When Somer Baburek was in the hospital giving birth to her first child, she was annoyed. The machine monitoring her baby’s heart rate kept her trapped in bed with cumbersome straps. The straps were constantly slipping off, causing alarms to sound and nurses to come running.
Surely there was a better way to monitor labor progression, allowing mothers to move or rest whenever possible.
So, she invented it.
With a team of fellow University of Texas at San Antonio students, Baburek launched the Labor Guard. Their company, Claresta Solutions, plans to seek Series A funding in the first quarter of 2015. The company is on its second generation prototype and has navigated deftly the resource field every step of the way.
“All of that has come from the (Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship) CITE program,” Baburek said.
In 2007 UTSA faculty members in business and engineering teamed up to create an extracurricular program that would give undergraduate students in both departments the kind of real-world experience that would help them launch careers as entrepreneurs. The efforts have been tremendous, but so has their enthusiasm.
“We’re all champions to this,” said Anita Leffel, Assistant Director of UTSA’s CITE.
Now, seven years later, CITE has blossomed into a course offering benefitting nearly 500 students. It brings aspiring entrepreneurs from both departments into a scenario that closely mirrors the development and launch process for new products. The semester culminates in a competition to pitch a viable product demonstrating both the engineering students’ “proof of concept” and the business model from their partners.
“They don’t just pitch a product. There has to be a prototype attached,” said Leffel.
It’s not just an academic exercise either. The winners of the competition walk away with around $100,000 in cash and services toward their start up.
As the program grew, the faculty felt something was missing to complete the real world preparation.
“They learned accounting, business models, and strategy in their courses, but they needed mentors,” said Leffel.
That’s when Dr. Cory Hallam approached the Harvard Business School (HBS) Club in San Antonio to make a pitch of his own, inviting the businessmen and women to share their “boots on the ground experience” with the CITE students. Like any business success story, Hallam’s pitch was to the right people at the right time. The HBS Club was looking for outreach opportunities.
William Tolhurst, a San Antonio native and self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur” was among the first mentors to work with the CITE program. He and other HBS Club members were invited to observe the students making their pitches at the end of the semester. They saw potential, but also the need for experience. The kind of experience they could offer.
For Tolhurst, who has worked in Seattle, Atlanta, the D.C. metro area, and Boston, CITE has potential beyond the individual businesses it spawns.
“It is one more link in the chain to build and ecosystem for tech development,” said Tolhurst.
After three years as a mentor, Tolhurst went on to head the mentor program. When he was ready to get back to the hands on mentoring, which he and many others find richly rewarding, Becky Cap took the reins. They also instituted an Advisory Board to think more broadly about how the mentorship program could foster a tech startup culture in the city. UTSA is still their priority, but why stop there? The legions of mentors are growing, expanding beyond the HBS Club into numerous fields and professions.
Cap’s early goal was to grow the database of mentors to 50-60 professionals in diverse fields. The database has since surpassed that goal, and Cap is looking to triple it. To that end, they have taken on the name San Antonio TechBoosters, and expanded their social media presence. (Twitter handle: @SATechBoosters.)
CITE matches the mentors with relevant students projects to maximize its effectiveness. Now, the mentors work increasingly in teams, to bring multiple perspectives to the students. This has brought such a diversity of professionals into the mentorship program, that it has become a valuable networking mechanism for its members, further strengthening the city’s tech ecosystem.
Baburek’s team benefited heavily from the passion of their mentor, Ian Clements of Targeted Technology.
“That group of guys is so dedicated to the San Antonio entrepreneurship community,” said Baburek.
Beyond those who actually mentor, UTSA students are exposed to a high level business network across the city. The mentors often plug students into their own circles of influence, leading to the kind of jobs and resources that make San Antonio an appealing place to build a young company. Through their mentors, they find themselves in conversation with executives and others with the power to shepherd their project into reality.
“It would be very difficult to just go launch a product as a business student,” said Baburek.
It’s not just altruism though. At the end of the day, these are business people, and quality is essential.
“The kids’ projects have merited getting these people involved,” said Cap.
For the students, the program serves as a crucial conduit between academic life and professional life. The mentors meet with Leffel and her team to understand and support the syllabus, but their most valuable contributions might be those things never covered in a classroom.
Their first lesson: communication.
One great challenge for a tech startup is bringing together the necessary communication styles of “tech people” and “business people.” Both are essential to the success of the product, and yet often their greatest hurdle is understanding each other and appreciating what the other brings to the table. The mentors can shepherd this process, and many have had to learn the lessons themselves.
“This is the essence of the real world,” said Tolhurst.
This fusion of styles has led to noticeable improvement in the products.
“The products have gotten better, and the thinking behind them has improved,” said Leffel.
The other major lesson not covered in the curriculum is time management. College students procrastinate. But with only three months to get from concept to pitch, there’s no time to waste.
“Starting a business in three months is really aggressive,” said Tolhurst.
The mentors began to notice a tendency to dawdle in the beginning and rush in the end. So they introduced the “interim review” to give students not only an early benchmark, but also a reality check. The pitch process is usually far more intense than they anticipate, and going through a mock version at the midterm gives them the jolt of adrenaline they need to finish strong.
This is one area where non-traditional students, of whom UTSA has many, are at an advantage. Most of them have had some kind of real-world workplace experience that gives them the time management and discipline to pace a project.
Of course, the mentors are driven, successful people, and often have to remind themselves that failure can be a powerful teacher. They don’t take over the projects to see that they succeed at all cost. The students are ultimately responsible for the final product, along with whatever fatal flaws it may contain. But between the course work, the mentor’s real world expertise, and the process itself, students graduate with the greatest possible chance of success.
*Featured/top image: The product demonstration phase of the CITE competition. Photo by Deborah Silliman Wolfe.