Student Start-ups Get National Notice

Student Start-ups Get National Notice

August 2, 2010/Detroit Free Press




A relative’s complaint about pricey special occasion clothes for an infant who would quickly outgrow them sparked Allen Kim’s idea for an online rental service for baby clothing.


A desire to make creditcard purchasing safer and more convenient inspired Daniel Pearson to develop a smart card that combines multiple credit cards into one.


The ideas have earned Kim, a University of Michigan senior, and Pearson, a Central Michigan University senior, the honor of being two of the five national finalists in a competition run by Entrepreneur magazine.


That two of the five finalists are Michigan students is likely a testament to the increased emphasis on entrepreneurism in the state. It’s an emphasis some say is crucial to turning the state’s economy around. Not only is much of the job growth happening in small companies, but experts say an entrepreneurial mind-set — including being open to new opportunities and developing different ways to do business — is crucial to being successful working in large companies.


Universities across Michigan are responding with programs to prepare students.


“A business school today without an entrepreneur program is just missing huge opportunities and what I think is an important commitment to the state,” said David Mielke, dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University. “We have an obligation.”


The state’s economy may be sparking a renewed interest in entrepreneurism, said Doug Neal, managing director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering at U-M.


“As economic conditions deteriorate and unemployment rises, people take those opportunities to strike out on their own. They end up taking charge of their own destiny as opposed to having things happen to them.” Student entrepreneurs say they know they’re part of the solution to the state’s economic woes.


“You can look through history and the people who go against the grain are the ones who thrive,” Pearson said.


Cards and clothes


Pearson is no stranger to entrepreneurism. When he was a teen at Kettering High School in Waterford, he started a landscaping company that he continued to run until last summer. Now majoring in entrepreneurship at CMU in Mt. Pleasant, Pearson has moved on to his new idea.


His Hybrid Card would allow a customer to integrate credit, debit and rewards cards into one smart card. When they swipe that card, the customer would get recommendations on which account to pay with based on interest rates and rewards bonuses.


Among his competition for the Entrepreneur award is Kim, who co-developed his idea with U-M graduate student Luis Calderon. They call the business — a quasi-Netflix for baby clothes — Bebaroo. Once it’s fully operational, parents will be able to pay a flat fee per month to rent baby clothes. The business is in its pilot stage, with about two dozen parents signed up to test it out. They’re also searching for investors and for a chief mom, someone to handle the merchandising.


Schools add more


Wayne State University and Walsh College announ ced this spring that they were bringing a program called the Blackstone Launch Pad to their respective campuses in Detroit and Troy, in a bid to spur entrepreneurism. And this summer at Wayne State, a separate program has six students spending the summer at Tech-Town, the university’s business and technology park, starting up their companies.


Among the student entrepreneurs is Ken Siegner. His Erisnet Technologies is geared toward trade show participants, and his idea is to create a handheld device attendees can use to access brochures, pamphlets and presentation materials. Siegner said he got the idea after attending a trade show a few years ago and seeing people laden down with materials.


“What I saw was people walking around with these bags filled with brochures,” Siegner said. “Some people even brought a wheelie cart, like a carry-on bag.”


Consciences included


All entrepreneurs want to make money. But some want more.


“More and more of our students are interested in social entrepreneurism,” Neal said. “They want to have a positive impact on the world around them.”


Noam Kimelman, a U-M graduate student, and Zach Markin, a U-M senior, are among a group of students who developed the idea for Get Fresh Detroit — a business that packages and distributes fresh produce to liquor and convenience stores in Detroit — during a social venture class this year at U-M.


The goal was to increase access to healthy food in Detroit. The two run the daily operations of the business, and like many other student entrepreneurs, they’re seeking investors. So far, in the first few weeks of operation at 10 stores, they haven’t made a profit but they have high hopes to expand to more stores. The produce packets come complete with recipes customers can make with the food.


Kimelm an said the experience this summer — he and Markin moved to Detroit from Ann Arbor to launch the business — has been educational.


“I feel like I’ve learned more this summer than I have in my entire life.”