The Entrepreneurial Revolution

The Entrepreneurial Revolution

The winning idea for Fairfield’s entrepreneurial StartUp Showcase came to Emily Yale ’18 on horseback, in the fields and farms of her native Branford, Conn.

Yale felt the rural places she loved needed help bringing the business of farm life into the 21st century, with technology that could ultimately save time and resources.

But it wasn’t until she began studying mechanical engineering at Fairfield that her idea began to take shape.

“It was really one of those ‘Oh!’ moments,” Yale said of the day she came up with the idea for a soil-sampling robot. It was the perfect marriage of her passions and academic background.

Yale teamed up with fellow School of Engineering students John O’Neill ’18, Jose Osorio ’18, and Ryan Ferreira ’18 to create a prototype for their senior design project – a compact, green, soil-sampling robot designed to automate the soil testing process and take the trial and error out of soil management on golf courses, corporate campuses, vineyards, and farms. They named it Land Maverick.

In addition to testing soil, the Land Maverick robot also has the ability to tell farmers and land managers the best time to fertilize their fields, which will mitigate the impact of runoff water on local ecosystems.

To turn Land Maverick into something economically viable, Yale found her way to the Dolan School of Business’s StartUp Program — an annual series of educational, networking, and mentoring events designed to foster young entrepreneurial talent. Open to Fairfield students from all academic disciplines, the program culminates in a high-stakes business pitch competition called the StartUp Showcase, overseen by Chris Huntley, PhD.

“Dr. Huntley connected me to students who wanted to work on data management and mobile apps to visualize data,” Yale said. “This was a key piece to the project. Great data is only great if people can understand it.”

Soon, Land Maverick was able to produce area maps that use color blocks to indicate areas where soil is too dry, and to show when acidity and alkalinity levels are off, among other potential issues. With guidance on a business model from the Dolan School’s entrepreneur-in-residence team, Yale’s idea was ready to pitch in the University’s StartUp Showcase.

The StartUp Showcase is the real deal. It’s a Shark Tank-style business plan competition where student teams are literally put in the spotlight to pitch their ideas before a panel of investors. The teams compete for actual seed money to launch their businesses – all in front of a live audience at the Quick Center.

“The screens, the lights, and the investors can all be a lot of pressure,” Yale said. “There is a lot riding on the stage pitch.”

After each team gave their five-minute presentation this year, the investors doled out funding to bolster each idea. In addition the $20,000 ($10,000 to start plus pledges for $10,000 later this year) in investor backing, Yale and her Land Maverick team won the audience choice award for an additional $1,000 prize.

“I’m excited to see how far this project can go,” Yale said. At the time of this writing, she is preparing to present the company to angel investors, which would be the first step on the road to major capital investment.

In today’s marketplace, think tanks and startups are producing the innovations that transform the world – companies like Amazon, Airbnb, and Uber are changing the way consumers interact with industry and in turn, the way future business leaders – or industry disrupters – navigate their education.

Now more than ever, Fairfield University is seeing an increased interest in entrepreneurship from current and prospective students. In response, the Dolan School offers many ways students can participate in entrepreneurship activities at the University, both in the classroom and within the local community.

Management majors may elect to pursue an entrepreneurship concentration, while all students have the option to declare a standalone entrepreneurship minor. Outside of the classroom, students can participate in the Dolan School Entrepreneurship club or compete for a spot in the Fairfield StartUp Showcase, like Yale and her Land Maverick team.

Students also have access to the Dolan School’s extensive network of alumni entrepreneurs and local business partners to learn from and further develop their business ideas and entrepreneurial interests.

Dr. Huntley, associate professor and Fairfield Startup program director – who always has his trusty, red ‘idea notebook’ nearby – said there’s no better way to become a leader than to start your own business and that Fairfield’s student-centered entrepreneurship program focuses on encouraging students to build businesses that are an expression of their passions rather than a conventional top-down business plan model.

“We start with the students,” Dr. Huntley said. “Their [proposed] businesses will change a little bit throughout the StartUp program, but what will really transform is the person. Their level of sophistication and development as business people just can’t be overstated. It’s amazing when you see it.”

Recently, the Fairfield Startup Program was named by the Connecticut Entrepreneur Event Organizers consortium as one of the best programs in the state. It began as a scrappy, extracurricular group with an annual business plan competition. But it has grown over recent years into a comprehensive and interdisciplinary program and idea incubator.

Dr. Huntley, who has been at the helm since the program’s beginning almost a decade ago, said Fairfield’s program is unique in that it’s driven by alumni voices and has real, high- stakes production value with actual results.

“We are different because we go beyond the traditional program, beyond an exercise,” he continued. “What we do is very unusual. Other schools came to our showcase this year to see what we do… including Columbia, among other top universities.”

Students who attract seed funding in the Showcase enter the FUEL Summer Fellows program where expert mentors shepherd them toward redeeming their investor pledges. The summer program also includes a boot camp experience, participation in local angel investor events, and field trips to New York and Connecticut businesses where the startups can network with alumni mentors, service providers, and investors.

“The Jesuit philosophy really [makes one] think differently,” said Scott DePetris ’99, entrepreneur-in-residence with the Fairfield StartUp program since 2016, who advises students on their business ideas both in and outside of the classroom.

DePetris is a founding member of Portware, LLC and a proven serial entrepreneur. After Portware’s acquisition in 2015 by Factset Research Systems, DePetris led the transition team, eventually departing in 2017. He is now co-founder and CEO of Liquid Digital Holdings, LLC.

“When you get out into the world,” DePetris continued, “having a well-rounded perspective really does prepare you well to be an entrepreneur – you’re able to see things through multiple lenses and build diverse teams – a necessity in today’s global environment.