Enterprise

Starting Out Right

Business incubator helps young entrepreneurs
WMU student Brandon O’Neill presents the ideas behind his company, Active Hydrofit, to others at a Starting Gate session.

When Western Michigan University junior Josie Marshall came up with the idea of starting her own business, For the Funds of It, to plan fundraising events, she quickly found that having a great idea for a business doesn’t always equate to launching that business.

“I had this idea, and I didn’t really know where to go with it,” she says. “I’m a college student so I obviously don’t have a lot of capital. Then I got this email from Starting Gate that said, ‘Do you have an idea but don’t know where to go with it?’ And I said, ‘Yes! This is for me!’”

Starting Gate is a nonprofit incubator organization affiliated with, but not financially supported by, WMU and its Haworth College of Business. Supported by donations and endowments, it provides support services, mentorship and workspace for entrepreneurial WMU students such as Marshall. Starting Gate was started by Kay Palan, dean of the Haworth College of Business, and replicates a program at Iowa State University, where she used to work.

Since its establishment in 2013, Starting Gate has accepted 25 companies into its semester-long accelerator programs, which run during WMU’s spring and fall semesters and summer sessions.

During the Starting Gate programs, students are given the tools and networking resources to plan a business launch. Since many of the student participants have full daytime schedules, they are given 24-hour access to the Starting Gate office in order to plan and strategize. They also receive weekly support from community members and WMU faculty who provide workshops and guidance.

“We have a really cool workspace, workshops every week, and we prepare for Demo Day, Media Day and Investor Day presentations,” Marshall says. “They (Starting Gate) also provided business cards for me, which were really beneficial. It’s a great program that allows you to work with so many different people, and Lara Hobson (director of operations at Starting Gate) was able to match me up with the perfect people in the community to help me get started.”

Hobson describes Starting Gate as “a startup itself” and says its programs continue to develop and may morph into sessions that last the entire academic year. Hobson is also hoping for some additional financial support to allow Starting Gate to provide seed money for companies of its graduates. (Many other university-affiliated accelerator programs, such as the one at Michigan State University, provide such funding.)

Being connected to WMU allows Starting Gate to utilize the university community for networking and outreach, Hobson says. Often a student will need some guidance on a patent or point of development, and Starting Gate can help find the right person at WMU with the expertise to help.

Marshall graduated from the Starting Gate program in the fall and is finishing her degree in management and entrepreneurship. Even after students complete the 100-day program, Starting Gate continues to provide support to aid them in establishing their business roots.

“I’m still in the process,” Marshall says, “but now I know where I want to go with my business and what to do to get there. It’s a great program and great opportunity for any entrepreneur who doesn’t know what to do, who’s stuck.”

Aside from direction, resources, support and a physical workspace, Starting Gate provides another fundamental service for startups: pressure to get things done.

“I keep them accountable — it’s like my professor hat comes on when I’m working with students,” Hobson says. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re on your own with everything. Who else is going to keep them accountable?”

During the program, the three milestones — Media Day, Demo Day and Investor Day — require students to create prototypes or develop business concepts to demonstrate to members of the community, local media outlets and investors to receive primarily feedback but possibly funding.

Companies of students who have graduated from the program include SafeSense Technologies, which is developing helmet sensors designed to help determine the extent of a sports-related head injury faster and with more accuracy, and SpeechMasterPro, which is focused on helping children and adults with speech disorders and whose first device helps improve enunciation. Both companies have been featured in local news reports.

It’s motivating to see the companies that move through Starting Gate develop, Hobson says, and that’s what keeps her connected to the organization and hopeful about its future.

“I started my own business five years ago, and I know what it’s like to be in the dark with finding resources,” says Hobson, who also works as a customer service consultant. “You just do so much on your own and you feel like you don’t know where else to turn. Just to let our students take advantage of our knowledge and help them find all these resources and to see their ambitions is exciting.”

To learn more about Starting Gate, apply for the program (open to all WMU students) or donate to it, visit wmich.edu/StartingGate.

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“I keep them accountable — it’s like my professor hat comes on when I’m working with students. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re on your own with everything. Who else is going to keep them accountable?”

--Lara Hobson, Director of Operations at Starting Gate