounges; labeled it, branded it with Startup Aggieland as the dormcubator, have our popup banner there, have entrepreneurship magazines, all the fun things that go, kind of the trappings that go with gaming and entrepreneurship, and our students come together in that lounge for fireside chats. We bring in startups of different degrees, from beginning stage to later stage and the founders. We’ll talk to them on Sunday nights over pizza while the students are sort of in their casual clothes, pj pants and things like that.
Russ: My goodness. So, what do you have to do to qualify to be part of the dormcubator?
Shelly: It is very competitive. It is very competitive. We get applications from all over the United States and a few countries. We’re about to expand that program, the dormcubator, we need to scale it up because we’re rejecting some great students for lack of space. To get into it you have to apply.
Russ: Ok. Do you have to already have sort of like a business idea or business plan? Or can you just say I’m just interested in entrepreneurship?
Shelly: Well, we look primarily for mindset, but then we also look for some sort of evidence that they have an entrepreneurial aptitude. Either they started a small business, they had a babysitting business, a lawnmowing business. We actually have students, freshman, coming into our program now with revenue producing companies in the five and six figures.
Russ: My goodness. So are there companies that come in there together, like four, five people that are part of one company come together and all live together in the dormcubator?
Shelly: Not yet, but that’s an interesting concept. We might have to recruit that way.
Russ: Wow, seems to me like if you did that at some point they’re going to start recruiting from each other and stealing key employees from each other.
Shelly: Well that does happen. There’s a lot of hopping around and sharing of teammates. If you’re a developer or coder, you’re in high demand.
Russ: Wow, so interesting. As you might know I’ve been to a lot of the university based programs around the country. The closest thing to that was at Babson, and I think Babson has a whole dormitory just dedicated to entrepreneurs, and there’s companies that form in there and spin out, and have exit strategies and all that stuff.
Shelly: We are aware of the Babson model. I’ve not actually visited it. Some of my colleagues have visited. I was aware of Baylor being first in Texas, so they were the first private university to have this sort of concept. We were the first state university to have this sort of concept. Baylor has two dorms dedicated to entrepreneurs.
Russ: Ok, so take us back to the beginning of Startup Aggieland. How did it start, and were you involved?
Shelly: Yes, I was involved. Again, I was a non-traditional student; In 2010 I came back to school. I was working as a part-time student at Aggie Angel Network, and I was asked if I would be interested in being on a project with some faculty called the Mentoring Network for Entrepreneurship. And I went to one meeting in November of 2011, and that was sort of the start of this whole Startup Aggieland process.
They were looking at a white paper written by Dr. Richard Lester, who is the Executive Director of The Center for New Ventures in Entrepreneurship. He had co-written the paper about a maroon accelerator with Dr. Rodney Hill, a professor in architecture. It was a collaborative effort, and that was the basis for Startup Aggieland. We had that one meeting, and it was a whole lot of faculty and, to be honest, I was probably the babe in the woods. I didn’t have the previous history, so I was a little bit objective in hearing what was going on. The faculty were debating whether or not to have another study. Should we launch another study to determine whether we really want to do this student business accelerator. And they had already spent $20,000, roughly, and they were going to spend some more. And I asked the question, ‘excuse me, why don’t we take that money and put it into the accelerator and see if it works?’ So I got promptly kicked off the committee.
Russ: I thought you were going to say it exploded into success from that point on.
Shelly: No, no; however, something happened behind the scenes, and in January just two months later, we got a space at Research Park, which Blake Petty, who is now director of the CNVE managed to secure for us, and it was rent free for 3 years. It was absolutely, and is absolutely a wonderful space. It overlooks a small lake, the Frisbee golf course, free parking, which is a big bonus, and it’s on the bus route.
Russ: My goodness. So, momentum seems to be going too.
Shelly: We have had a lot of momentum, yes.
Russ: Ok, so I know it’s still really kind of young but have there already been success stories that have spun out of the program?
Shelly: Yes, we’ve had quite a few and each year we’ve had one that we can kind of point to as sort of the poster child of the program, interestingly enough. Our first year, in 2012, we had a student named Jon Moeller who had a lot of success with a imaging technology that was patented and allowed you to put clips on any kind of space and you would be into the image, and you could manipulate the data, say for gaming you could move an avatar, you can move a tree, you can move a weapon, that kind of thing. He did a Kickstarter project and raised about $65,000, so we had, it wasn’t for that particular technology but it was for a little freeSoC board, and he had so many orders that we had to do a boxing party. We just lined the hallway and just helped him get the product shipped. The next year we had, let’s see, 2013 we started working on a team called Gazoo. They are a cyber security company turned gaming company that came up with a hardware software solution.
They had three patents, and they have three more patents in the works. They had not met each other in January, and we put them together as two individuals, two undergraduates; one business, one engineering, and by three months later they had raised $500,000.
Russ: Wow, but wait, cyber security to gaming?
Shelly: To gaming. That happened over a couple years.
Russ: Is it like a cyber security game?
Shelly: No, it’s just another offshoot of it. They’re still in the cyber security. They have a hardware software solution, but it lends itself to this particular game platform. So they filed with the SEC and raised 1.88 million in less than a year.
Russ: My goodness. Wow. And then a group from your program won the Rice Business Plan Contest last year, right?
Shelly: That is correct. And that was coached by my colleague, professor Don Lewis. He is one of the founders of Startup Aggieland, and an extremely brilliant guy. He is now executive director of the Blackstone LaunchPad initiative. He coached that team along with Chris Westfall, who is from Houston. All of us worked a little bit to support that, but the coach was primarily Don Lewis, and he took that team first to the Southeastern conference for the Innovation Pitch Competition, which they won. Then they came to Baylor and they won the Baylor New Ventures, and then they went to Rice and they won Rice where they won a $400,000 investment package. That really put our program on the map, and that can all be credited to Don and to Essentium materials, which was at the time called TriFusion. They’ve since done a private offering. I can’t say how much, but it’s going to be headline making.
Russ: Ok, tell us about that company, though. It’s pretty cool.
Shelly: The company is very cool in that it’s not only a company with a great technology, but it’s a company with heart. They’re changing people’s lives, which is kind of what we do at Startup Aggieland, and they’re solving a great world problem. Essentium materials, previously TriFusion, has used a technology that one of the students developed with a faculty member, both now at Texas A&M, to take 3D printed plastic prosthetic legs and they infuse the plastic with titanium, which makes it stronger, and they’ve got a proprietary need ball joint that you can fit in and out. You can have a high end or a low end ball joint, which is kind of unique in itself, and they can print it overnight for about $350. And a typical prosthetic costs about $35,000, so if you are a child, and I’ll use that as a premium example, a child probably gets two fittings in their lifetime (Russ: Because they’re outgrowing them.), right, because they’re outgrowing.
So you end up with a child walking irregularly, and it’s difficult to participate in activities like other children. If you can fit them with a prosthetic that goes with their growth, it’s more of a natural experience for them, and it doesn’t change their gait, and it’s much more affordable.
Russ: Wow, very impressive. They should be proud and Startup Aggieland should be proud.
Shelly: Yes, we’re very proud of them.
Russ: Ok, so before I let you go, I mean you’ve already hinted at a few things like, you know there’s not a major yet in the program, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds, but give us your best bet on where the program will be five years from now.
Shelly: Well that’s a good question that we ponder a lot. I think you’re going to see phenomenal growth in the next year. I think you’re going to see the dormcubator turn out to be a very good feeder program, but also the Southwest node of the innovation corps, which is a National Science Foundation program, that feeds faculty teams with students on the teams. So, we have several feeders coming in with Blackstone, with the dormcubators, with the I-Corps program. I think you’re going to find more collaboration among the two flagships as well as some of the other universities in the state. We already do a lot with UT San Antonio, UT Austin proper, and I think you’re going to see more of that. I think what you’re also going to see is we’re doing some things that are very globally progressive. Texas A&M has campuses around the world, and so it’s a natural fit.
We’re going to Havana in January, and professor Lewis has already led that initiative to develop the relationship with the University of Havana. They’re ripe for entrepreneurship. They are entrepreneurs just like Aggies are entrepreneurs for all eternity, but this gives them a focus where we can share technology, we can share resources and really help them move along as well as give our students an opportunity to learn about how other cultures pursue entrepreneurship.
Russ: Really interesting. I sort of sensed too that you might kind of like the job that you have and what you’re doing.
Shelly: I love the job that I have. I really do. I feel like everything in my life has led up to this moment, and it gives me purpose.
Russ: Fantastic. Shelly, I really appreciate you sharing your story with us.
Shelly: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Shelly Brenckman, the Startup Aggieland Marketing Coordinator. And this is The BusinessMakers Show.
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