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Budding CEOs Find Home in Entrepreneurship Center

8-11-16 - By Zack Plair for MSU Alumnus Magazine, Summer 2016 edition

A year ago, Hagan Walker had a clear path to an automotive engineering career. Now, he makes drinks glow.
He completed a highly competitive summer internship at Tesla Motors in California in 2015 and dreamed of working full-time as an engineer for the high-end vehicle company. Those dreams are on hold, at least temporarily.

The Columbus resident, who earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Mississippi State in December, co-founded Vibe, a startup company that is developing Glo—a flavored, liquid-activated drink light. But when Walker first agreed in spring 2015 to help his now-business partner Kaylie Mitchell, a senior art major from Pascagoula, neither realized it would lead to a company valued at $1.4 million and on the cusp of mass producing its product.

“Kaylie’s assignment was to make a conceptual company, but instead she made a real one,” Walker said. “It just snowballed from there.”
Once Walker and Mitchell began working on the project, they were referred to MSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach, where director of entrepreneurship Eric Hill thought they might be onto something.

Though it was just four days from CEO’s annual Entrepreneurship Week startup competition, Hill encouraged the Vibe co-founders to enter. They won overall honors at E-Week and have since joined a growing number of CEO success stories.

“I didn’t even know we had an entrepreneurship program at the time,” Walker said. “It was a whole new world for us, but our experience here has been second-to-none. Eric Hill and his team have offered encouragement, good advice and have really allowed our creativity to flourish.”

The College of Business entrepreneurship program began in 2009 on the second floor of McCool Hall. Its total footprint has since grown to 12,000 square feet, including a brand new CEO hub in McCool, a business incubator at the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park that houses 10 established startups, and a maker space called The Factory—a partnership between the College of Business and the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering—which provides access to tools and training that help hopeful innovators build prototypes.

Hill said the program supports more than 100 active startups that include student, faculty and staff entrepreneurs from 40 different disciplines. These startups include apps and other software, service-based concepts, consumer products and much more.

The state-of-the-art hub, the 2,000 square-foot centerpiece of MSU’s entrepreneurial outreach, provides offices, workspace and meeting areas for 16 burgeoning startups. Funded through more than $750,000 in private donations, it boasts innovative technology and a special dry-erase film on the glass surfaces that encircle the center and divide each workstation. The facility also provides office space for a new executive-in-residence program, which will host senior business leaders and entrepreneurs from the region who can offer office hours both in-person and remotely.

“This new center does two big things for us,” Hill said. “First, it’s cool and visible in the middle of campus, so it inspires people to walk by and say, ‘Wow. What’s going on there?’

“The other thing it does is create forced collisions among our entrepreneurs in a common space,” he continued. “Here, they are sharing what they’ve learned and building a strong, cohesive group of people that are all experiencing the challenges entrepreneurs face.”

Hill and his team advise entrepreneurs through an eight-step process called the “Startup Company Track,” which aims to take them from the idea phase to a company with annual sales revenue, at least 10 employees or a $1 million valuation. Along this track, entrepreneurs identify their target market, develop a business structure and prototypes, test and refine their products and establish a trajectory and scale.

“It’s a lot like teaching someone to play chess,” Hill said. “It’s not really a hard game, but when you start, you don’t always know all the rules or strategies to be successful. That’s where we come in.”
Once startups “graduate” from the track, they are eligible to operate at the incubator for up to three years before finding a permanent location. Among the startups that now call the incubator home is Glittersoft Group, an information technology company with 30 employees that raked in $2 million in 2015.

CampusKnot, another incubator headliner, is an academic-based social media site meant to better connect college students with academic resources and social events on campus. In summer 2015, the company received a $100,000 angel investment, at the time the largest private investment in a student startup in Mississippi State’s history. That investment has since doubled and CampusKnot has agreements to operate at six higher education institutions in India.

Stories like these, as well as from successful College of Business alumni who serve as mentors, help entrepreneurs through the process. Director for outreach Jeffrey Rupp is responsible for recruiting area business leaders to provide advice to student entrepreneurs.

“When you’re getting started, you don’t always know the barriers that lie in a specific field,” Rupp said. “We are bringing in leaders who have ‘been there, done that’ to help students avoid the land mines.”
Beyond the logistics, Hill said, so much access to tangible success stories inspires entrepreneurs slogging through the early stages of the process to keep going.

“Having those examples, I think, makes it real to them,” said Hill, who has seen his own entrepreneurial success through several tech-based startups. “It lets them know that starting a business is actually in the realm of possibilities."

Plus, having the opportunity to get that experience through the CEO is an immediate culmination of what these students are being taught in the classroom.

“Even a failed startup is a badge of honor,” he added. “The sheer level of tenacity required to even bring a product to a point where you can sell it is monumental.”

Finding the courage to test the entrepreneurial waters can happen many ways. For Anna Barker, a senior from Monticello who is majoring in marketing with an emphasis on international business, it came three years ago when she was watching the evening news and saw a man sitting on his roof using only a garden hose to stave off a wildfire that had encircled his home.

“Looking at his face, you knew he realized he couldn’t save it,” Barker said. “His final attempt to at least try was such a picture of desperation.”

Barker wanted to help, but she at first didn’t know how. After two years of researching solutions on her own, she teamed with senior chemical engineering major Kagen Crawford of Scottsboro, Alabama, and the center to develop an external fire suppressant to help protect homes from wildfires.

Called Bio Products, Barker’s company is designing a system that would store environmentally safe fire suppressant in pressurized tanks and deploy the chemical to cover the exterior of a home or other structures in the event of a wildfire. Homeowners could activate the system before evacuating their homes or contact Bio Products’ customer service to do it remotely. The company also is developing an app that would allow homeowners to remotely activate the system, and solar panels to power the system to self-activate once the tanks reach a certain temperature.
Bio Products is negotiating with Florida-based Barricade to use its fire suppressant gel in the system, which Barker said her team has extensively tested. With seed money from the CEO and guidance from its staff and business mentors, she said the company is expanding its team and is already researching the system’s marketability in the wildfire-prone western United States.

“It’s overwhelming the outpouring of support we’ve received,” Barker said. “It’s safe to say this would have been impossible without the CEO, which has had a part in helping with every aspect: resources, connections and workspace. They’ve gone well beyond the 9-5.”

Support begets success, and Vibe co-founders Walker and Mitchell understand that success can sometimes come quickly. Their company, now located in the incubator, works with two offshore factories to produce the plastic exterior and electronic liquid sensors that tell the units when to light up. Reed Food Technologies in Pearl adds the flavors.

The company distributed its first Glo units—flavored cherry, lemon, lime and orange—at a Music Makers concert on Mississippi State’s campus in April. MSU Athletics has purchased Glo units for testing, and Vibe products could be sold at sporting events in Humphrey Coliseum as soon as this fall.

“We’ve been compelled to move forward by other people seeing it and being excited about it,” Mitchell said. “We knew it was cool and unique, but we never thought it would be so applicable to the market.”

In the early stages, Walker described Glo as a fun product—an “experience” that patrons of bars, concerts and sporting events could enjoy as a novelty. But it has a practical application, too. Since liquid activates the Glo, the light goes out when a customer’s glass is empty. That way, a server can spot from across a restaurant who needs a refill.

In the future, however, the Vibe duo wants Glo to become a “do-good” product, one day making its way into hospitals as an aid for sick children taking their medicine.

“It will need more testing for medical certification, but we’d one day like to change the flavor tablet to something that would actually contain medicine,” Walker said. “This product is there to make an experience more pleasant, whether it’s going to a party or taking medication. We want to take experiences that are always kind of the same and spice them up a little bit.”

For Mitchell, her journey from entrepreneurship newbie to bona fide businesswoman has exceeded her expectations, especially as it relates to the support she’s received from College of Business staff and alumni.

“They are wonderful motivators who are more invested in us as people than they are in our product,” she said. “If I was advising young entrepreneurs, I would tell them the sky is the limit, but if they’re going to succeed, they’ve got to put the work in. Even if a business doesn’t work, you learn so much in the process that will help you in the future.”

Walker agreed.

“Starting something like this is an opportunity I may not get again,” he said. “MSU has poised us to go in any direction we want. If this doesn’t work out, the CEO has set us up for future success. But I think this will work out.”