At first look, the feasting larvae of the black soldier fly hardly seem the picture of innovation.
Writhing and wriggling within the confines of a shallow plastic container, they incessantly devour the kitchen scraps served by their caretakers. It is not a pretty sight.
But these fly larvae are more than a marvel of nature; they’re a business model in action. The larvae will turn that food waste into marketable fertilizer before paying the ultimate sacrifice of becoming a snack for backyard chickens.
The business model is the brainchild of Sean Warner and Patrick Pittaluga, recently minted Georgia Tech graduates who launched a company, Grubbly Farms, early in 2015. While theirs is a brave and independent venture, the co-founders had abundant help from Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X program, which prepares students to embark on self-started business ventures.
“When we first pitched the idea to CREATE-X, we were breeding flies in our laundry room,” Warner says. “The mentorship we received through the program was tremendously helpful. And the [financial] investment helped us set up our first mini facility in my parents’ greenhouse.”
CREATE-X is the product of people inside and outside Georgia Tech who have given a lot to make it happen. It was conceived as a what-if idea by a small cadre of leaders across the Institute. It found life as a cohesive program thanks to the generosity of a Georgia Tech alumnus. And for now, it is sustained largely by the selfless involvement of faculty, alumni and others in Atlanta’s startup community who are motivated by seeing Georgia Tech students discover and develop the confidence to be entrepreneurs.
“The program is itself a startup,” says Raghupathy “Siva” Sivakumar, CREATE-X director and a professor who holds the Wayne J. Holman Chair in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Many people donate their time to it. We have 40 different mentors, we have faculty teaching classes pro bono and we have volunteers come and talk to the students all the time.”
CREATE-X is an experience of three sequential action verbs – learn, make and launch. The “learn” component is a fall semester course called Startup Lab, which provides a foundational introduction to starting a company before turning students loose to conduct exhaustive customer research. A second course, Idea 2 Prototype, follows in spring semester to give students the opportunity to make and iterate a prototype of their invention. Students then apply for the crowning “launch” component, the 12-week Startup Summer. In 2016, 120 teams applied to Startup Summer; only 20 were selected to participate.
“The intellectual aspect of the program is much higher than starting a business,” says Ray Vito, Professor Emeritus of the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and a man who was instrumental in shaping CREATE-X. “We wanted to give students the experience, knowledge, skills and confidence to be thought leaders and innovators. We don’t expect all of our students to do startups. But all of the students who participate learn the importance of taking the lead and being self-sufficient.
The core elements of CREATE-X arrived at different points in the last few years, but they came together in a dramatic way in the spring of 2015, when Georgia Tech alumnus Chris Klaus donated $2 million to the program. The gift made it possible to hire a small staff and support three years of operations as well as provide $20,000 in convertible debt to each student team participating in Startup Summer.
“Chris is, of course, one of the most entrepreneurial students ever to come out of Georgia Tech,” Sivakumar says about Klaus, who launched Internet Security Solutions and later sold it to IBM for $1.3 billion. “We first invited him to talk to a class in Startup Lab. He has an excellent back story about starting a company out of his dorm room, and the students could relate to it.”
“My success was based a lot on the leadership alumni in the Georgia Tech community,” Klaus says. “If you look at the list of startups done by college-age kids – Zuckerberg at Facebook or Gates at Microsoft – you can see that undergraduates are fertile ground for us to reach out to. The mindset at Georgia Tech today is if you know how to build it, don’t stop at the prototype. Build a company.”
In Klaus’ view, it took a while for that mindset to be established. “Georgia Tech was always great at creating awesome engineers, but it didn’t always have the culture to get students to think about how they could build a company to help thousands or millions of customers,” he says. “But a shift has occurred. Two years ago, I spoke at a startup class, and afterward we had five or 10 students asking questions. This past year, that same class had 500 students attend – and at least 50 of them came up afterward to talk.”
Klaus saw that he could help develop that culture further. “This program is something I would’ve wanted as a student at Georgia Tech,” he says. “I was very fortunate that I was able and willing to take a risk, and once I started getting checks in my dorm room, it became less of a risk. As an alumnus, you want to give back and make things better.”
The contribution of another Georgia Tech graduate provided a different kind of boost to student-launched companies – namely, helping them get their legal house in order. John Lanza (B.E.E., M.S. EE) is national IP operations partner for the Atlanta-based law firm Foley & Lardner, which counts emerging technology companies as one of its focus areas. When he learned about CREATE-X, Lanza had an idea: Provide the student startups with legal services, but hold off on collecting fees until the company has had a successful round of funding.
“We already offer the fee deferral program to other startups, but they have to complete a fairly rigorous application process and then be accepted,” Lanza says. “I told my colleagues at the firm that Georgia Tech has one of the top engineering schools in the country. So if the folks running CREATE-X are going to allow a company into the program, that should be good enough for us.”
The services Foley & Lardner provides through the program range from the simple filing for incorporation to the complex protection of intellectual property. But Lanza himself goes further. He meets and Skypes regularly with his student clients, advising them on a range of matters and connecting them with professionals in the legal and startup worlds.
“My personal iron in the fire is that I believe in the next generation and their abilities, period,” he says. “Whenever I’m talking to these young people, I’m constantly amazed by what they’re able to do and how much they get accomplished. If I can help them deliver their technology into the world, well, that makes a better world."
Other Georgia Tech alumni and established entrepreneurs share their guidance as well. MailChimp founder Ben Chestnut is a perennial guest speaker, and serial entrepreneurs Jim Stratigos and Paul Judge make themselves available well.
The advice of these seasoned professionals can be invaluable, as John Gattuso attests. The 24-year-old co-founder of FIXD, a startup marketing a sensor and mobile app that diagnose car engine problems, recalls when CREATE-X connected him and his partners with Mike Tinskey (MS EE), Ford Motor Company’s global director of vehicle electrification.
“The first time we met him, we were kind of nervous – I mean, he’s a pretty big deal at Ford, and he has his pulse on the industry,” Gattuso says. “So he shows up and says, ‘You guys want to get some wings and beer?’ We said, uh sure, and that put us at ease.”
Gattuso says Tinskey has provided a wealth of ideas and counsel since that introduction, especially when it came to differentiating their product. “In the beginning, it was a consumer product, but there were other similar devices out there, so Mike emphasized that we needed to innovate on the model or the distribution or something,” Gattuso says. “That caused us to look into auto repair shops and dealership service centers as distribution channels.” Today, both are major components of the FIXD business model.
Gattuso and other students are just as enthusiastic about the instruction they received inside Georgia Tech from faculty and staff – many of whom donate their time or earn only nominal compensation.
“I remember [VentureLab Director] Keith McGreggor telling us that the worst thing we can hear from a prospective customer in the discovery phase is, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” says Alex Weiss, who co-founded the kitchen gardening system Replantable. “You don’t want to hear that. You want to hear, ‘When can I get this?’ or ‘Where can I buy this?’ If your customers aren’t begging for the product, you have to find a new customer base or come up with a new product.”
CREATE-X Director Sivakumar says several faculty contribute their time to all three segments of the program. James Rains (B.S. EE) is one example. A 13-year veteran of the medical products industry, he now teaches design and capstone classes in biomedical engineering – but contributes 15 hours a week to Startup Summer, providing feedback on student presentations and connecting students with people in industry.
“Ever since I was 18, I wanted to create a startup,” Rains says. While a student at Georgia Tech, he got as far developing “an awesome prototype” and software for a smart home electronics system – but he lacked the know-how and support to commercialize it. “So I’m trying to pay it forward now,” Rains says. “I get to work with these student teams, and this stuff is exciting. It’s a labor of love, really.”
The challenge for CREATE-X now is how to build on its strong internal and external support to grow the program. Sivakumar says the goal is to move from engaging 300 students annually today to 3,000 five years from now, and “to scale different aspects of what CREATE-X does without compromising quality.” Since the program is now in the second year of the three-year financial commitment from Chris Klaus, efforts are underway to build broader and deeper support.
Steve McLaughlin plays a key role in those efforts. The Steve W. Chaddick Chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, McLaughlin is one of the leading champions of CREATE-X, and he describes an “all-out approach” to raise the funds necessary to ensure the future viability of the program.
“Almost everyone we talk to sees the benefit of being able to jump-start entrepreneurship earlier in students’ careers,” McLaughlin says. “They connect with what we’re trying to accomplish, and they want to help.”
To emphasize the point, he cites a metaphor favored by Ravi Bellamkonda, the previous chair of the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. “Many at Georgia Tech remember the drown proofing course that all freshmen used to take,” McLaughlin says. “Ravi calls CREATE-X ‘Drownproofing 2.0.’ It’s the ability to survive by creating a job for yourself in the future.”
Thanks to the legion of people behind them, Georgia Tech students are discovering their capacity to invent their future.