Published in UT San Diego, June 23, 2014
When is a fish not a fish? When you don’t have to change the filter in the aquarium every two weeks. Meet UC San Diego student Kevin Liang, who wanted to solve the filter problem by turning his EcoQube aquaponics aquarium filter into a business. For guidance, he turned to the Moxie Center in the Jacobs School of Engineering.
Last spring, with just a drawing, Liang won second place and $1,000 in the center’s first business-plan competition. Next, he continued working on the concept and launched a successful campaign on Kickstarter that brought in more than $100,000 in pre-orders. Then in May, with an actual prototype and manufacturing under way in China, he won two more business plan competition prizes for a total of $15,000. (Neil’s note: This kind of non-dilutive financing is truly the stuff of the “lean startup” model.)
Liang is one of hundreds of San Diego student entrepreneurs participating in a slew of incubators and business-plan competitions at local universities. In a period of a few weeks, I was a judge at the UCSD Moxie Center second annual Zahn Prize competition, which Liang won, and the eighth annual UCSD Entrepreneur Challenge Tech and Innovation Business Plan finals, where he placed second. I missed the University of San Diego’s Social Innovation Awards, which was open to student teams throughout the county, as well as the USD V2 (Venture Vetting) pitch competition. All together, these contests give away hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and services to help student entrepreneurs move their ideas along.
I was deeply impressed by the diversity of the ideas and the enthusiasm and diligence of the students. The key funding source and spiritual driver for UCSD Moxie and San Diego State University is Irwin Zahn. Zahn, a passionate entrepreneur in his own right, started the Moxie Foundation in 1998 to focus on advancing educational achievement and entrepreneurial success, personal health and the environment.
“I had a vision to allow students to pursue their dreams and not feel they had to go down the corporate path,” Zahn said. “The purpose is to encourage risk-taking and an entrepreneurial mindset so they are better equipped to go out in the world.”
The students quickly learn that a good idea is not enough. “A lot of engineering students have great ideas, but often it’s technology for technology’s sake. We say start with a problem and then focus on how you are solving it, and finally talk about the technology behind the solution,” said Peter Preuss, a UCSD Rady School student who is co-chair of the UCSD Entrepreneur Challenge, a student-run group.
At SDSU, the Zahn Center houses 44 teams, including nine organized by faculty and one by a staff member, said Cathy Pucher, executive director of the incubator that was stated in 2011. Zahn teams won several prizes at the recent USD competition.
Not every student team is accepted. “We vet the strength of the idea, the problem that they’re solving, how they are going to make money, how they will differentiate themselves from the competition. Once they are admitted, we ask them to turn the idea into a hypothesis and spend six months vetting it. Through customer discovery (always talk to your customer) and analysis they can determine whether it’s viable and pivot,” said Pucher. During this time, the team works with relevant advisers and has access to a lab with 3-D printers and other equipment.
After research, the team may decide to pivot or even to stop. “Students may get a successful product or piece of intellectual property or they may fail. In any case, they will get an enhanced education, they will have learned how to start up a company and how to determine whether an idea is viable,” said Jay Kunin, executive director of the Moxie Center.
We were moved by the story of UCSD student Nico Montoya, founder and CEO of Pre-Snap Technologies, who participated in the Moxie Center from January through April 2014 and dropped out because “I had too much on my plate and it was unfair to myself, my teammates, and the Moxie program. … Coming into the program I had a lot of interest in startups and new ideas and thought I had a good grasp on what it took, but I was quickly humbled. The greatest thing I learned was customer development. The biggest take-away was that no matter how breakthrough your product is, if no one wants it then there is no business model.”
Rule No. 357
Listen to your customer. He will tell you the business you should be in.