UA Building Successful Startups, This Year Led By Picasolar

UA Building Successful Startups, This Year Led By Picasolar
Carol Reeves displays the 2013 Governor's Cup won by Picasolar in April.

Startups launched from the Walton Business College at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville are earning both accolades at national business-plan competitions and money as viable, high-growth businesses.

Picasolar is the latest graduate-level UA startup to fare well on the national business-plan circuit. Since 2008, the UA entrepreneurship program has launched 10 startup ventures that grew to become high-growth businesses. Those firms employ roughly 100 Arkansans and pay above-average salaries, and they've raised more than $16 million in private investments, grants and incentives.

They are: 

The latter was not formed as an official UA startup but was founded by a student who went through the Walton entrepreneur program.

The UA could count more alumni success stories but doesn't. Carol Reeves, the associate vice-provost for entrepreneurship at the Walton College and the UA's startup mentor, cited other successful UA business-plan teams went on to become viable businesses. Some are no longer in business or include their student founders.

They are Earthgard, whose radial flow fluidized filter (R3f) technology was developed by another company after the students left the venture; AgRobotics, still going strong but no longer including the UA students who started it; Tears for Life, whose tear-based cancer detection technology is now being developed by Ascendant Diagnostics; GuardInFresh, whose tech now is part of Fayetteville nano manufacturer NanoMech; TiFiber, whose tech is now no longer with the UA students who founded the startup; and InnerVision, whose tech became part of Arkansas Power Electronics International (APEI).

Silicon Solar Solutions, cycleWood Solutions, Boston Mountain Biotech, BiologicsMD, Learning DifferentiatED, NanoMech, APEI, TiFiber and Ascendant Diagnostics are client firms of Innovate Arkansas. Ascendant, BiologicsMD, TiFiber and NanoMech are portfolio firms of VIC Technology Venture Development in Fayetteville.

Business-plan prowess
Most of the 10 ventures that Reeves counts as active success stories helped the UA become a national business-plan powerhouse. Over the last five years, UA teams have won 18 national competitions, more than twice as many as anyone other school; have won 27 awards in other competitions, and have taken home more than $1.6 million in cash prizes.

In 2012, the UA became the first school ever in the 25-year history of the prestigious Venture Labs Investment Competition (the "Super Bowl" of business-plan competitions) to qualify three teams in the same year. The UA holds the record for the most competition wins by a school in a calendar year (nine, in 2010), and Arkansas has placed the second highest number of finalist teams in the prestigious Rice University competition (five, second to Michigan's six).

Each year, the UA seems to produce at least one graduate-level team that competes in the cycle of spring competitions and often beats teams from schools such as MIT and Harvard. This year, that team is Picasolar.

Picasolar team members are president Trish Flanagan, tech inventor Seth Shumate, Matthew Young and Michael Miller. They believe Picasolar's patent-pending tech can increase solar cell efficiency by 15 percent and save solar cell manufacturers as much as $20 million annually.

The Secret Sauce
Arkansas is emerging as a place where entrepreneurship can thrive. Evident in events such as the ARK Challenge accelerator in Fayetteville, Startup Weekend Little Rock, the Made By Few tech/designer conference and the ongoing, statewide Gone in 60 Seconds elevator pitch contest, it's being nurtured in Arkansas' colleges and universities.

The UA, in particular, is developing a pipeline that's transporting students from the classroom to, well, the board room.

Reeves attributes the success of UA students to several factors, including the varied backgrounds and experience levels of the school's MBA students.

"What distinguish us are a few things," she said.

1) Interdisciplinary teams. We have fantastic students from engineering and the sciences who participate in our Certificate in Entrepreneurship. Schools with all engineering or all business teams are at a big disadvantage. 

2) Our EMBA students. We have a number of students with 10-plus years of work experience participate each year. Their knowledge and experience are instrumental in our success. 

3) The involvement of former students and community members. One of our big advantages is that former students come back to prep the teams. That is instrumental in their success. My students say the grilling they get from former students is much rougher than anything they face in competition. Folks like Frank Fletcher, Clete Brewer, Omid Moghadam and many, many others speak to our students each year about their experiences, which is both informative and inspirational. One of our big advantages is that former students come back to prep the teams. That is instrumental in their success. My students say the grilling they get from former students is much rougher than anything they face in competition.

4) Support from the UA administration. I have a budget that allows our students to travel. Without that funding, our students wouldn’t go to competitions and the startups wouldn’t have gotten off the ground."

UA business-plan teams have competed in contests across North America against teams from all over the world. Reeves, who said last year that other schools now dread having to face Arkansas teams, believes her students are confident — at least until they hit their first international competition.

"Then they realize just how hard this is," she said. "I do think they are confident they will get to the point where they will be competitive."