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TVL Program Empowers Students to be Entrepreneurs

Mechanical engineering graduate students David Leigh, left, and Jacob Blair are assisting two startup companies through their participation in Texas Venture Labs.

Mechanical engineering graduate students David Leigh, left, and Jacob Blair are assisting two startup companies through their participation in Texas Venture Labs.

Texas Venture Labs (TVL), an initiative at The University of Texas at Austin that started last year and connects local startups with graduate and Ph.D. students from engineering, business, law and natural sciences programs, celebrated its second Venture Expo last month.

During the day-long event Oct. 27, 10 local companies selected to receive student assistance presented their ideas to investors.

Presenting companies were equally divided into two categories: those in the early development stage — with a business plan, executive team and need for capital, and those in the funded stage — having a product, early round of funding and possibly customers that generate revenue.

For executives at many of the startups, access to the interdisciplinary student teams proved crucial for their products. Students helped them with everything from market validation studies to financial analysis of their products.

“I had a great group of graduate students who have helped me with a lot of things that, on my own as an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish in the same timeframe,” said Mark Wise, an executive at Zilker Motors, a local startup aimed at building high-efficiency, high-performance vehicles with the first product being an 80-100 miles per gallon two-seat, eco-sports commuter car.

The company was selected for TVL and assigned a student team that included two students from the Cockrell School of Engineering, one of the founding partners of the program, along with McCombs School of Business. Thirty-five graduate students participated this semester, eight of whom are from the Cockrell School.

“Thanks to the help of the engineering students on our team, we were actually able to create a scaled mockup of our prototype and that was huge,” Wise said.

Through the program, engineering students said they were able to apply their engineering skills when necessary, but they also gained valuable experience on entrepreneurship, innovation and company formation.

“Marketing is not something I ever really consciously thought about until TVL,” said Jacob Blair, a mechanical engineering graduate student who was on a student team assigned to Zilker Motors. “And this idea about market validation – that you can have the best product in the world, but if you can’t connect it to the people who want it then it will fail – was new to me. That kind of market-centered approach to things is, from an engineering point of view, completely different but very valuable.”

Rob Adams, director of TVL, said at the event that the program has two goals: accelerate start-ups from the university and Central Texas towards raising capital

and taking their innovations to market, and creating an experience that transforms the university’s participating graduate students into entrepreneurs and business leaders.

David Leigh is already that type of student.

After getting his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, Leigh formed a startup company, which he’s run for the past 15 years. Leigh decided to go to graduate school, however, because his field of practice, solid freeform fabrication, is relatively new and still needs more fundamental science research.

“I’ve been in the business world for 15-plus years, but I’ve never taken a business class in my life, and I thought this would be a good opportunity,” he said of TVL. “So that’s why I kind of got plugged in here because of my desire and passion to not only take in knowledge, but to be able to apply that in a setting where your contributions have true impact.”

Students enrolled in the program are required to attend a weekly, three-hour class, which is divided into three, one hour-long sections: the first hour usually features a guest speaker who has entrepreneurial experience, the second hour is dedicated to updates on current deals and the third hour is used for group work. Outside of the classroom, students meet to work with investors, entrepreneurs and other constituencies involved in the deals they facilitate.

As a testament to TVL’s success since its inception last year, 15 of 30 portfolio companies have received $20 million in outside funding, Adams said.

For students, they are able to learn early on and risk-free about business pitfalls that typically result in costly mistakes.

“We’ve all seen where a company spends millions of dollars to develop a product that flops,” Leigh said. “Once you get the tools that we learn through TVL, you know how to dissect a product or idea, to ask the right questions and you understand where 80-90 percent of businesses fail because almost all of them fail for the same reason. The benefit of TVL is that we’re learning all of this in an environment that is safe.”

More than that, students take away the importance of working collaboratively with students from different disciplines and areas of expertise – an asset that gives them a holistic view and appreciation for their peers.

“This class really highlights the value of all the other disciplines and how they’re working together contributes to the overall success of even the most well-engineered product,” Blair said.