Joshua Baer

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Student entrepreneurs presented their startup business ideas to a group of business owners and investors including Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and star on Shark Tank, and Cotter Cunningham, local founder and CEO of RetailMeNot.

The 14 student groups are within Longhorn Startup, which is a program that offers support and mentorship to student startups.

Joshua Baer, co-founder of Longhorn Startup and founder of Capital Factory, said the event was a chance for students to present their companies, as if they were pitching to investors. Nearly 1,000 people attended the event Thursday. Capital Factory is an Austin-based company that helps local entrepreneurs launch startups.

“This is a culmination of the work of this semester,” Baer said. “We have over 200 investors registered to be here. Most of the 14 groups are not ready for that, but it’s okay. A lot of investors want to get to know people before they invest in them.”

Baer said there was previously a system of support for graduate students in startup businesses, but very little was offered for undergraduate students before Longhorn Startup was founded.

Robert Metcalfe, engineering professor and co-founder of Longhorn Startup, said they were able to offer new resources and registered classes for undergraduate startups.

“We decided to look for something that wasn’t being handled,” Metcalfe said. “There’s a lot of startup activity at UT. It was undergraduate students who were not being helped.”

Biomedical engineering senior Ani Sharma presented MicroMulsion, a new technology for cell culture research.

“I was definitely nervous,” Sharma said. “I thought I’d forget my first line, but it went really well. I’m really happy with the presentation.”

Sharma said he has learned through the semester what it takes to put together and commercialize a product.

“I just want to hear the feedback people give me as we look to move our business forward,” Sharma said.

Cuban said he would be interested in investing in about half of the companies he saw.

“The difference here from Shark Tank is that you have to have sales,” Cuban said. “But other than that, I would say some of the pitches I saw here tonight were better than ones I’ve seen on Shark Tank.”

Cuban discussed his past experiences with business, from his teenage years when he sold stamps to his current ownership of the Dallas Mavericks. He also gave advice to entrepreneurs.

Cuban said an entrepreneur needs to know their business, industry and product. He recommended looking at companies that fail as well as companies that succeed.

“I like to retweet stories about companies that have failed because that’s the most valuable information and those are the hardest stories to find,” Cuban said. “Everybody wants to tell you about their success, but the ones that fail are the most telling.”

Alejandro Weibel, Dakota Gordon, Ian Beckcom and Andrew Miller formed Homeroom, a company that runs an online learning management system, as part of the 1 Semester Startup class.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Two weeks ago while staying up late cramming for a test, finance senior Ian Beckcom wished he could talk to somebody about the questions he had before he took the exam the next day.

Beckcom said he wondered what it would be like to chat with professors and fellow students while he studied and why there was not already a technology to meet this need. His answer reminded him of why he and three other classmates decided to form Homeroom, a software company that runs an online learning management information system similar to Blackboard.

Beckcom and his team were one of the 20 teams that presented a 5-minute company investor “pitch” to a crowd of more than 200 students, professors and local entrepreneurs at the 1 Semester Startup “Demo Day” showcase Thursday night. 1 Semester Startup is an interdisciplinary course that began this semester and allows undergraduates with startup companies to gain first-hand experience in running and developing successful businesses.

Engineering professor Bob Metcalfe, finance professor John Butler and computer science specialist Joshua Baer lead the class. Baer said the class consists of 75 enrolled students from across all majors and 25 mentors from the Austin entrepreneur community.

“The biggest value comes from bringing experienced mentors to spend time with the students,” Baer said. “Some of this you can’t get from textbooks.”

In order to be a mentor, entrepreneurs need to have started one or more startup companies. Students meet with mentors once a week to convey updates, challenges and progress.

Baer said along with the mentorship program, the professors wanted students to take care of their health and focus on their planning, writing, speaking and selling skills. He said engineering and computer science students are not usually taught the latter three skills.

Russell Hinds, a managing partner at RSH Ventures, mentors Beckom and the group behind the Homeroom startup. Hinds said he loves working with the group because there’s a lot of passion but not a lot of business sense of what might be important to an investor.

“With students, a little bit of advice goes a long way,” Hinds said. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish in this special environment. It’s a spiritual getaway for an entrepreneur, doing more than what they expected in a short period of time.”

Computer science senior Andrew Miller, also a part of Homeroom, said the team is working to develop a beta version of Homeroom and has professors and students that have agreed to try the program out once it is finished.

“The fact is that this class is a set up, it’s low risk, ” Miller said. “If we fail we’re not $50,000 in debt.”

Miller said if the company does not work out, there would always be next semester for more opportunities.

Rudy Garza, an investor at G-57 Capital, said he saw three student pitches he would follow up on and potentially invest in.

“As far as students startups go, it’s interdisciplinary and that’s monumental,” Garza said. 

Printed on December 2, 2011 as: Students gain experience by pitching companies