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Start Your Engines: Spotlight on Ohio University student startups

Andrea Gibson and Natalia Radic | Mar 15, 2015

Creating cool new tech products while you’re still in your college dorm room is no longer a novelty.
Entrepreneurship programs have exploded on campuses over the last decade. Ohio University not only created a Center for Entrepreneurship that offers a curriculum for budding CEOs, but has supported a wide number of special programs and events designed to help college students launch new technologies and companies.

Take Startup Weekend, a special event that invites young entrepreneurs to pitch a tech business idea, form a team around it, study the market for it, and propose a plan and prototype all in 54 hours. With the help of a cadre of business mentors, some of these entrepreneurs who have attended the Ohio University editions of the event launched apps on iTunes within a year. Others further developed their products and startup business plans with the help of in-depth programs such as the Innovation Engine Accelerator, a summer boot camp sponsored by the university and private partners.

And who pays for the marketing research, product development, necessary hardware and software, the legal advice? While entrepreneurs certainly turn to their own pockets—or, increasingly, friends, family, and sympathetic supporters on crowd funding sites—they also have been able to gain financial help from university programs that range from the Center for Entrepreneurship’s Pitch Your Plan competition to TechGROWTH Ohio, a university/private partnership in Southeast Ohio that can award larger grants to promising startups. The Innovation Center, the university’s small business incubator, offers digital media companies access to high-end design software and professional iMacs, as well as a space where they can work collaboratively, says Director Jennifer Simon.

In the wake of the latest recession, starting your own company and being your own boss is appealing to more people, and Ohio University students are no different. Startup companies and new technologies aren’t a sure bet, however, as plenty fail to get off the ground.

But Simon and Center for Entrepreneurship Director Luke Pittaway note that the university’s focus on Lean Startup methodologies—a nationally recognized approach developed by entrepreneur Eric Ries—helps students focus early on whether their product idea has a true market. By conducting focus groups with consumers and research on competitors, student entrepreneurs can refine or change their concept early on to increase their chances of developing a product that meets a consumer need and launches a successful business.

“The Ohio University ecosystem has helped many student entrepreneurs prepare their venture ideas to a point where they have a well-thought-through business model and identified revenue streams,” Pittaway says. “These student-led ventures are consequently investment-ready and attracting attention from investors and accelerator programs in Ohio.”

In January 2014, Gartner, Inc., a leading technology research and advisory company, predicted the mobile app industry would grow to $77 billion in 2017. And for Ohio University students, finding examples of Bobcats who made the leap from South Green to Silicon Valley isn’t hard. Alan Schaaf developed popular image sharing site Imgur while an undergraduate in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Just five years after graduation, he’s running a business in San Francisco that just scored a $40 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Not every student idea will be the next Imgur, but more and more students are trying their hand at developing new technologies with an eye to business. Take a look at four teams of students and recent alums who have combined the technical, art, marketing, and business skills needed to launch new apps and software products.

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Photo by Elizabeth Reyes/Ohio University

Entrepreneurs : Christian Sagardia and Gary Grant; Razor Dynamics

Technology: Auger, a mobile app that can calculate your location and notify friends with smartphones where you are. Users also view specific metrics, such as the vital signs of a particular contact, which makes the app a viable product for firefighters, police officers, and even Secret Service agents, Sagardia says.

Development: The app is developed for Android phones, but Sagardia hopes it will expand to iOS as well. The team chose to develop the platform as a mobile app to make it consumer-friendly. “We’re trying to make our system run just on a smartphone,” Sagardia says, elaborating that other similar products require custom hardware, which can be expensive. “Let’s just allow people to use the technology they have in their pockets.”

The product is in the prototype stages. The team is working on how to optimize battery life for the app, as well as increasing GPS, triangulation, and WiFi strength. It will first be developed as a consumer technology, similar to FourSquare, which Sagardia hopes will validate the product further for more technical uses.

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Photo of Seth Miller by Elizabeth Reyes/Ohio University

Entrepreneurs: Seth Miller and Brandon Logan; RapChat

Technology: RapChat allows users to record 15- to 30-second audio messages, in the form of raps, over a pre-made beat and then share the messages with friends. Building on the concept of Snapchat – a popular photo-sharing app that deletes the message after it’s been opened ¬– RapChat encourages rap lovers to get creative with their messages. Users can have rap battles with friends or just send funky messages.

Development: The app released on the iTunes store in June 2014; as of August it had 2,200 downloads, Seth Miller says. Though developed for the general public, Miller hopes to target the rap and hip-hop music community. Later versions of the app will include a “beat store” for different beats and other applications for customizing mixes. “We see ourselves changing the way people in the hip-hop and music industry share music,” Miller said, explaining that he hopes the app will ease the process of producing rap music, while establishing a larger network of rap music enthusiasts.

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From left to right: Ben Weibel, Sicong Lee, Kevin Janowiecki (back row), Erica Staeuble and Taffie Coler (front row) work as a team on the LiveIn mobile app. Photo by Elizabeth Reyes/Ohio University.

Entrepreneur: Sicong Li; LiveInteractive, LLC

Technology: LiveIn is a mobile app that organizes local event listings – especially for those living outside of big cities, such as Ohio University students in Athens. “There are so many things going on in this small town. We want to be one of the first to start and build this,” Sicong Li says.

Development: Li and Startup Weekend teammates released their product on the iTunes store in early April 2014. The app helps users discover and post events by connecting them with friends through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, as well as a LiveIn friend list. Event organizers can track participation, feedback, and photos. The app was designed for Athens, but the LiveInteractive team hopes to expand the app first to the Ohio State University and Columbus area, and then eventually to college towns on both the East and West coasts.

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Photo of Mitch Suchan by Elizabeth Reyes/Ohio University.

Entrepreneurs: Mitch Suchan and Chris Conway; Billow Communications

Technology: AM/PM is a mobile app that allows users to send automated voice memos to an entire contact list. The app also features a clock-in/clock-out element that encourages users to send managers voice memos detailing daily accomplishments. The target audience is businesses with project managers or tech departments. “What we’re implementing for business has been used by consumers a lot, like Snapchat that has automatic sending features,” Mitch Suchan says. “It’s used to move information up the chain of command.”

Development: The app is in the beginning stages of development, and will be created for Android phones first. Suchan hopes to release the app in 2015.