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Encouraging Entrepreneurship

January 4, 2018
woman rubbing chalk on her hands preparing to rock climb
UW student Tabitha Briscoe won the $50K John P. Ellbogen Entrepreneurship Competition in 2015 with her idea for a rock-climbing business.

The planned Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship will work with existing programs to promote entrepreneurship in students, faculty members and people across the state.

By Micaela Myers

New businesses and industries help states diversify their economies. As the state’s land-grand institution, the University of Wyoming can lead the way in Wyoming—creating an educated workforce, generating new technologies and know-how, and helping to drive the creation of new businesses and industries.

Already home to a number of entrepreneurship programs, which you can read about on the following pages, UW also plans to create an Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship as part of the university’s five-year strategic plan. The vision behind this university-wide entity is to create an organization that integrates innovation with entrepreneurship, supporting inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs—including students, faculty, staff, those outside the university and existing businesses—along the entire pathway from idea to successful commercialization. 

Proposed aspects of the new center include academic programs, such as an entrepreneurship major and a minor open to all majors; an entrepreneurship track MBA in the College of Business; a technology management professional master’s degree as a joint degree between the College of Business and the College of Engineering and Applied Science; and entrepreneurship coursework offered by programs across the university.

Elements of the center also will include the innovation/makerspace currently in Coe Library, as well as emerging programs under development, such as the Health Bioscience Innovation Hub, New Ventures Sales and Marketing Center, and the Business Creation Factory. Additional proposed elements include a Center for Design Thinking, Center for Disruptive Technologies and a Center for Regional Economics and Population Demographics.

An innovation/makerspace will be located in the Engineering Education and Research Building when it opens in early 2019, serving as a large prototyping and fabrication space where students can come up with ideas to help solve real-world problems. In addition to that innovation center, the building will house an entrepreneurship center.

“The entrepreneurship space is designed to support student-faculty entrepreneur teams in beginning commercialization of technology,” says College of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Michael Pishko. “You learn best by doing. Students will learn by creating companies and being able to shepherd them through the process.

“We will have entrepreneurs in residence who will work with the students there and help serve as mentors and guide those teams as they go through the process,” he adds.

Due to the colleges’ leading roles in entrepreneurship on campus, Pishko has been working with interim College of Business Dean David Chicoine on the plan for the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

On the following pages, you can read about some of the current programs that will continue to support the larger vision for entrepreneurship underway at UW.

$50K Competition

The College of Business has long supported entrepreneurship, offering courses, a minor and a major in entrepreneurship, and an annual UW Entrepreneurship Summit alongside the $50K John P. Ellbogen Entrepreneurship Competition. 

The annual competition starts each fall and is aimed at supporting new ventures based on university-developed research and innovations. It features two tracks—a business track and a social enterprise track—and each is narrowed down to the top five. The teams receive their own financial mentor to help them with projections, and in the spring they pitch their ideas at the Entrepreneurship Summit. Each track winner can earn a total of $25,000 and one year of incubation space at the Wyoming Technology Business Center.

The competition has grown from 14 teams in 2014 to 76 in 2016, representing 180 students. “It represents every college on campus,” says College of Business Assistant Dean Steve Russell, adding that competition now includes Laramie County Community College students.

Casper’s Tabitha Briscoe won the competition in 2015 as an accounting sophomore for her company idea, Cruxx Climbing. Now an accounting master’s student at UW, her business helped pay her way through school, led her to find her passion in startup accounting and taught her invaluable lessons.

The focus of her company turned out to be chalk bags made of recycled fabric sold to rock climbers. But the real prize was the doors the competition opened for her and the knowledge she gained.

“I now have so much more confidence in myself to be able to do so much more with my degree,” Briscoe says. After winning the competition, she interned with previous winner Bright Agrotech, a vertical farming company. Started by alumnus Nate Storey, Bright Agrotech grew to 43 Laramie employees and was recently acquired by Plenty, a Silicon Valley company that plans to maintain and enhance the Wyoming operation. Storey credits his time at the university, particularly his time in the Wyoming Technology Business Center, for much of his success. 

“The competition itself opened doors for me,” Briscoe says. “I had a job offer from one of the top four accounting firms in the world. It was all because of the entrepreneurial background. They want the people who are problem-solvers, who are driven and who have the experience.”

Briscoe wants to help more startups in the future. “I’ve just fallen in love with the profession and what it can do for businesses that are getting started,” she says of her accounting experience.

She encourages students to pursue the competition. “There are so many people who are available and excited to help you grow your ideas and get the knowledge and skills you need to be successful,” Briscoe says of UW. “Wyoming itself is hungry for entrepreneurs—they’re hungry for business.”

Wyoming Technology Business Center

People are full of good ideas, and Jon Benson, chief executive officer of the Wyoming Technology Business Center, finds competitions provide the incentive for students and residents alike to take the next step.

In addition to the center’s role in the $50K competition at UW, Benson oversees competitions at the Casper and Sheridan incubation centers and hosts the Fisher Innovation Challenge $100,000 Seed Fund at the Laramie center. Launched in 2016, the competition is supported through the generous financial gift of Donne Fisher, matched by the UW Office of Research and Economic Development. It seeks to catalyze Wyoming innovation and technology startup businesses and provide the opportunity to apply for seed money to take the business past concept stage and into real-world builds and sales.

The competition begins in the spring and is judged each fall. All finalists are coached through the full process of building a viable business concept. Each team must include at least one UW student having principal involvement in the venture, but other team members can come from faculty/staff ranks or outside the university. Six qualifiers are chosen and awarded initial funds to incorporate their businesses. From the initial competition, all six qualifiers are still growing their businesses with the center’s help.

woman in tiara holding a chicken
UW student Jaycey Lindsey, Miss Wyoming International, was one of the first qualifers in the Fisher Innovation Challenge $100,000 Seed Fund competition through the Wyoming Technology Business Center with her concept for Pralee Eggs & Hatchery.

One of those qualifiers, Jaycey Lindsey of Wright, was a senior in the Department of Animal Science when she developed her concept for Pralee Eggs & Hatchery. Now a master’s degree student in agricultural economics, Lindsey’s concept started during her undergraduate research with Associate Professor Jonathan Prather, where they addressed lowered breeding efficiency for zebra finches using developments in artificial insemination. She discovered the idea could be commercialized and applied to poultry farmers. Lindsey currently rents an unused building from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and has 400 chickens on the site.

As she studies the profitability of using artificial insemination for the birds versus live roosters, the business is making revenue by selling chickens, eggs and meat. Lindsey hopes to prove that using artificial insemination is the most profitable way to breed chickens, turkeys, ducks and other birds and then help poultry businesses convert.

The mentoring she received from the competition has helped her in a variety of ways, including market research. “It’s like taking your first steps without your parents helping you walk—it’s nearly impossible because you can’t even stand on your own two feet yet,” Lindsey says of starting a business. “Basically, they give you the tools to be able to understand how to start your business, and then afterward if you have any questions concerning how to move forward, they’re always open to talk to you.”

The Wyoming Technology Business Center began in 2006 and is part of the Wyoming Business Resource Network. Through the network, the UW Office of Research and Economic Development and the Wyoming Business Council collaborate with a variety of partners to assist businesses throughout the state. Existing programs in the network include the Wyoming Procurement and Technical Assistance Center, Manufacturing Works, Market Research Center, Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center, Wyoming SBIR/STTR Initiative and Wyoming Small Business Development Center (learn more at uwyo.edu/research/business-resource-network).

The WTBC focuses on educating and supporting early-stage, technology-based companies in the state with an emphasis on high-growth firms. All clients in the incubator receive business counseling and executive coaching services. The center also supports networking opportunities, such as its e2e—entrepreneur to entrepreneur—series of talks.

“Entrepreneurship gives you natural diversification,” Benson says. “With an early-stage business, all you need is one talented person.”

A successful business often creates spinoffs, which further diversify the economy. Casper clients include a medical device company and a drone company. Graduates of the Laramie center include Falcon Technology Systems, which produces specialty computers for day traders; Firehole Composites, a software company that went on to be acquired by Autodesk; Happy Jack Software; Medicine Bow Technologies, which provides solutions and products for technology-dependent businesses; TigerTree Land Management (a winner of the Ellbogen competition), which focuses on tree health; the aforementioned Bright Agrotech; Analogic Engineering, which develops and manufactures ultrasonic nondestructive test equipment; Project Guide Services, which provides project management; and Z4 Energy Systems, which focuses on renewable energy products. Among a long list of current clients is GlycoBac, started by UW student Christoph Geisler and molecular biology Professor Don Jarvis. The UW-owned technology uses genetically engineered insect cells for manufacturing vaccines, diagnostics or therapeutics for use in human and veterinary medicine. To learn more about current and past clients and services, visit uwyo.edu/wtbc.

Future Entrepreneurs

The planned Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship will catalyze existing entrepreneurship programs with key new offerings to support future generations of innovators, creators and problem-solvers.

Diversifying Wyoming’s Economy

The University of Wyoming’s entrepreneurship efforts work alongside Gov. Matt Mead’s ENDOW—Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming—initiative, launched in 2016, of which UW is a partner. The initiative is aimed at creating a comprehensive approach to diversifying Wyoming’s economy. Learn more at endowyo.biz.


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