AU’s College of Business: The Roar of Entrepreneurs

Come one, come all — trendsetters, groundbreakers and changers of the status quo. Converging on the Plains this month are moderators, mentors, alumni and up-and-coming student entrepreneurs to take part in the Auburn Entrepreneurial Summit.

The Auburn University Raymond J. Harbert College of Business — in keeping with the campus-wide tradition of nurturing entrepreneurship — is presenting the Summit on April 24 in tribute to the university’s seasoned and rising business leaders and innovators.

Says AU’s College of Business Dean Bill Hardgrave: “We’ve been doing a series of related events, but this is the first time we’ve pulled it all together to truly harness the entrepreneurial spirit that is here. The response has been phenomenal, so at this point I think it’s going to be annual.”

Hardgrave says there’s been an overall interest in entrepreneurship not only in the College of Business but across campus. So the Summit will recognize alumni and students from each of AU’s 12 degree-granting colleges and schools in three major events — Tiger Cage,  Top Tigers and the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.

Tiger Cage is a competition presented by the College of Business and Auburn Research and Technology Foundation to give students a chance to vie for funding and other prizes to help turn their ideas into flourishing businesses.

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The competition was inspired by “Shark Tank, ” ABC’s popular reality series, in which aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists. In Auburn University’s version, students and alumni pitch their early stage products, services and business concepts to veteran judges.

To cover their startup expenses, $17, 000 will be distributed among the top three teams. The grand prize winner also will get a year in the Auburn Business Incubator and access to $30, 000 in legal assistance.

The Raymond J. Harbert College of Business prepares for the Entrepreneurial Summit at Auburn University.

Ten teams will compete in the semifinal round, to be judged April 17. Four of those teams will make it to the final round, scheduled for 8-10:30 a.m. the day of the Summit at the Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center. Judges include Kevin Harrington, infomercial industry pioneer and an original panelist on “Shark Tank.” The final round will be televised on Alabama Public TV.

“We have a rich history of entrepreneurs who want to give back and help the next generation of students, ” Hardgrave says about the Tiger Cage. “We give them money, free legal advice and put them in our incubator. The easy path would be ‘I’ll teach you everything I know, then goodbye and good luck.’ Instead, we want to nurture these student entrepreneurs so they stay right here and build their companies right here.”

Mark Forchette, president and CEO of Delphinus Medical Technologies Inc. and an AU marketing graduate, began serving as a judge in preliminary Tiger Cage rounds. He praises the competition for providing students with access to useful materials, mentorship and processes that prepare them for the business world.

“I loved the ‘anything is possible’ vibe that oozed from the group of students that participated, ” observes Forchette, who Hardgrave credits with the Tiger Cage name, a clever take on Shark Tank. “They’re eager and innovative, which is a likely byproduct of natural skills and talents that are accentuated by the incredible access to information.”

The Tiger Cage program uses the Steve Blank Business Model Canvas approach, a tool to frame all the hypotheses of a startup. Forchette says the teams were coached in a manner similar to how teams prepare to parade down Sand Hill Road seeking funding. Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road is considered the epicenter of venture capital — the Wall Street of the West.

Prominent new media entrepreneur Kyle Sandler has volunteered many hours mentoring several Tiger Cage teams. A former employee in marketing at Google, Sandler recently worked out of the Auburn Business Incubator before launching Round House, a space for startups in downtown Opelika.

With the seven teams Sandler mentored at Round House, the first task he gave them was to reach out on LinkedIn to find Auburn alums eager to interact with current Auburn University student entrepreneurs. Sandler says the Tiger Cage competition “takes them out of the textbook entrepreneurial environment and lets them see firsthand that there are successful people out there who want to help and see them succeed.”

Early participants were so impressive that 10 teams were advanced to the next round instead of eight as previously planned, says Douglas Warrington, director of business development for AU’s Office of Technology Transfer. “I expect to have more than 10 new startup companies launched as a result of the mentoring and student development through the Tiger Cage competition.”

Technologies to be presented by the teams in the semifinal round are:

  • LifeLike Projections, which uses projection mapping technology to transform an ordinary trip to the store into a multi-sensory experience.
  • The Hobot is a robotic roaming tennis ball retrieval machine.
  • BAUCE App allows businesses to interact with customers through advertising and social media.
  • SmartLot Technologies finds motorists available parking spaces.
  • is a web-based platform for writers.
  • Spawn Tech offers a new way to grow mushrooms.
  • C-QuestR recycles exhaust gas from the flue stacks of industrial plants into jet fuel.
  • MaxLife Living creates clothes tailored specifically for the athletic build.
  • Bookworm is a user-to-user platform that allows students to purchase and sell books at a fair price.
  • Wrap Straps allows customers to customize their backpacks

Wrap Straps was created by Catherine Tabor, a junior from Centreville, who says the Tiger Cage competition allowed her team to create a first-rate prototype. “If we win the competition, we will be able to put in the research needed to fully realize our product. If we don’t win, we’d like to thank Tiger Cage for bringing us this far.”

Her team illustrates the diversity of majors participating in the Tiger Cage event. Tabor is an English literature and German major. Team member Sarah Caballero is a senior English major and senior Taryn Wilson is majoring in accounting.

Dave Ketchen, Auburn’s Lowder Eminent Scholar and professor of management and executive director of the Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship, says, “My hope is that all of the Tiger Cage teams will build confidence about their ability to prosper in a practical world and that some will launch successful companies.”

Hardgrave is undeterred by the fact that few startups succeed. “That one successful startup hires 30 people, then 300 people, then 3, 000. The growth of that single company has a significantly positive effect on the economy.”

The Top Tigers event will spotlight Auburn University alumni who helped burgeoning companies take off. Presented by the College of Business in partnership with Business Alabama magazine, to qualify a company must be founded, owned or led by an Auburn University alumnus.

A nominated business must be operating for at least five years with revenues of at least $250, 000 for the evaluation period, and function in a manner following the Auburn Creed. The Southeast accounting firm Warren Averett LLC is conducting the analysis, and evaluating nominees based on year-over-year revenue growth from 2011 through 2013.

Also part of the Summit is the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame to induct noted Auburn University alumni entrepreneurs. Awards will be presented to the Entrepreneur of the Year, Young Entrepreneur and Hall of Fame inductees. The Entrepreneur Hall of Fame gala begins at 5 p.m. with a cocktail social at the Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. The awards dinner begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased on the College’s homepage,

“Folks all across campus are committed to strengthening our culture of entrepreneurship, ” Ketchen observes, “and the Summit is a core element of that commitment.”

“Shark Tank” Judge Enters Tiger Cage Fray

Kevin Harrington is what Meryl Streep is to actors and B.B. King is to blues guitarists. The entrepreneur’s entrepreneur will be keynote speaker at the Top Tigers luncheon and help judge the final round of the Tiger Cage competition.

As a judge in the first two seasons of “Shark Tank, ” who better to judge a competition patterned after the hit ABC show?

A pioneer of the infomercial concept, Harrington is listed among the 100 best entrepreneurs in the world by Entrepreneur magazine. He helped with more than 500 product launches resulting in sales of $4 billion, and started several companies including Quantum International, HSN Direct with the Home Shopping Network and Reliant International Media.

He’s regularly featured on major TV news shows and founded two worldwide organizations — the Electronic Retailers Association and the Entrepreneurs Organization.

Harrington serves on the board of the University of South Florida in Tampa and teaches regularly. His book “Act Now: How I Turn Ideas into Million-Dollar Products, ” details his achievements in direct marketing.

Jessica Armstrong and Cary Norton are freelancers for Business Alabama. Armstrong is based on Auburn and Norton in Birmingham.

text by jessica armstrong • photos by cary norton

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