From the time Benjamin Franklin first conceived his famous stove, bifocals and countless other useful inventions, the U.S. has been hailed as the “land of opportunity,” a nation steeped in innovation and entrepreneurship, which have sustained the economy in even the toughest of times. In recent years, as American industry has struggled to remain competitive amid growing challenges from abroad, entrepreneurship has gained new respect as an economic engine.
The University of Connecticut is forging new territory as a hotbed for entrepreneurship – in partnership with members of the business community, state economic development agencies, incubators, IP and financial services interests – and seeding a rich, evolving innovation ecosystem to spark and nurture new businesses. The Schools of Engineering and Business have become more integrated and coordinated in their efforts to fuel the entrepreneurship pipeline, tapping populations that include UConn students and faculty as well as residents across the state.
One recent event illustrates the myriad activities underway within the larger innovation engine: Startup Weekend Storrs, a 54-hour, intensive January weekend event that brought together software developers, graphics designers and business people to build applications and develop a commercial business case around them. Watch the video here.
Startup Weekend Storrs kicked off on a Friday evening with a gathering of over 150 people, most fueled by dreams of business success and adrenaline. Of them, 64 would-be entrepreneurs presented one-minute “pitches” before an audience of fellow innovators as well as expert mentors from the marketing, advertising, innovation and financial communities. Audience members voted for their top 12 ideas, and over the next two days these ideas became the focus of intense development and evolution as the remaining participants reconfigured themselves organically around the winning ideas.
Throughout the next two days, the teams worked feverishly with business development mentors – from branding experts to market analysts – to refine, polish, test and sometimes build functional prototypes of their software/Web products and services. Each team addressed and crystalized core business plan features, including distinguishing product features, web brand, price structure, competitor and market analyses, and sales pitch. Live market research was a crucial component, and team members energetically fanned out, from UConn’s dining halls and dorms to regional businesses to gauge potential customer interest, refine desired features, gather user data and beta test their apps. One team had a paying customer before the weekend concluded.
The event culminated Sunday evening (January 29) when each team, fronted by an eloquent spokesperson, delivered a five-minute presentation augmented by demonstrations and Web visuals, followed by three-minute questions and answers from the Startup Weekend Storrs judges – all seasoned entrepreneurs.
Shaking off the exhaustion of the long weekend’s intensive focus, the teams displayed enthusiasm and confidence in their final presentations, sometimes infusing their performances with humor and kinetic energy. One team, whose idea pivoted on wine tastings in which different wine appellations and brands are blended along a precise scale as tasters judge the mix, branded itself “Joy in a Glass” with a tagline of “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” Several of the ideas centered on matching care providers – such as trusted babysitters and in-home elder care providers – with families in need. Two others offered users apps to identify crowd-sourced entertainment or social events in a local area, or to compare oneself against friends in gaming and fitness while earning points toward price reductions on store products and services.
Each product was evaluated by the judges on three core criteria: customer validation; the quality of the business model, including the product novelty compared with alternatives and how customers acquire the product; and presentation execution. Many of the teams had conducted focus-group surveys across the weekend to gather authentic responses, and several showcased functional prototypes during their presentations. The judges selected three first-place teams, with each receiving $1,000 in prize money:
PlatForum – A mobile app to consolidate the forum experience
Sobrio – A mobile match service linking drinkers and vetted, sober drivers
MailStack – A new way to view and organize email, with photos
The event was organized by Danny Briere, MoxMe! and Startup Connecticut; Derek Koch, Independent Software; John Shemo, MetroHartford Alliance; Eric Knight, Remarkable Technologies; Brien Buckman, FounderMatchUp.org; Christopher Levesque, Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; and Mike Roer, Entrepreneurship Foundation.
The next Startup Weekend scheduled for Connecticut will take place in Stamford March 30 – April 1 at the Stamford Innovation Center.
Startup Connecticut is associated with the Startup America Partnership, a national organization launched by President Barack Obama to help nurture the creation and growth of U.S. startups. UConn School of Engineering alumnus, serial entrepreneur and philanthropist T. Scott Case was appointed CEO of the Startup America Partnership by President Obama.