Path to success: The entrepreneurship ecosystem at ASU

October 14, 2013

The opportunities for Arizona State University students and alumni who want help starting businesses are staggering, and often, they are free. This was the message at a recent seminar unveiling an exhaustive list of resources available at ASU's campuses and in the greater Phoenix area. “Entrepreneurship Ecosystem” was a collaborative effort of the W. P. Carey School Alumni Relations and Entrepreneurial Initiatives programs and the W. P. Carey MBA.

“This is a great overview of the entrepreneurship ecosystem for MBAs. A lot of times when you're in a focused academic environment, you're not necessarily aware of what is available outside your program area,” said Janet Holston, a 2008 W.P. Carey MBA graduate and director of programs and solutions at ASU’s Foundation for a New American University. “It’s a great idea to expose the MBAs and alumni to the wide range of resources that we have in the community and in the university. I think we'll get some interesting start-ups out of this, potentially.”

Matt Smith (W. P. Carey MBA ‘11) was one of about 50 students and alumni at the event. Recent graduates sometimes feel that “our only place is in a world where entrepreneurs have already succeeded,” he said. “This reminds you that there is support and opportunities for entrepreneurs.”

The seminar was “exciting” and “overwhelming,” Smith said. “I don't think you can hear all this and say, 'Now I know where to go,' But to be reminded of the networks out there is critical,” he said.

Gangplank among big names at seminar

Presenters included entrepreneur-friendly groups -- including the trend-setting Gangplank, whose representatives dressed down (blue jeans, black t-shirts) to anti-establishment expectations.

Gangplank is a free, collaborative work space with locations in downtown Chandler and Avondale. It’s backed by private and civic funding, including the cities of Chandler and Avondale.

“It's difficult to convey how fun and exciting it is to work out of Gangplank,” said Vincent Nguyen. “Our culture is very casual and very informal. We encourage you to be dangerous and to just break out of that conventional thinking....We want you to drink our Kool-Aid.”

Not only does Gangplank sport an informal culture, the group sponsors free business training and has access to 55 mentors in the Valley, said Jeremy Scott. “We like to say we are a leaderless organization. You participate by doing.”

On-campus resources are numerous

At ASU, “There are a lot of exciting resources that are available to students no matter where you on any of the campuses,” said Sidnee Peck, director of entrepreneurial initiatives for W. P. Carey.

Among those resources are several entrepreneurship courses at W. P. Carey School, in marketing and finance. An innovation advancement program, set up in partnership with the law school, allows business and law students to work together on start-up companies. The law school provides other resources including the ability to apply for patents at a reduced cost, Peck pointed out.

Then there's Changemaker Central, which provides free work space on ASU's campuses for entrepreneurs. More work space is provided through the summer AREA 48 program, which also offers summer-long classes to the public.

TechShop, which calls itself a “membership-based, do-it-yourself workshop” with sophisticated tools, will be located at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center in downtown Chandler. TechShop, a national organization, works like a gym membership; ASU students can join at a reduced rate.

“This is the first time they are partnering with a university,” Peck said.

At the College of Technology and Innovation at Polytechnic, ASU’s east valley campus, a myriad of classes and programs are available, all in “beautiful” surroundings that are less crowded the Tempe campus, Peck said.

CTI has just opened Start Up Village, where entrepreneurs can live and take classes.

“Your whole entrepreneurial experience will be on campus, and you'll be surrounded by people doing the same thing,” Peck said. Any student from any campus and with any major is welcome.

Along similar lines, ASU's SkySong -- four miles north of the main campus in south Scottsdale -- is developing into a place where people can live, work and play in an entrepreneurial environment.

Contests, local groups can provide funding, guidance

Brent Sebold, senior venture manager for ASU's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group based at SkySong, explained the numerous award opportunities for tens of thousands of dollars in various “cut-throat” competitions.

The contests are run by the ASU-affiliated Arizona Furnace Accelerator, the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative and the ASU Innovation Challenge.

“ASU is recognized as having among the most innovative students,” he said. For example, ASU has finished in the top five in the nation for three years running in a major national entrepreneurial competition.

Attendees heard from Dave Loaney of Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), which boasts about 9,000 members world-wide; their local chapter, with about 150 members, is one of the largest. EO provides speakers, events and leadership training.

Loaney recalled that when he was starting a restaurant, he asked for advice from the membership network. He got about 125 responses. “It's amazing how much help you get … The learning opportunities are awesome.”

Established businesses need to have $1 million in revenue to be a member of EO while accelerators need revenues of $250,000 and planned growth to $1 million within three years.

There are even organizations set up to help new businesses with a social mission, including SEED SPOT, a Valley-based group now in its second year of operation. This summer, more than 100 entrepreneurs applied to become involved with SEED SPOT; the group accepted 15. SEED SPOT will provide the firms with office space and mentors, and will work with the group’s alliance of national investors.

SEED SPOT charges $2,500, or $750 for a less inclusive evening program.

“We learned that if the entrepreneur has skin in the game it makes a huge difference,” said SEED SPOT's Courtney Klein. “In exchange, we don't take equity in the companies. We believe the entrepreneurs should 100 percent own their companies.”

Locally, the firm got a huge victory working for legislation that will protect “benefit corporations” -- firms set up for a social mission that want to maintain their benefits to a community even if outside investors want to take the company in a different direction.

CEOs and business founders have all offered similar advice, said Tishin Donkersley of AZ Tech Beat, which bills itself at Arizona's premiere on-line news source for the high-tech industry. Get a good mentor, they say.

“Mentors are so key,” she said. “It's amazing how many people don't take advantage of that.”

Surely, there's no reason to pass up this advantage at ASU.

Take advantage of faculty

Peck says ASU’s four campuses are populated with professors whose expertise could be invaluable to a startup.

“Those folks should be on your advisory boards or should be mentors to you, or you should at least have a meeting with them. It's a great opportunity for students and alumni,” she said. “I've never had a faculty member say no. We have so many experts who are well known and excellent in their areas.”

Even with the proper mentorship and financial backing, though, new companies often fail. David Rice of desarrollo, a corporate-backed group that promotes Arizona as a premiere destination for entrepreneurs and gives them free assistance, said 50 percent of businesses fail within one year and 95 percent go down within five years.

Along these same lines, Donkersley said all entrepreneurs need a confident ego -- strong enough to fire friends and family members who aren't good for the business. Yet, “Sometimes you can't continue to invest in failure,” she said. “You have to know when to stop.”

Those who get off the ground need financial backing. Attendees heard about angel investors such as the Arizona Technology Investors Forum (ATIF). Usually, investors are looking for high-tech and science-oriented businesses where companies have large potential markets. A typical investment is in the range of $300,000 to $500,000.

ATIF started at ASU as a way to help professors and students with entrepreneurial ideas but now is independent of the university.

The Bottom Line

  • Budding entrepreneurs have a range of options for assistance at all ASU campuses.
  • W. P. Carey offers courses in entrepreneurship, including those in marketing and finance.
  • Faculty experts are willing to provide free advice to students and alumni.
  • Off-campus organizations such as Gangplank and Tech Shop offer either free or reduced cost space for entrepreneurs.
  • Entrepreneurs can get off the ground with funding provided by numerous contests offered through ASU.
  • Entrepreneurs with a social mission can find help through SEED SPOT.
  • Angel investors, such as those at ATIF, can provide funding for entrepreneurs.