iCare – FACULTY/STUDENT ENTREPRENEURS

This venture, developed jointly between the College of Nursing and the College of Engineering, teamed faculty and students to create a simulation tool for training on electronic health care records.  Acquired in 2010 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, the product was launched in 2012.  Read more here.

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Casenova – STUDENT ENTREPRENEUR

Jake Baron’s mantra might be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

That is certainly the case with the founder of Casenova, who developed 22 different models of his one-strap backpack or knapsack that will be available this fall for students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). Along the way, Baron has developed 10 new concepts that use the same basic design but are customized to the particular audience.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the December 2011 UTK graduate said his entrepreneurial inspiration came one day during his junior year as he was “walking back to my apartment” and experiencing the discomfort of his traditional two-strap backpack.

Although he had never sewn before, Baron decided that he could design and produce a backpack that was more ergonomically comfortable and would better meet the needs of students, many of whom carried a laptop and iPad, rather than books, to class. His idea was to redistribute weight evenly throughout the body to reduce stress on the back while also providing the types of pockets that today’s students need for cellphones, sunglasses and water bottles.

“I made my first prototype by hand,” he said, adding, “I pricked my finger a number of times.” The initial prototype was redesigned nearly two-dozen times before Baron settled on the latest version that is now glued rather than hand sewn.

“It can handle 14 to 16 pounds,” he says. “The single strap curves to the shape of the body,” in essence allowing the backpack to “mold to the user’s body” over time.

Baron says the Casenova, which is made from Neoprene, creates a “weightless effect” where users believe they are carrying less weight than they actually are.

“A lot of the weight is down in the rib area which takes stress off the shoulders and back,” he explains.

Some two and one-half years after designing his first backpack, Baron is about to embark on selling his product line. He recently received his initial shipment of backpacks from his Chinese manufacturer and has arranged for them to be sold for $59.99 each in the UTK Computer Store.

Baron says that “marketing is not my strongest suit,” but one would never know that as he outlines his plans for rapidly growing beyond the initial UTK market.

“The school industry is changing; it’s going digital,” he says. “I’m trying to ride that wave.” This means sales meetings at local computer stores, since he sees computer users as one of his biggest markets.

Baron also has a webpage – http://www.case-nova.com/ – where customers can learn more about the backpacks and actually purchase one. They come in three colors – black, light pink and royal blue.

Like most entrepreneurs, Baron’s journey in getting from idea to product was not a linear process. His, however, was different from many in the fact that he took a trip halfway around the world in the midst of starting-up.

Baron, who double majored in accounting and Chinese and world business, competed in three events for entrepreneurs while also constantly refining his product design. He entered one of his first prototypes in the UTK Undergraduate Student Business Competition in the Spring 2010 semester. When he won first prize and $5,000, he decided that maybe his idea was a viable business opportunity. Several months later, Baron entered a second UTK-sponsored business competition – Vol Court – and finished second.

Spring Semester 2011 found him engaged in a study abroad internship in China. The time there proved to be fortuitous for Baron and his company, Baron Innovation, LLC. The U.S.-based manufacturer of the backpacks ceased operations, but Baron was able to find a replacement firm in China.

Earlier this year, he won the Boyd Venture Fund competition and $12,500 which is enabling him to secure sufficient product to start commercial sales.

Even as he focuses on students, Baron is also eyeing a number of other potential markets. One involves individuals interested in outdoor sports, hunting, and fishing. “I only have to make a few changes for those markets,” he says. He’s also focused on a smaller version for women and a leather version for business executives.

Baron thought he would be an accountant when he moved from Maryland to Knoxville to enroll in UTK. Then, as he readily admits, “I came across this idea, it stuck, and I got traction. I’m having fun.”

One can easily visualize Baron continuing to pursue enhancements to his existing Casenova product as well as new spin-offs from it and possibly entirely different businesses. He’s clearly one who does not mind trying and trying and trying.

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM PERSHING YOAKLEY ASSOCIATES

Foundation Games – STUDENT ENTREPRENEUR

Imagine that you have not yet earned your bachelor’s degree and you already have an established company with offices in places like Sydney, Australia and Manila, The Philippines in addition to Austin, TX.

This is the reality of the life of Aron Beierschmitt, a 2012 University of Tennessee political science graduate, who says he was first turned-on to entrepreneurship by his Oak Ridge High School economics teacher.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Beierschmitt described the roughly two-year “ride” that he has experienced since he started Foundation Mobile Games in February 2010. The inspiration for the company was Beierschmitt’s observation that “smart phones were the first computer devices to “literally be attached to an individual 24/7.”

“The sheer amount of potential products and services that could be delivered through that mechanism drove me to start a mobile company,” he said. That company later modified its focus and changed its name to simply Foundation Games.

Foundation is Beierschmitt’s first start-up, although it is not his first idea for a company. One was an idea that would compete with Facebook. Beierschmitt distributed messages about his idea on LinkedIn and received three responses. One person told him to never contact him again. A second did not understand his idea. The third was an individual from Brazil who said, “Let’s talk,” He ultimately did not invest, but the two continued to communicate, and the Brazilian is now an investor in Foundation.

Beierschmitt’s second idea was a localized version of “PriceGrabber” for China and India.

“I really got nowhere near a company with these two ideas,” he said. “They were merely products I hoped to build.”

Fast forward a few years, and Beierschmitt is a UT sophomore in mechanical engineering whose goal is to get a dual master’s degree in engineering and business when the Apple App Store opened. This became the proverbial “defining moment” in his still young life.

He remembers early 2010 – February 23 to be exact. It was the date he launched his latest journey – Foundation, “a pivotal moment in my life because really four years of persistence had finally led me to secure funding for an idea,” Beierschmitt said.

When he founded the company, Beierschmitt said that he was focused on “mobile gaming,” and he immediately started work to secure a gaming license for the company and its initial product – Dropple.

“While we were developing Dropple, I approached the ORNL Federal Credit Union to build their mobile banking application,” he said. “At the time, I believed we could offer a turn-key solution for credit unions across the nation to provide a comprehensive mobile banking suite.”

Admitting that “I was not a huge video gamer – my mom never let me play too many games as a kid,” Beierschmitt said that he realized “you can take anything you can imagine” and make it into a game. “The drive to gaming for me was the ability to create a world from nothing and share it with other people.”

Over the next few months, he came in second in a UT business competition and won $3,000. Beierschmitt took his prize money and secured $10,000 from the Brazilian with whom he had kept in contact since his initial start-up when he was only 16. He quickly started developing games from the licenses that he had already secured.

To continue pursuing his vision, Beierschmitt leveraged connections an uncle in Texas had to game developers and secured his first real seed investment dollars from Treyarch. With the licenses and additional funds, he launched his first game – “Dropple” – in August 2010.

“It wasn’t the instant success I hoped for,” he admitted. The video game initially received ratings of three out of five in online evaluations, but Beierschmitt was able to make improvements that moved “Dropple” to ratings of five out of five because we grew as a company, adding designers and artists.

Armed with his early success, Beierschmitt acquired the license to convert an existing Facebook application called “Ravenwood Fair” to an application for Apple devices and, with that acquisition, secured another round of seed funds from the same set of initial investors.

Beierschmitt describes 2011 as a “crazy year.” Foundation grew from just Beierschmitt and an occasional contractor to 20 people as the company secured another round of investment funds and “Dropple” downloads grew. Offices were opened in Sydney – “the gaming business died in the big studios there and (art and design) talent became available” – and Manila (programming). The latest game – “Lumi” – was released in December.

If 2011 was “crazy,” it appears that 2012 could be even “crazier.” Beierschmitt expects to graduate at the end of the summer semester, not in mechanical engineering or with the double master’s but in political science. He’ll become Foundation’s full-time Creative Director. A new version of “Dropple” will be released within the month followed within another 30 days by the revised “Ravenwood Fair.” Foundation has plans to move from just Apple apps to Android as well. There’s a proposal from an Asian company to launch “Lumi” merchandise. And, there’s an opportunity in Singapore to explore that could provide Foundation with a launch point into the Asian market.

Then there’s the decision of where Beierschmitt and the company will be based. While he “absolutely loves Knoxville,” he readily admits that he cannot find the talent to develop games here that he can in Manila, Sydney, possibly France and certainly Austin and Raleigh. In response to what do those cities have that Knoxville does not, Beierschmitt says that “a great engineering mind or 3D CAD artist cannot simply jump into gaming. They have to understand the psychology of developing an experience. This particular talent is just not available in Knoxville.”

“Much as people go to film school, they are now going to gaming school,” he explained.

Beierschmitt says that he is “still incredibly naïve but has learned a lot.” Yet, he can clearly and succinctly discuss issues and opportunities in the gaming industry. He notes that there are one billion smartphones worldwide now, and the number is expected to grow to three billion by 2015 as emerging countries bypass land lines and go straight to other technologies.

“Gaming is going the way of ‘Software as a Service,’” he says, adding that more and more games will be downloaded for a tryout. “The conversion rate (from tryout to purchase) is the key,” he explained.

“The industry is so crazy, so now is a good time to enter,” Beierschmitt believes. His long-term goal is simple – “we want to be a Zynga but better by building compelling and memorable experiences for users.”

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM PERSHING YOAKLEY AND ASSOCIATES

EventBooking.com – ALUMNI ENTREPRENEUR

John Platillero developed the business plan for this software company in 1995 while a student in the MBA program.  He launched it in the middle of the dot-com bubble (which it survived!), and it continues to grow and prosper today.  This story from the Knoxville Business Journal describes the company history, the product, and the progress that John and his wife Mitzi have made to date.

Read about the story here.

DineTouch – STUDENT ENTREPRENEURS

After experiencing delays in ordering and receiving their food in restaurants, these 2011 graduates (one engineering, one business), paired up and created a system that allows people to use their smart devices to enhance the restaurant experience.  During their tenure at UT, they won several competitions and are now pursuing the entrepreneurial dream. This Tennessee Archways publications describes a day in their life and what they have learned as they have launched their new business.

Download the PDF.

Update 4/15/13, courtesy of Pershing Yoakley & Associates:

Joey Natour and Seth Elliott have dedicated a good portion of the last couple of years to DineTouch, their start-up focused on restaurants and their customers. They can now enjoy the results of their hard work with a proprietary application that is available in one restaurant along the Cumberland Avenue strip.

Natour, Co-Founder and Partner in DineTouch, LLC, told teknovation.biz that the company has an officially approved app available for downloading from the “Food and Drink” category at the Apple iTunes Store. It was added to the list of downloads at the end of March. And, equally important, the DineTouch app can now be used by customers dining at the new SunSpot, its launch partner and first commercial client.

The concept behind DineTouch is to be a service to both the restaurants that subscribe to its software app and their customers, providing an efficient and expedited way to order food and drink and pay.

The process is actually very simple in today’s world of smart phones. A customer or group of customers enter a restaurant and are seated. There is a card on the table that has a unique Quick Response (QR) code for the restaurant. The customers use their mobile devices to scan the restaurant’s unique QR code which allows them to immediately access the menu. They can review it electronically, order their food, and ultimately pay their bill if they want to do so.

Natour said that the restaurants benefit by addressing their biggest challenges – table turnover and more revenue per table. In the case of the customer, the ordering process is in the individual’s hands, literally.

“One of the biggest hurdles we have encountered is partnering with POS (point of sales) companies and getting the green light to integrate our solution with their system,” Natour said. “Pretty much all of them said ‘no’ at first.” For Natour and Elliott, it was simply a challenge that fueled, rather than discouraged their passion.

“We since then have integrated with POSitouch (third largest in the country) and Micros system (largest POS company in the country,” he added. Fund raising was also a big challenge as the duo “heard ‘no’ more times than you care to hear.”

Natour had nothing but praise for the SunSpot team, starting with owner Randy Burleson and continuing through Jeff Dickert, Director of Operations for the Aubrey’s Group, and Mark Hawkins, SunSpot General Manager. “They have been our partners, and we are extremely excited about launching DineTouch into one of Knoxville’s most reputable establishments,” he added.

Nutraceutical Discovery Inc. – FACULTY ENTREPRENEUR

Dr. Michael Zemel discovered a way to “speed up” the metabolic process using a unique combination of natural ingredients.  Realizing its commercial potential, he has been deeply involved in starting a company based on his work that is expected to launch product in late 2012.  The 2010 UT Research Foundation Annual Report describes his research and how a company has been launched to commercialize the resulting products.

Download the PDF.

Whitney Martin – ENTREPRENEUR ALUM

A UT business school grad, lawyer, and former entrepreneur, Whitney Martin experienced difficulties first-hand in finding capital as an entrepreneur in the mid-1980’s.  As a result, she co-founded and is the current chair of the Texas Women Ventures Fund, a firm that invests in and advises high-growth women-led companies in Texas and the Southwest.  An article written in 2011 by Tennessee Archways spotlight her efforts and her love for UT. 

Download the PDF.