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Alumni return to campus to nurture the next generation

Entrepreneurship has become a hot topic on college campuses — institutions of all kinds want to educate innovators who can create the breakthroughs that will improve lives and produce value in the marketplace. But how do you cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurs who will deliver those breakthroughs?

Olin College of Engineering may have found one answer: bring back alumni who have steered an entrepreneurial course post graduation, and have them counsel current students working to turn their business ideas into realities.

And so it was that recently in the class Iterate, a key element of Olin’s entrepreneurship stream, students eager for advice about their fledgling enterprises presented their ideas to a panel of recent graduates who have founded businesses and been involved in the startup world.

The presentations had the feel of a “rocket pitch,” those events at which startup hopefuls have a few minutes to explain their unique business ideas to seasoned entrepreneurs and investors. The panelists and students assembled in the lower level of Olin’s library heard ideas about everything from a mobile solution to help librarians communicate, to a tool organizing service, to a wheelchair backpack that helps persons with disabilities, to an intelligent annotation system that helps describe images.

Though still young, the panelists have compiled impressive credentials: Maia Bittner, a member of the class of 2011, cofounded the jewelry subscription service Roxbox and then went on to cofound Pinch to help millennials build financial stability; Etosha Cave, a 2006 graduate, founded Opus 12, a company working to reclaim waste carbon emissions as useful chemicals; Jeff Satwicz, another 2006 graduate, is one of the founders of Big Belly, a smart waste management system in use around the world; and Slater Victoroff is CTO at indico Data Solutions, which helps businesses mine data via machine learning.

Eric Miller and teammate Lauren Gulland presented their idea for Acronym, which consults with hardware startups on a variety of technical issues. “Starting hardware startups is really, really hard,” noted Miller. “Unnecessarily so.”

This is because while many startups may have a solid founding team, they lack the technical depth and cross-disciplinary perspectives to create a prototype and get the business off the ground. Enter Acronym with prototype development, feasibility studies, vetting and other services.

Satwicz remembered reaching out for such consulting help when Big Belly was a startup.

“The real question is how do you distinguish yourselves among contracting services, because there are big ones and smaller contracting houses,” Satwicz observed.

The answer lies in pricing, offered Lee Edwards, another Olin alum present who, though he wasn’t officially part of the panel, has considerable startup experience.

“Acronym has a cost advantage because housing and health care are covered” for a student-run team, Edwards noted. “You could charge less and maybe take some equity.”

ARC Superchargers, presented by Hunter Normandeau and Talia Tandler, offers an inexpensive and easy way to enhance the performance and efficiency of cars. The target market is amateur auto enthusiasts who modify their vehicles at home, but for whom, until now, supercharging and turbocharging have been out of reach. 

ARC’s supercharger is a bolt-in solution that can be installed by the customer at the attractive price point of $2,300 while offering a 50 percent power increase. Though their device is not yet market ready, ARC has racked up 385,000 page views and 200 order inquiries just from its website, indicative of the $1 billion industry that caters to car enthusiasts who tinker with their vehicles.

It seems like such a good idea, Victoroff wondered “Why is nobody already doing this?”

The reason, explained Normandeau, is that “it’s an emerging tech, but right now there’s no market leader because it’s so new.”

Noting the company’s devoted core user group, Bittner counseled thinking big.

“I would have this goal that in two years, you can leverage your relationship with this consumer base to sell them lots of other stuff,” said Bittner.

Panelists interviewed after the presentations expressed admiration for the quality of the pitches. 

“There were definitely some well played out story arcs and people really defining the problem and talking about their solution, along with all the design qualities of understanding the customer and figuring out how to solve their problems,” said Cave. “I was really impressed with that.”

For their part, the students also got a lot out of the experience, too.

“I really like having alumni around,” said Miller. “I think we got really useful feedback from them and I’m interested in having more conversations about how to encourage more alumni-student interaction in the future, because I think it’s an incredible resource.”