Students hungry for business success savor campus resources

Posted on 27. Sep, 2013 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Annual Report, Economic Impact, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Features, Issues, People, Students

Like any engineer worth his or her salt, Eric Martell EatStreet signcan identify and analyze a problem when he sees it. Particularly when it’s sandwich-related.

One fateful lunch hour, a driver for Silver Mine Subs told Martell he’d save time and money by calling in orders instead of ordering through a clunky (and expensive) third-party ordering website. “I just thought, ‘It’s 2010. There has to be a better way to do this,’” says Martell, a 2012 computer engineering and computer science alumnus. Three years later, EatStreet—the food ordering website Martell and former roommate and business partner Matt Howard created as an answer to the hungry student’s dilemma—is being used by more than 1,000 restaurants in 23 cities.

The site offers easy-to-use ordering tools and websites for locally owned campus staples in need of a turnkey web presence. “In a lot of ways, I think that we kind of keep money in our communities, wherever we are,” says Martell.

Before it had thousands of users, EatStreet was a project being pitched to judges in the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition and NEST software competition, two of many UW-Madison opportunities for student entrepreneurs looking to test their innovative business ideas.

Even though they didn’t win the Burrill competition, Martell says the feedback he and his partner received as part of the campus entrepreneurship community provided a first push toward realizing their business. “The judges and industry experts that were brought in offered us some really helpful advice; they’re advisors and partners that we continue to work with,” says Martell.

C-Motive Technologies seeks to shrink electric motors and build them from entirely sustainable materials, replacing steel and copper with aluminum plates to establish electric fields over an air gap. It’s a design conceived by electrical and computer engineering PhD students Dan Ludois, Justin Reed and Micah Erickson and mechanical engineer Kyle Hanson, who leveraged the university community’s fertile ground for startups to grow a side project into a full-fledged business.

“Within ECE, the most instrumental individuals were our advisors, Professor Giri Venkataramanan and Grainger Professor of Power Electronics and Electrical Machines Tom Jahns,” says Reed, president and CEO of C-Motive and a current ECE graduate student. “From the very beginning, they have been very supportive of our venture, and that’s incredibly valuable when your time is spread so thin between your degree and your startup.”

Resources for early-stage companies like these abound on the UW-Madison campus. When the time came to protect their invention, the students turned to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which patented the design on their behalf. And when they needed to put the business down on paper, both C-Motive and EatStreet leveraged the Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic within the UW Law School as an invaluable legal resource. “For the first year or so, we didn’t have to pay a cent in lawyers’ fees,” says Martell.

Chris Beley says one benefit of participating in university competitions was learning about resources that aren’t always advertised. The 2012 computer sciences and electrical
engineering alumnus won the 2012 Qualcomm Wireless Innovation Prize for his data management system, Flextory. Beley says staying connected with innovation competition organizers and campus resources helped him network with Madison-area mentors, including Merlin Mentors and Capital Entrepreneurs. “All of these people are willing to help if you just ask,” he says.

Consultants at places such as Hybrid Zone X on campus, Gener8tor in Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Entrepreneurship Network (a partnership between UW-Extension and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.) offer the final bits of wisdom engineers often need to launch a concept into the marketplace. “Cheryl Vickroy of the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network really helped us shift focus from the technology itself to the business surrounding the technology,” says Reed. “Having been so focused on technology for so many years, making this change of mindset was quite challenging for us.”

Tangible resources aside, student entrepreneurs unanimously agree on the biggest asset available to engineers graduating from UW-Madison: other engineering alumni. “The prestige that goes along with the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering goes a long way, in my experience,” says Martell. “I’ve gone out to Silicon Valley and New York to raise money, and no one will close the door on a UW engineering grad. That’s a fantastic credential that the university continues to create.”

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