The University of Kentucky has a whole college with classes devoted to business. But when it comes to starting your own company, or developing a new idea and taking a product to market, experience can be the best teacher.
That’s why the Gatton College of Business and Economics’ Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship started the Entrepreneurs Bootcamp, an intense 14-week program that in most cases does not come with academic credit.
“Entrepreneurship is stepping outside your comfort zone,” Warren Nash, the Von Allmen Center’s executive director, told about 100 bootcamp recruits at their first meeting Sept. 7.
“Some of you will be successful; some of your ideas will fail,” added Nicole Thorn Jenkins, the Gatton College’s executive associate dean who said she is the daughter of entrepreneurs. “But the entrepreneurial spirit is what spurs innovation.”
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The bootcamp is open to any UK student, from sophomores through doctoral candidates. It attracts many from engineering and technology fields who are interested in commercializing their ideas.
Once chosen by program leaders, students are formed into cross-disciplinary teams, usually three or four people, each of whom brings something different to the mix.
The product ideas they work on come from the students themselves, or from program partners and mentors. Those include angel investors, researchers and local business owners. Each student must sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect intellectual property developed during the program.
The 30 teams that began bootcamp had a variety of business ideas they wanted to develop. Those ranged from high-tech systems for selling outdoors equipment to developing a 3D-printed biomimetic glove to be used by stroke patients to help them restore mobility to their hands.
In addition to working in their teams, students had access to mentors and heard speakers each week on such topics as team dynamics, the art of networking, branding and the “soft” skills that can be key to success as an entrepreneur, such as making pitches to potential funders and customers.
Those pitches are a key part of the program, Nash said. They help students refine their ideas and focus on why others should be interested in them. Bootcamp began with one-minute pitches. Later, each team develops five-minute and 10-minute pitches.
One team formed around participant Chandi Joshi’s Paducah-based Sustainable Products Co., which is working to develop environmentally friendly agricultural products such as pesticides. Although there are organic pesticides on the market, many contain copper, which can contaminate soil over time.
“We’re looking for simple solutions that take agricultural waste and gives it value,” said Joshi, who said she had learned a lot in bootcamp about how to explain and present her ideas.
The company has developed a pesticide based on wood vinegar, and has manufactured small quantities of it. With the bootcamp experience, team members hope to figure out the best way to scale up sales and production.
“We’re now looking to zero in on a market, and that’s where bootcamp has really helped us,” said Landon Mott, a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering from Paducah. “What market should we be focusing on for developing our business plan?”
Although Joshi sees the greatest potential for such products in the developing world, the team has decided to begin by marketing to small-scale home gardeners in this country and selling directly to local retailers.
“I'm helping the team figure out the manufacturing costs of the product, designing the factory layout," said Ankit Jangid, a graduate student in manufacturing systems engineering from India. “I will also do work on my thesis in which I will be implementing lean (manufacturing) tools and principles on this company to make sure we build in quality.”
Each of the 21 surviving bootcamp teams — nine have dropped out for various reasons — will make a 10-minute pitch Nov. 30 to compete for $3,000 in prize money.
Some teams, such as the Sustainable Products Co., also have participated in business pitch competitions, such as the recent SEC Student Pitch Competition in Gainesville, Fla.
But for many of the teams, the payoff isn’t winning prize money or learning skills that may someday come in handy. They’re building companies they hope will grow and prosper long after Entrepreneurs Bootcamp is over.