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How to teach innovation, UWM style

They came to start their own businesses.

How to teach innovation, UWM style by Laura L. Otto

They came from a wide range of fields, from physical therapy to information studies. They came with ideas for products, like a mobile app for managing coupons and a quick, affordable method of detecting bacteria in water.

But most of all, they came to start their own businesses.

They are the newest winners of the UWM Student Startup Challenge (SSC), in which students and recent alums compete for financial backing and mentoring to launch a business on the strength of an original product idea.

We’ve tied the Student Startup Challenge to the curriculum, so now we’re not just touching the 20 or so students involved in the competition. We’re also touching all the students in those courses, too.
UWM Chancellor Michael R. Lovell

A program unique to UWM, the SSC is bringing out the entrepreneur in students by allowing them to tap the commercial potential of the rich ideas that present themselves while studying for a degree. The SSC aims to help students turn a promising concept into their own business in one year.

“With more money behind it, more students applying and more partners supporting it, it’s no wonder submissions to this year’s competition were so impressive,” says Ilya Avdeev, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of the SSC. “The competition’s aim of creating innovators through the entrepreneurial start-up process is working.”

While three teams were named winners in the 2012 inaugural contest, there were eight winners this year, chosen from a pool of 60 proposals.

The expansion is the result of more than just momentum.

“We’ve tied the Student Startup Challenge to the curriculum,” says Chancellor Michael R. Lovell, “so now we’re not just touching the 20 or so students involved in the competition. We’re also touching all the students in those courses, too.”

What began as an extension of a Product Realization course open to engineering, arts and architecture students now invites participation from students in a growing number of fields through new “experiential courses” in different schools and colleges.

The SSC was founded by the College of Engineering & Applied Science, Peck School of the Arts and the UWM Research Foundation, and submissions the first year were limited to traditional “hardware” products.

The competition’s scope quickly expanded, with associate professor Kim Beckmann and lecturer Amy Decker of the Peck School’s Design & Visual Communication Program involving their course.

Nicki Weber (left), arts, and Joe Lange, engineering, took the Product Realization course and helped build the E-Trap prototype for one of the winning Student Startup Challenge teams

Nicki Weber (left), arts, and Joe Lange, engineering, took the Product Realization course and helped build the E-Trap prototype for one of the winning Student Startup Challenge teams

Open to art and information studies students, the course extends the reach of the SSC by engaging student consultants from a variety of disciplines, like those in the UWM Mobile Innovation Lab (also called the “App Brewery”; see “Brewing new apps to help nonprofits“).

This year, the School of Information Studies formally joined the SSC partnership, adding coursework in mobile app development – along with support for a new category in the competition.

In the Lubar School of Business, Entrepreneur-in-Residence Jim Hunter is teaming up with SSC winners this year to help them develop business plans, just as he has done for students in Lubar’s New Ventures Business Plan Competition.

Beckmann, whose course has inspired student-made products ranging from computer games to services like home delivery of locally grown food, says the main focus is on problem-solving in a commercialized context.

“Educating students on the application of these skills should, ultimately, create a new generation of design innovators and business partners,” she says.

Nathaniel Stern, associate professor of art and design who co-founded the SSC with Avdeev, agrees. “It’s not just about starting up, but starting out,” he says.

Meanwhile, the competition has become a long-term fixture on campus. It has attracted two new funding sources, the UW System’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.