FGCU’s entrepreneurs-in-training are dreaming big – but they’re also learning to slug it out in the fiercely competitive world of innovation and invention.
“Our mission is that we want to create an entrepreneurial mindset across our university as well as across Southwest Florida and Florida, and be known as a place to go for entrepreneurship, a place to go for innovative thinking,” said Sandra Kauanui, director of, and driving force behind, the Lutgert College of Business Institute for Entrepreneurship.
The program has grown to include several programs (see sidebar) tailored to guide students and military veterans through real-world business proposals.
Teams of students in the entrepreneurship classes brainstorm ideas for products and marketing plans.
Now FGCU’s teams of innovators are proving that philosophy works as they produce ideas and prototypes headed for the marketplace.
Some of the students are already there or nearly so: a real estate photography business has had five paying customers and a line of upscale men’s watches is on the verge of retail sales while already having some large orders from retailers for their upscale leather wallet.
Coming up with a viable product idea in the first place is one of the toughest parts of the entrepreneurial process, Kauanui said.
“It’s all about getting out of the building,” she said. “The first thing I want to know is ‘What’s the demand?’^”
It’s also important for a team to come up with a practical business model, she said – so some teams will include both business and engineering students.
Engineering a solution
The entrepreneurship class is also required in the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering, where majors are teamed up with business students to create a product and a marketing plan for it.
The class is part of the multi-disciplinary approach that’s existed since the engineering program began in 2007, said Lisa Zidek, associate dean of the engineering college.
“Our overall goal was not necessarily to make all the engineers into entrepreneurs,” she said. “But what we do want them to understand is that you do need to be of value to your organization. And if you’re sitting around just waiting for problems to come to you or somebody to give you an assignment, you’re not adding value.”
For the business students, having an engineer on the team is a reality check on fanciful ideas that may not be feasible with current technology, she said. “Some people promise the world and the engineer comes back and brings them into reality and says ‘Well, we really can’t do that,’^” Zidek said.
“On the other side,” she said, “sometimes the engineers are a little bit too rigid in their response of saying ‘We can’t do that,’ and the customer’s saying ‘But this is really what we want,’ and then we have to find that way. We have to make it work.”
That interdisciplinary teamwork is paying off as the business world takes notice.
Inspiration through pain
For Samantha Page, a political science honors student, thinking of a problem solve was easy: It’s literally inside her.
“I had some spinal injuries in a car wreck,” she said, and now simply craning her neck as little as 15 degrees can cause excruciating pain as pressure passes down her spine to the damaged discs in her back.
“My chiropractor couldn’t recommend a device to make sure I kept in the right position” while using a tablet or laptop, Page said.
Now Page, who has a minor in entrepreneurship, has funding from the institute’s Runway Program Grant. Using a 3D printer, she’s building a prototype laptop case that doubles as a stand in which screen angle and other factors can be adjusted to the user’s needs.
Sadly, she said, the market for her product is always growing. “I see pre-kindergarten kids looking straight down at a tablet all day long.”
Keeping it clean
Hospital employees are required to wash their hands before touching patients – a practice vital to preventing infections but not the easiest rule to enforce.
To solve the problem and save patients’ lives in the process, a team of students in the fall 2015 entrepreneurship class designed the Illumitize Hand Sanitizing System.
The team is working towards a plan to beta test the system with Lee Health doctors, which diplomatically encourages workers to hit the hand sanitizer or soap dish before touching patients.
“It’s a friendly reminder to sanitize your hands,” said Allie Sundermeier, a bioengineering student and team member.
The system requires employees to wear a badge with a sensor that flashes a red X until they wash their hands.
Right now, Sundermeier said, “We’re just trying to encourage hand washing, not track individuals.”
But as the system evolves that could change, said team member Joseph Mukuvi, also a bioengineering student. “Generation 2 could track who’s going in and out of a room.”
The team received $1,500 for winning first place in the fall 2015 Eagle Biz Awards, and $5,000 for winning the Florida Healthcare Innovation Pitch Competition in April 2016.
They will probably join the Runway Project this fall and pitch for additional funding then, Kauanui said.
Pivot to profit
Sometimes inspiration isn’t enough – a closer examination shows that a promising idea turns out not to be practical. Letting go of an idea is one of the hardest things to learn, say the institute’s mentors.
But the lean-startup model taught by the institute lends itself to a flexible frame of mind, said William Scott, who volunteers his time as a mentor for the institute’s students.
“You can pivot, you can change your solutions to meet a bigger need and you don’t have to put an enormous amount of money or effort into the planning,” said Scott, an inventor and managing partner of industrial design company Marbles LLC in Bonita Springs.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Business student Stanley Stouder had to scramble to reinvent his Runway Program project when he realized his product wasn’t cost efficient enough to create a profitable market.
The first concept was a device that would charge a cell phone with electricity generated from the movements of the person carrying it.
But the numbers didn’t work, Stouder said. A new energy product has to answer the customer’s question: “Why take the leap of faith?”
So he switched to another business model: using solar energy to create enough electricity to power the lift system on a boat dock and defray the cost of installing traditional electrical systems. Now they’re in the early stages of figuring out issues such as how much power could be generated by a unit installed under the dock of a canal-front house.
Scott said the pressure of a quick pivot can make or break an entrepreneur.
“It’s a way to see if you’ve got the guts and the glory inside you, to go make all those things happen, to learn from your mistakes and failures to see them as gifts, rally to your future and to embrace and learn from them and just continue on and not give up the fight.”
Ready, set, drone
When Greg Gottfried graduates with a marketing degree in May, he already has his dream job lined up: launching what he describes as “the Uber business model for real estate photography.”
He got the idea when he was trying to lease a house using online sites such as Zillow and Trulia but found that “the photos were so different it was difficult to compare them.”
Gottfried’s idea is to provide real estate agents with standardized packages of still photos, virtual home tours and aerial drone photography.
The pricing is $150 for one item; $250 for two; $350 for all three.
He’s already completed nine jobs for five paying customers locally.
Photographers will have to pass a skills test and provide work samples, and drone work will require the federal license for drone pilots, Gottfried said.
He intends to start in Southwest Florida, then go statewide in Florida and California, and ultimately operate throughout the United States.
“This will absolutely be the full-time job,” Gottfried said. “It’s so much fun to do what you’re passionate about that I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The students, faculty and mentors of the entrepreneurship program practically radiate enthusiasm for their projects.
On one recent Friday afternoon, there was steady activity throughout the program’s space in the Emergent Technologies Institute building. The sound of 3-D printers could frequently be heard, creating an endless flow of prototype inventions in what’s labeled the “noisy room.” Groups of students drifted in and out of the room, honing their proposals with the help of faculty and mentors.
Overseeing it all is Kauanui, who keeps a close watch on the endless flow of ideas and products being cranked out by her budding entrepreneurs. She makes no bones with them about how hard it is to succeed at something important. First and foremost, Kauanui leads by example.
“This is my passion and my purpose,” she said. “It’s not a job. If it were a job I wouldn’t be working 12 hours a day, 15 sometimes.”
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Academic classes: Close to 900 students enrolled in entrepreneurship classes for the 2016-17 semesters – up from 200 three years ago when a minor in entrepreneurship was first offered. There are 133 students in the Entrepreneurship Minor. Plans are in the works to develop an interdisciplinary entrepreneurship major – combining entrepreneurship classes with Arts & Science and Hospitality & Management to complete a full degree program, which developers hope to take to the Board of Trustees for approval in June.
Eagle Biz Awards: Teams of students enrolled in the New Venture Lab and Engineering Entrepreneurship course compete with their business plans and prototypes in this contest each fall and spring semester. Prize money is awarded to the winners, and the top teams are automatically accepted into the Runway Program.
Runway Program: Students can apply to be part of this semester-long program in which they work on the development of a business idea and design a complete launch plan to start their businesses while still earning a degree. The Runway Program doesn’t carry course credit, but participants get a small budget and one-on-one help from faculty and mentors. They also have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to an Investment Committee for prize money, made up of angel investors around Southwest Florida.
Veterans Assistance: The Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program provides training to veterans throughout the state who want to start a business. Vets take a 15-week course hosted by seven Florida universities and colleges, including FGCU, in which they learn to write a business plan and how to start their businesses. In 2016, 33 veterans completed the program at FGCU and more than half have started businesses. For the 2017 program, 38 veterans have started the course.
- Facebook: FGCUEntrepreneurship
- Instagram: fgcu_entrepreneurs
- Twitter: FGCU_IFE
- On the web: fgcu.edu/cob/ife
- For details: contact Sandra Kauanui at [email protected] or [email protected] or (239) 590-7433.
ENTREPRENEURIAL PROGRAMS CURRENTLY UNDER WAY
RELIEF FOR REFUGEES
One of the most ambitious teams is a finalist for the eighth annual Hult Prize: a national competition for $1 million for the idea that would best help restore the rights and dignity of the world’s 10 million refugees by 2022.
Team member Kebel Arias pitched the Hult judges on the merits of the team’s radically redesigned low-end computer featuring do-it-yourself repair, privacy from prying eyes, and the ability to communicate safely via low power wi-fi with others nearby.
Not just refugees but “anyone who can’t get tech support” would benefit from the computer’s modular design: five inexpensive, easily removable off-the-shelf components that could be replaced in minutes, Arias said.
They’d market the computers to schools as well, touting its $250 price plus the teaching opportunities of its open-source Linux operating system.
The team is emblematic of a core value of FGCU’s entrepreneur training: teams always have students from different courses of study to improve problem solving. Arias is studying graphic design; team member Brice Tilton, computer science; Skyler Gummin, marketing; and Tai Goggins, art.
Ice cream’s cold, but James Hardenbook’s business plan calls for making it with something a lot colder. Hardenbook, a Marine Corps veteran who attended the 2016 Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program at FGCU, intends to use liquid nitrogen, which at -320 degrees will “freeze anything and everything.”
The result is a smoother, creamier product because ice crystals don’t have a chance to form.
Hardenbook intends to sell his product from a mobile food truck he’s having custom built.
Showmanship’s a major part of his business plan.
“It is actually quite a spectacle to see,” Hardenbook said. “It creates kind of a smoky, mysterious cloud of vapor. Kind of a magic show kind of look.”
There are stores that sell the product in fixed locations but nobody’s gone mobile to take advantage of Southwest Florida’s numerous festivals and other events, Hardenbook said.
In addition to completing the program, Hardenbook also received funding from the Schoen Foundation’s Veteran Scholarship Endowed Fund, created by Naples resident Bill Schoen, who also served in the Marines.
Not all those in FGCU’s programs are newly minted entrepreneurs pitching their first ideas.
Robert Marlinski, who was in the Runway Program last year and graduated this spring, was already an experienced player in the menswear business when he came to FGCU to step up his game.
In the fall 2016 Runway Program he received funding to launch a brand of watches in his business, Modern Made Man.
“I saw a void in the market,” he said, with most of his competitors working mainly with off-the-shelf components.
“They’re all sourcing the same case and the same dials and all they’re doing is changing the color of those dials,” he said.
Marlinski’s strategy was to work with watch designer Jeremy Smith to develop a custom product retailing for $499 – somewhat higher than the competition but with an original flair.
He attributes his success to a commitment to the menswear industry. “It helps when you’re passionate about something.”
NOTHING BUT BEAUTY
Samantha Mitchell and Michael Kunchal want to create a social platform exclusively for beauty bloggers and enthusiasts.
“There’s nothing like this,” said Mitchell, a dual business management and marketing major with minors in entrepreneurship and theater.
They planned to have a prototype website and mobile app, Smooch by Samitch, ready to go for the next International Make-Up Artist Trade Show (IMATS) in New York in early April.
Kunchal, a computer information systems student, is doing the technical work on the website and app.
“Coding is a passion of mine,” he said. “I get to do what I love to do every day.”