Nov. 8, 2011

Three-day student entrepreneurship 'boot camp' generates six possible startups

Jason Koski/University Photography
Josh Schwartz, Ph.D. candidate in computer science, makes his pitch for InSight: Performance Enhancing Software as, from left, Nick Fishman, Michael Pu, Will Schurman, Christine Lee and Bryan-Benjamin Cuccioli look on.
Jason Koski/University Photography
From left, Charles Wu and Katie Layous of Facebook chat with 4th WALL team members Ranjay Krishna, Kimberly Chen, Qiming Fang, Anthony Chen, Brian Finn and Scott Bergman before Sunday's 3 Day Startup pitching session.

An intensive weekend for budding entrepreneurs started in Upson Hall on Nov. 4, as groups of students critiqued each other's ideas for new businesses.

Why would people want a mobile app to find the nearest butcher when many of them shop at Wegmans? Would writers really work together on a book if you set up an easy forum for them to collaborate online? How useful is a program that saves your most frequently used windows and opens them for you automatically when you sit down to work? And perhaps most importantly, how would you make money doing any of these things?

The 42 students in the lab, with majors as varied as computer science, mechanical engineering, English, law and business, spent a somewhat sleepless, but energized weekend moving their business ideas from concept to a viable plan as part of "3 Day Startup Cornell."

The event, organized by undergrads and led by Sohan Jain '12, was sponsored by Facebook, Entrepreneurship@Cornell, the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, the Association of Computer Science Undergrads, 10gen, Originate and Moat. Twelve business and alumni mentors worked with the students throughout the weekend.

While interning at Facebook this past summer, Jain learned about 3 Day Startup, which was founded in 2008 by students at the University of Texas-Austin.

"The atmosphere is energizing," said Raghu Chandrasekaran '10, a mobile engineer at Facebook who was on hand as a mentor. "It's exciting to see the level of collaboration going on."

Late Friday, students selected the top ideas from each group, and teams formed around those. Saturday's sessions focused on business development -- from customer engagement to product design to revenue models and market validation.

Teams presented another round of pitches Saturday night, then further refined the ideas into the night and all day Sunday. Six final pitches were delivered Sunday evening to a crowd of more than 100 in the Biotechnology Building and five judges, including Noah Goodhart '97, founder of Moat; Zach Shulman '87, J.D. '90, managing partner at Cayuga Venture Fund and Cornell senior lecturer; and Philip Zigoris '03, software engineer at Facebook.

"I was completely blown away by the participants and their presentations on Sunday," Jain said, adding that one team, AdPear, created a mobile phone app and had participants test it on their own phones during Sunday's pitch session.

Along with AdPear, which pairs ads to increase interest and purchases, the final businesses included a software application to improve athletes' training; an application to turn three iPhones into a three-camera TV studio for multi-angle videos; a gaming platform that allows game developers to personalize products; a crowd-sourced mobile jukebox; and a system to provide customer information to businesses at the start of a cell phone call.

The next step for these businesses? Most, Jain said, are working to solidify teams, build prototypes and determine the best way to move their project forward.

"In past 3DS events, there is at least one company that's gone on, either to be part of an incubator, raise revenue or bootstrapped itself," said Jain. "That will take a lot of time beyond this weekend, but we're giving people the tools they need to succeed."

Kathy Hovis is a writer/editor for Entrepreneurship@Cornell.