It was the spring of 2010, and I was an undergraduate student in Electrical Engineering at the University of Akron. Like all good students, I probably should have been studying for a midterm or doing homework. Instead, I found myself in a flurry, Google-searching for terms previously unknown to me. “Target Market,” “Value Proposition,” and “Gross Margin” were not words commonly used in my engineering curriculum. Yet there I was, along with another student that would soon become my co-founder, completing my first business competition application. We started out as two engineers, too busy having fun with electrical vehicle batteries to think twice about starting a company. But with the right “push” from trusted mentors and the right support system, we were able to successfully enter (and become finalists) in the LaunchTown Business Idea Competition.
Our idea seemed perfect to us: a new and improved battery management system. So for two years, we did all that we could. We entered numerous business pitch competitions, and even entered an entrepreneurship program on campus. We gobbled up as many education resources as we could, but for two years, we were unsuccessful in securing funding for our startup.
THE FIRST SUCCESS
Although things looked grim for some time, we pushed on. One day, through another trusted advisor, we found out about the Student Clean Energy Challenge Business Competition – a business competition designed for clean-tech student start-ups. How perfect! Having learned from our past mistakes, we made an effort to get connected with local entrepreneurship support networks such as JumpStart, where we received free mentoring services with an experienced entrepreneur in our field (note that this mentor later joined us as our full-time CEO – just goes to show you that you never know what will happen when you expand your network!). In addition, prior to the competition we grew our engineering-heavy team by one to include a stellar MBA student to help with business-development. In retrospect, growing our team at just the right time proved to be key to our success. After a nerve-wracking 60-second fast-pitch competition, we were the winners of the State of Ohio Clean Energy Prize and just about broke the bank with our first $10,000 in grant funding!
That spring was a flurry of activity for us. Shortly after the Challenge, we received $100,000 in grant funding through the Ohio Third Frontier program. This was our ticket to ramping-up on tech development, licensing the existing Intellectual Property (IP) we needed from the University, and filing new IP on our own as we spun ourselves out of Akron.
CTRL-ALT-DEL: THE ALL-IMPORTANT PIVOT
Oh, and did I mention that it was also at this time that we threw-away nearly all of our existing business plan and product concepts and started from scratch?
Yep. One of the hardest realities of entrepreneurship is that often times if you want be successful, you need to listen to your customers, read the signs, and let go. This is exactly what happened to us. Resulting from numerous business competitions, discussions with experts in the field and countless customers, we realized that there was no market for our “new and improved” battery management tech. It wasn’t an easy “break-up”.
So in our state of pure determination, we took our combined brainpower, locked ourselves in a room, and came up with a brand-new product concept in a day (that’s how it happens in the movies, right?). In this process, we realized that previously, we had a solution with no problem to solve (a far-too-common mistake for startups), so this time we did things “right”.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEAM
Following a year of re-invention and re-branding, we completed our first demonstration unit with the help of four “rock star” electrical engineering students (who we knew from the University of Akron). To this point, often times you will hear dialogue concerning the importance of picking the right team. As a company, we were very fortunate to grab the attention of the right people at the right time, who not only share in our passion for the technology, but also have the right skill sets, drive, personality, and life-situation to fit perfectly with our team.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NETWORKING
At this time, we also found ourselves a substantial OEM go-to-market partner that came as the result of a serendipitous conference networking-event, in addition to other fantastic local organizations that have made our recent progress as an organization quite easy. Just goes to show the importance of getting your startup out there and building your network, something that entrepreneurial support programs have always helped us with.
And here we are! Recently back from 20-something-th attempt at raising more funding, we received another much-needed $75,000 in funding to keep us going as we move forward to pursue a large-scale technology demonstration and Series A funding. Speaking of our local support-network, we have recently moved into our own office/lab (ok, so it’s more like a converted warehouse…but that makes it that much cooler). To tie a bow on this story, our lab is now located at the Akron Global Business Accelerator – the exact facility we interviewed at just before our first-ever business competition so many years ago.
Is starting a company while in school easy? No. But is anything worth doing ever easy? Further, is it any more difficult than attempting a startup at other times in your life? I don’t think so: being a student can give you a huge edge. With support network we discovered as a team, we had many advantages and student-specific opportunities to grow and learn as an organization. And that’s exactly why organizations like Spark Clean Energy are so important – they are building the very bridge that we at DFT had to build ourselves. So if you’re a student interested in starting a clean-tech startup, the starting point is right at your fingertips! Check out Spark Clean Energy HERE!