The ins and outs of a STEM entrepreneur

Gabriel DeAvila (left) and his brother Daniel demonstrate the glass vial prototype their U-Labs business created for a research scientist during the Entrepreneurial & Innovation Challenge at Indian River State College. They won the contest’s $3,000 first-place prize.

On March 30, Daniel DeAvila, 24, and Gabriel DeAvila, 21, received a check for $17 from the first customer of U-Labs, the business they proposed this winter for the inaugural Entrepreneurial & Innovation Challenge at Indian River State College (IRSC).

The next day, the brothers won the challenge’s first place prize of $3,000. They plan to invest their winnings in a sophisticated 3-D printer to make more complex prototypes of biology lab equipment.

The experience of actually launching a business in less than seven weeks has them rethinking their plans to enter the Air Force after they graduate in May with bachelor’s degrees in biology.

“It’s been purely beneficial, because without the competition we would not have really had the motivation to take our idea and go with it,” Gabriel explained.

A campus-wide STEM challenge

The DeAvilas first created a small glass vial to help scientists they met while working on authentic biology research, a requirement for IRSC biology majors. Their biology professors encouraged them to enter IRSC’s Entrepreneurial & Innovation Challenge. The seven-week entrepreneurship development program is modeled on the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC), which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association of Community Colleges.

“The idea was to build understanding of what entrepreneurship is, what it takes and then how to get started,” said Kevin Cooper, dean of advanced technology at IRSC. “It really has worked out. I think we should replicate it at more schools across the country.”

Cooper was inspired to start the multidisciplinary STEM competition by his experience as the faculty mentor for IRSC students who qualified for the first CCIC in 2015. He also serves as principal investigator of the Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training (RCNET), which receives NSF support through its Advanced Technological Education program.

Cooper was so impressed by the CCIC Innovation Boot Camp, a weeklong program in Washington, D.C., that he obtained NSF permission to use RCNET funds for a campus-wide STEM challenge.

Kickstart your STEM project: AACC seeks colleges for STEM improvement grant opportunity as part of its NSF-funded MentorLinks program. The application deadline is April 28.

“I was just floored by how good the (CCIC) training was, how enthusiastic the students were,” Cooper said. “It really motivated me more than anything else because here’s a group of students that were really engaged in trying to learn what entrepreneurship is about, what innovation is about, how to survey the audience, everything else. I thought it was one of the best trainings I’d ever been to.”

Becoming entrepreneurs

CCIC’s Innovation Boot Camp and IRSC’s Entrepreneurial Innovation Challenge are both based on the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) process that NSF developed to help scientists and others who have received funding from the agency to find broader applications and commercial markets for their discoveries.

As with the I-Corps curriculum for scientists and the CICC program for community college students, IRSC’s Entrepreneurial Innovation Challenge required students to interview potential customers about their business ideas.

Rather than an immersive, one-week program like the CCIC boot camp, IRSC’s challenge stretched over seven weeks with deadlines for the students to submit various aspects of their business plans, market analyses, customer surveys and pitches. The students were selected for the program based on their team’s written applications and videos.

Throughout the challenge, the students received guidance from a mentor affiliated with the college’s Dan K. Richardson Entrepreneurship Development Institute; Anelisa Lauri, program consultant; and Jo Ann Balsamo, RCNET nuclear training specialist and IRSC Entrepreneurial & Innovation Challenge program coordinator.

Knowing the process

All six student teams modified their business plans or products in response to survey responses, Balsamo said. She and the others who guided the students are thrilled the DeAvila brothers actually started their company, though the challenge participants were only required to craft a thorough business plan and not necessarily bring something to market.

“It’s more about the process than the product. We’re just trying to teach the process,” Cooper said.

Surveying many potential customers is a key aspect of I-Corps, and IRSC required its challenge participants to survey 100 people. To help students gather robust data, the college provided up to $500 in seed money grants.

From briskets to bugs

Rue Kindred used his seed money to pay for a Google survey of potential customers of organic smoked beef brisket. The grant also helped cover the costs of Kindred’s tests for marinating, cooking and shipping briskets to two connoisseurs and four other potential customers. His plan for the online Pioneer Brisket Company took second place.

Rue Kindred receives his second-place certificate at the inaugural Entrepreneurial & Innovation Challenge from Kevin Cooper, Indian River State College’s dean of advanced technology.

Buoyed by his $2,000 prize, Kindred said he might launch the e-business when he transfers to the University of Florida after graduating from IRSC with an associate degree in agriculture economics this year.

The HC Targets team won the $1,000 third place award for its bio-pesticide business plan. Hannah Mann and Chris Cordola want to continue working in IRSC’s labs to refine the biotechnology behind their idea for eliminating an insect that spreads a bacteria tied to citrus greening.

Both will graduate this spring with bachelor’s degrees in biology; they expect that the lessons learned during the challenge about how to communicate scientific information will be useful as they pursue biology-related careers.

The failure of Mann and Cordola’s initial effort to survey farmers by phoning and emailing them led them to use the team’s grant to visit citrus groves and tour citrus processing facilities. The in-person approach yielded dramatically better results.

“We learned that they (farmers) don’t email you back, and they don’t really call you back,” Mann said. “But once you go to the field and you look them in the eye, they tell you their whole life story, and anything you want to know. They are more than helpful.”

The benefits of completing 100 surveys extends beyond HC Targets’ marketing plan, Cordola said.

“It affected how we communicated with people in general, especially farmers. Because coming up in the biology program, you learn to communicate science in a particular way that doesn’t work with the general public. So they (farmers) really gave us a lot of help,” he said.

Gaining confidence

Another benefit of the project: Developing public speaking skills.

“This program definitely helped give me confidence to do the public speaking and those types of things,” Mann said.

Chris Cordola prepares samples prior to his and Hannah Mann’s product pitch. The duo won third place for their bio-pesticide business plan.

After the students received their awards, Balsamo said she was struck by how confident all the challenge participants seemed during their formal pitches on March 31 compared with the brief, soft pitches they gave at the kick-off event on February 3.

“It was rough all around on all of them. They didn’t have any idea what they needed to talk about other than ‘I have an idea,’” she said of the students’ first presentations. It was much different in the final hour of the challenge, when all six teams looked confident and articulated their business plans to a panel of judges in a room with an audience of other students and college administrators.

The judges commented on the professionalism of the students’ pitches and that the STEM majors could talk fluently about value proposition, markets and customers, along with the science undergirding their proposed products.

“Today was amazing. It was great to see them,” Balsamo said at the end of the student pitch event last week. She and Cooper said they hope to offer the challenge again, if they can obtain funding.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.