Student Startup Madness: Local Collegians Compete to Be Next Mark Zuckerberg

Categories: Bidness, Tech

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Many people come up with the dumbest ideas of their lives during college. But, as Sean Branagan, director of the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Syracuse University, observes, some pretty good ideas have come from college students, too: Facebook, FedEx, Dell computers, Google, Reddit, to name a few.

What other great ideas are lurking on America's college campuses, Branagan wondered, unrecognized because college students traditionally lack the sort of financial backing to turn a class project into a full-fledged corporation?

And so he started up Student Startup Madness, a contest to ferret out the best of those ideas. Following the model of the NCAA basketball tournament -- Branagan is a fanatical sports fan -- 64 teams from four geographical regions will compete for eight spots at the Big Dance, in this case, a trip to South by Southwest this March where they will have the opportunity to pitch their projects to potential investors. The tournament has now reached the semifinal stage, with 32 teams.

Saint Louis University is the host of the Midwest Region, whose eight competitors include one team from SLU and two from Washington University. The finalists -- two from each region to make up the "Entrepreneurial Eight" -- will be announced early next week.

The competition, alas, is entirely virtual, based on the students' answers on a questionnaire which, as Branagan puts it, contains "a goodly number of questions about the business: how they plan to get it going, how they plan to make money, the secret sauce." The questionnaires will be evaluated by faculty of the Center for Entrepreneurship at SLU's John Cook School of Business. The SXSW panel has yet to be named, but Branagan assures Daily RFT that they will be seasoned professionals.

Wash. U.'s two semi-finalists are Bazaarboy, an e-commerce app, and Text Reject, which generates text messages to get rid of unwanted suitors. SLU's contribution is StoryBoard, an app that allows you to upload short videos of up to 30 seconds to document your life, sort of an Instagram-in-motion.

Branagan views Student Startup Madness as a sort of introduction between students and the so-called real world.

"It's like those Outward Bound trips where you take a kid from the city to the top of a mountain," he says. "They realize that their neighborhood's not so big. They see opportunities. It's the same thing here. On campus, everybody thinks your app is great. Your roommate thinks it's great, your mom thinks it's great, your grandma thinks it's great. You got to South by Southwest and nobody cares.

"There are so many great ideas," he continues. "How do you gain attention and up your game? Success is about momentum, who you know, the connections you make. It's a totally unsafe environment. We want to help the students carve out a little area."

Most of the student finalists, an observer can't help but notice, hail from a small number of schools, many of whom happen to be hosts of the semifinal rounds (such as the University of Texas-Austin). It's a problem Branagan hopes to remedy in future years as the contest becomes more widely-known.

"Are 64 teams worthy?" he asks, rhetorically. "No. There are probably a thousand. We want to instill an element of school pride. Why not have the same thing for business that they have for sports? We're looking for a Cinderella team."

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