KU Catalyst helps ambitious students build, launch their own businesses

By Peter Hancock
August 23, 2015

Many students come to Kansas University hoping that by the time they graduate, they’ll have the skills to succeed in the business world, and maybe one day even launch their own businesses.

But a growing number of KU students are finding out they can accomplish that even before they graduate, with help from a new program called the KU Catalyst that gives students hands-on experience in building a real business from the ground up.

“We’re just completing our first year and right now we have seven companies participating, seven new student ventures,” said Wallace Meyer Jr., a lecturer and director of entrepreneurship programs in the School of Business. He expects the program to grow to more than a dozen new ventures by the fall.

Meyer said projects that are in the works range from “very high-tech” inventions such as radar systems for unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to a software application to help newbie financial investors navigate the potential risks and rewards of possible investments.

Austin Barone, a sports enthusiast and a senior in the business honors program, is one of the few who has already gotten his new venture off the ground.

“Just Play” is a product he and a team of others produced that digitizes all the x’s, o’s and arrows of a football playbook into a format that replaces the three-ring binders that coaches and quarterbacks are known for carrying around.

“It gave me the guidance and support that I needed,” said Barone, whose product is already being used by a number of colleges and high schools in the United States and Canada. “It gave me space I needed to work in. We collaborated with coaches and other individuals. It also gave us the space to formulate ideas and take that next step, if you would, to make this a reality. So it’s really been a huge factor for us.”

The Catalyst is a joint venture of the business school and the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, or BTBC. The program operates from the newly expanded wing of the BTBC building on west campus and is expected to move to a new home in the new School of Business building, Capitol Federal Hall, which is scheduled to be constructed by summer 2016.

Modeled after other kinds of business “incubator” programs, the Catalyst offers space and computer resources for the young entrepreneurs to develop their ideas. It also pairs students with mentors and potential investors who can help them turn their ideas into reality.

Meyer said the program is open to all KU students, not just those in the business school, but there are high standards for being accepted.

To be considered, he said, students must have an existing business plan, or “a road map to commercialization.” They also need to do some initial market research, or “customer validation” of the concept, meaning they need to have talked with dozens of potential customers or users of their product or service who can validate that both the product or service they want to develop and the business model are acceptable.

More importantly, Meyer said, students must have a demonstration of commitment to being an entrepreneur.

“The reality is, given the mortality rate of new businesses, they have to be able to learn from the experience and be able to apply that to the next iteration,” Meyer said. “Tenacity is important.”

Finally, Meyer said, students need to have some of their own “skin in the game.” Although the Catalyst can provide students access to investment capital, he said the student-entrepreneurs need to put some of their own money into the project.

“For some students, $1,000 is a big deal. For others, it might be more or less,” Meyer said. “It’s not so much the amount, but they have to be willing to put their money where their mouth is because, in exchange, we provide them with an array of resources.”

Students interested in the Catalyst program can find more information, and download an application, from the program’s website, catalyst.ku.edu.