Entrepreneurship Showdown at Venture Labs Finals
Vocal Media, a company that would place audio advertisements in the dead air that sometimes occurs in international phone calls, won the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition (VLIC), held Feb. 16 at McCombs.
Helmed by David Saldana, a student in the Master’s in Technology Commercialization program (MSTC), Vocal Media is the second MSTC team to win in the competition's 27-year history (VLIC was formerly known as Moot Corp). The team's prize is a year at the Austin Technology Incubator, where they will receive advice and assistance from Texas Venture Labs (TVL) mentors. Vocal Media will represent the university at the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition in May.
This year’s competition kicked off Feb. 2, with 18 teams competing in the semifinals. The semifinalists included eight students from this year’s MSTC class and 10 from McCombs MBA programs. According to TVL Director Rob Adams, new businesses come out of the university every year and this competition is the launch pad for many of them.
The competition has always involved teams of students from different schools on campus—MBAs and biology or engineering grad students, for instance. But with the MSTC program now part of the McCombs School, Eric Hirst, associate dean for graduate programs, sees an opportunity for closer collaboration between MBAs and MSTC students.
“What I look forward to the most is when we see more teams with members from both programs marrying their talents to create exciting new business opportunities,” Hirst says.
Bringing a diverse range of ventures to the table, the four finalists were judged Feb. 16 by former VLIC competitors who have successfully launched their ventures, including Harlan Beverly and Mike Cubbage of Bigfoot Networks, Jiten Dalvi of Qcue, Jay Manickam and Matt Chasen of uShip and Daniel Nelson and Robert Reeves of Phurnace Software.
Read on for a description of the businesses that competed in the finals.
When Iva Paleckova, MBA ’11, and her husband Sam moved in together, they had to throw away and donate a lot of their stuff to make room in their new home. The idea of a service that could take away and sell their unwanted items for them started to formulate, but it had to be simple and easy to use. With Sam’s electrical engineering skills to run the technical side and Iva’s business and marketing knowledge, the Garage Fairy venture grew.
Iva’s biggest enemy has been time. “When you are starting a venture and doing your day job or taking classes at the same time, things do get tough,” she says. But she found the feedback from the judges during the semifinals to be very helpful.
“The judges liked the idea and thought there could be some real opportunity,” she says. “On the other hand, they thought there may be scalability issues with our model and we may have trouble once we grow our customer base with capacity and finding enough trading partners.” With hopes to grow the business nationally, Iva is retooling aspects of the strategy to ensure the model is scalable.
After getting fed up with not being able to find good food fast, Aaron Lyons, MBA ’11, took matters into his own hands and developed Urban Dish, a casual restaurant concept offering a build-your-own-meal approach with premium meats and fresh veggies for $10. Aaron’s greatest challenge might be his lack of restaurant experience.
“I have almost zero restaurant experience, which I don’t think has really been an issue in developing the concept, but it is an obvious hurdle with investors,” he says.
His concept impressed the judges at the Texas Venture Labs Competition Semifinals. “The research and market validation we did really impressed the judges,” he says. “For example, we sat in multiple restaurants for hours and hours counting how many people came in, how much they spent, demographic observations and more. Really doing the leg work and investing that sweat equity goes a long way with judges and investors.”
While Aaron has several advisors he leans on to flesh out aspects of the business plan where he lacks experience, he is looking to bring on some big-name industry talent to give Urban Dish credibility, guidance and help it grow.
Students in the MSTC program assess real technologies for commercial viability. After evaluating photoacoustic imaging (IVPA), MSTC students Ryan Miller and David Mortellaro, along with biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidates Jimmy Su and Bo Wang and research associate Andrew Karpiouk, saw promising results. IVPA is a technology that allows better visualization of plaque formation (fat and other substances) that accumulate in the lining of the artery wall and captures images of implanted metal stents (tubes inserted into blood vessels to provide support and prevent disease-induced closure). Miller and Mortellaro continued market research during their second MSTC semester and developed a business plan around the technology. When it was clear they had a game-changing technology, ClearBrook Imaging was formed to commercialize IVPA.
One of the challenges the team has faced is making the transition from academic research to real-world applications.
“Understanding the needs of the market and directing the development of a future product is a different challenge than open-ended discovery of technology in an academic setting,” says Mortellaro. The team worked with the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization, a partnership they credit with helping them reach the finals.
As a complement to his primary telecom business, Innovation Labs, David Saldana, MSTC ’11, came up with an idea to place audio advertisements into the dead air that sometimes happens in long-distance (primarily international) phone calls. The audio clips could either be pure advertisements or sponsor-provided, value-added content—weather reports, local news, sports scores, etc.—played in the caller’s first language, as determined by the call destination. Saldana explored the viability of this idea in the MSTC program and formed a team and business plan with classmates Justin Dickstein, Arely Fontecha and Marty McCrea.
This team has become very familiar with phone calls because they rarely meet in person. They all work and go to graduate school full time, and two are in Austin, while the other two live in Dallas. But Dickstein says that logistical complexity isn’t the hardest part.
“The biggest challenge is of course creating something from nothing and making it into a legitimate business,” Dickstein says.