When outsiders think of Auburn University, football likely comes to mind. But for one day this month the university will be the place for entrepreneurship fever, when a fusion of talent gathers on the Plains.
Student founders of startup businesses and their mentors, along with noted alumni, faculty and moderators will take part April 22 in the second annual Entrepreneurship Summit sponsored by the Auburn University Raymond J. Harbert College of Business.
The Entrepreneurship Summit honors alumni and students from each of Auburn University’s 12 degree-granting colleges and schools. The events at the Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center are geared to both established business leaders and innovators.
The Tiger Cage competition — a take on ABC’s popular “Shark Tank” — challenges undergraduate and graduate students to vie for funding and other prizes to help turn their ideas into actual businesses.
Also part of the Summit is Top Tigers, presented in partnership with Business Alabama magazine and the accounting firm Warren Averett. This program salutes rapidly growing businesses founded, operated or led by Auburn University alumni. Nominees are evaluated on revenue growth and their ability to operate following the Auburn Creed, the time-honored code encapsulating the university’s ethos.
The Entrepreneur Hall of Fame is open to alumni from each of Auburn University’s colleges. The Hall of Fame awards program acknowledges alumni who, through their entrepreneurial drive, have made significant contributions to their professions.
Says AU’s College of Business Dean Bill Hardgrave: “Last year the Entrepreneurship Summit exceeded our expectations, and this year will be even better. The (participation) numbers are up. This is a culmination of a lot of our events into a single day, and this year we’ve added faculty contributions as a fourth component.”
The aim of this new component, called LAUNCH Innovation Grant Program Faculty Pitch Competition, is to inspire faculty and staff to pursue commercializing the technologies they have developed, explains Lakami Baker, associate professor of management and managing director of AU’s Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship.
“We thought a good fit for the program was to link it with our Entrepreneurship Summit, ” Baker says. “This allows us not only to showcase our student entrepreneurs but our faculty inventors as well. Hopefully, the business community that is present will see that the entrepreneurial spirit is flying high throughout all areas of Auburn University.”
Keith Harrington, a judge in the first two seasons of “Shark Tank, ” judged the 2015 Tiger Cage competition and returns this year as a judge. A pioneer in the infomercial concept, Harrington is listed among the 100 best entrepreneurs in the world by Entrepreneur magazine.
Tiger Cage is open to individual competitors and teams of up to six Auburn University students. Baker says this year’s competitors are a diverse group of students who will be competing in business, engineering, human science, building science, aerospace and other fields.
“For example, we have student ideas that are geared to resolve some of our daily aches and pains, change the way we exchange our contact information and improve our shower experience. We also have a team with an app that has the potential of saving athletic programs thousands of dollars each year.”
Of the eight semi-finalists, about half are app related while others are related to technology and consumer products. The semifinalists were selected in February and will make their pitch again April 15. The top four will advance to the finals on April 22.
“I believe it is going to be tough for the judges to decide on the top four to move on to the finals because they are all fairly strong, ” Baker observes.
A total of $17, 000 will be distributed to the winning teams to cover business expenses that are associated with a start-up. The grand prize winner will receive $10, 000, second place $5, 000 and third place $2, 000.
The grand prize winner will also have access to the resources offered by the Auburn Business Incubator for up to one year. All winners will be offered $30, 000 in legal assistance from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Menlo Park law firm whose specialties include entrepreneurial start-ups.
Several teams that competed in last year’s inaugural Tiger Cage have successfully launched. The 2015 grand prize winner — Parking Grid Technologies, founded by AU engineering students to help drivers find vacant parking spaces — started a pilot program at Auburn University and reached the finals in Baylor University’s New Venture Competition for start-ups.
Two other 2015 Tiger Cage teams, SimplyProse, an online platform for writers, and Tennibot, a robotic roaming tennis ball collector, were among the six finalists at Alabama Launchpad, a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama that supports entrepreneurship statewide.
SimplyProse received $40, 000 in funding from Alabama Launchpad and exhibited at TechCrunch Disrupt’s Start-Up Alley in San Francisco, one of the world’s premier start-up conferences. With its winnings from Launchpad, SimplyProse plans to fund its marketing endeavors, both digital and traditional, and further expand its user base.
“Tiger Cage provided us with invaluable resources and knowledge on how to effectively explain a business model, ” says SimplyProse founder and AU finance major Jacob Wright. “Our mentors helped greatly, and I don’t think we would have had the success we’ve had thus far without the platform to fail, learn and grow.”
Stacy Brown is honoree for the 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year. Brown is founder of the Auburn-based Chicken Salad Chick, which has restaurants across the Southeast, and a graduate of Auburn University’s College of Liberal Arts.
The 2016 Young Entrepreneur of the Year honoree is Cameron Doody, an Auburn University business graduate who co-founded the Chattanooga-based Bellhops, which uses college students employed as independent contractors to help people move their household items nationwide. The company raised $13.5 million in venture capital last year.
John Brown, chairman emeritus of Stryker Corp., was inducted last year as the Hall of Fame’s first member. Brown earned a chemical engineering degree from Auburn University in 1957 and helped Stryker grow from a small, family owned business into a medical equipment company with annual revenue of more than $9 million.
Jessica Armstrong and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Armstrong is based in Auburn and Norton in Birmingham.
Text by Jessica Armstrong • Photo by Cary Norton