The University of Texas at Austin

1 Semester Startup Finds Its Market

Above (video), Mariel Bolhouse discusses the journey that led her to 1 Semester Startup. Right (slideshow), take a look at 1SS highlights over the past year.

1 Semester Startup (1SS), an upstart entrepreneurial program at The University of Texas at Austin, is producing successful graduates, attracting top mentors and is creating demand for its brand of startup support.

But there's still much more to be done, said entrepreneurial legend Bob Metcalfe, who has spearheaded the creation of the program.

Now in its third semester, Metcalfe, professor of innovation at the Cockrell School of Engineering, said 1SS's leadership is working to get some of the kinks out and expand capacity.

"There's a lot of interest to participate," Metcalfe said.

1SS is open to undergraduate students from the Cockrell School, McCombs School of Business and the College of Natural Sciences for class credit, but all majors are encouraged to apply. Along with Metcalfe, 1SS is led by Austin entrepreneur and computer science specialist Joshua Baer and McCombs Professor John Butler.

"We are just getting started with 1SS," Baer said. "In our first year, we learned about how to reach students and get more support around them. Hopefully, it's only going to get better and better."

1SS’s leadership has been marketing the program across UT, and as a result is seeing a growing interest from students. Baer said they are weighing potential options for expanding capacity, such as allowing students to audit or sit it on guest lectures.

Dwayne Smurdon, a computer science and psychology senior, took 1SS for two semesters representing Predictable Data, a high tech company he leads. Several of his Predictable Data colleagues are now enrolled in the program.

"It's great for our team to have a similar entrepreneurial vernacular. It’s helpful and gets us on the same page," Smurdon said. "Personally, I gained a lot through networking."

What makes 1SS different from some entrepreneurial programs is that each startup team is paired with a successful entrepreneur with complementary skill sets. The fall 2012 mentor group includes Harlan Beverly, CEO of Karmaback; Rick Orr, founder of TabbedOut; and Miles Olson, president of Hoot Interactive.

"Mentorship is the real value add. We match them with successful mentors who give them specific advice on their companies and the problems that they are facing now," Metcalfe said. "We have had a great response among mentors from the Austin community."

Last year, about half the class was made up of students from the computer science department, about one-fourth were engineering students, about one-eighth were business students and the remainder were from other disciplines, such as communications or liberal arts. Metcalfe said that he’d like to see even greater discipline diversity among the student teams.

After its first year, leaders learned that the initial class of 20 startups comprised of 70 students was too large, so subsequent classes have been smaller. Teams are judged by strength of team members and soundness of concept.

"We learned what stage our students need to be at," Baer said. "These startups should be focused and have a real working product. Some startups will fail, but students always have an opportunity to connect with great mentors, and build relationships."

Students are rating the program highly when they graduate, Baer said.

This semester's fall portfolio is made up of 34 students representing 12 teams. Those startups include: Caysun, an online market for listing shoreline rental properties; Lynx Labs, which has developed a less expensive way to generate 3-D models; and StillOpen, a mobile application that seeks to take the guesswork out of finding food at night.

At the end of each semester, every startup participates in Demo Day, giving them a chance to present their company to a professional audience that includes venture capitalists. The next Demo Day is set for Nov. 29.

None of the graduating 1SS teams have attracted venture capital investment while in the program, but that isn't a focus, Baer said. A key indicator the program is working is that of the 40 startups that have graduated from 1SS, about 10 still remain in operation.

"We want them to develop viable companies and go on to have customers and make money. We are less focused on venture capital," Baer said. "Actually getting people to use the product is a really big step in itself."

Baer points to PhotoWhoa, a daily deal site for photography equipment and products, as an exemplary 1SS startup. The company, which was part of the program’s spring 2012 portfolio, turned a profit two months into 1SS and continues to do well.

Metcalfe said one of his measures of success for 1SS is the output of human capital.

"We are grooming students for subsequent [endeavors]," he said.

One such success story is Mariel Bolhouse, a biomedical engineering graduate who was in the first 1SS class. Bolhouse is now working as a research and development engineer for Stryker, a medical technology company with offices in San Jose, Calif.

Bolhouse said she learned networking and presentation skills during 1SS that have served her well as a budding 'intrapreneur' — a professional within a large company that takes responsibility for turning an idea into a finished product. She pitched an idea that was accepted by Stryker and credits Metcalfe and Baer for helping her to do so.

"During 1SS, I learned to construct a pitch and present information in a way that each different [professional] could appreciate," Bolhouse said. "I gained experience beyond R&D and the technical. I learned what goes into business decisions in general."

From right, Joshua Baer, Austin entrepreneur and one of the leaders of 1 Semester Startup, and a guest speaker from technology firm Ordoro field questions from students participating in the fall 2012 class. Baer is also active in Austin Startup Week, taking place this week.