Startup Weekend challenges entrepreneurs of Lawrence, KU

By Mackenzie Clark
September 28, 2015

The challenge: Formulate a cohesive and catchy pitch for a business, inspire enough passion in a group of complete strangers to unite them around the idea, concoct a logical business plan, and get experts to buy in — all within a single weekend.

Twenty Kansas University students and Lawrence community members attempted to do just that at Startup Weekend, a three-day event that promotes entrepreneurism and collaboration.

On Friday evening, anyone who wanted to was given time to pitch an idea to the whole group. Those ideas were narrowed down to four with a vote. Participants formed groups, ranging from four to seven members each, and went to work late that night, said Julie Murray, director of corporate and community engagement for the KU School of Business and KU Innovation and Collaboration.

The four groups further refined their ideas all day Saturday with the help of seven coaches and mentors, and worked long hours to compile business and marketing plans, prototypes and more through Sunday.

Sunday evening, the groups presented to a panel of judges that included Blake Hawley, president and CEO of Integrated Animal Health; Kevin McGinnis, vice president of product at Pinsight Media+; and G.R. Underwood, president and COO of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center at KU.

“Entrepreneurship and small businesses, or organically grown businesses, are vital to the community,” Murray said. “I think we live in a risk-averse culture here in the Midwest, so getting people to change the mindset, that it’s OK to take a risk and to start something new and to grow a business here locally, is a good thing to happen, to both you personally as well as to the community.”

Three of the four groups’ proposals focused on apps or websites. The winning idea, announced Sunday evening, was Modern Nomad, an idea for furniture that uses a technique called kerf cutting. It would create easy, snap-assembly pieces of furniture that can be packed and shipped flat, so it’s easy to move.

“(Kerf cutting) is a technique that allows you to bend a solid piece of wood into something that’s flexible like paper, which allows you to take a flat piece of wood and, with a couple of cuts in it, turn it into a full chair,” said Michael McCulley, a KU junior majoring in industrial design. “… Our target market is young, urban creatives.”

McCulley, who crafted the idea with friend and partner Jack Hoard, said many people in his target market would choose furniture that has similar selling points but tends to be difficult to assemble and poorly made.

“What we’re trying to do is make a durable, modern piece that’s very easy to assemble and disassemble,” he said.

Susan Cross, a local marketing professional and member of the Modern Nomad group, said this kind of teamwork is good for the community because it gets people invested in Lawrence as a potential hub for startups.

“It shows there’s an interest in a place where you can express your ideas and meet people that want to help those ideas come to fruition,” she said.

She also said it’s a good — though very intense — way to network.

“If the team works well, you get the best out of each other from it,” Cross said.

The fourth member of the Modern Nomad team was Kristin Scheurer, who stepped down from her position as executive director of Douglas County Senior Services in late July.

One of the groups had an idea for a website similar to that would allow users to pitch ideas for products or services to the general public in order to collect feedback and small contributions — 5 or 10 cents — from anyone who likes an idea.

Another group wanted to bring consolation to mourners through an app that would allow them to share memories, photos, videos and more in connection to a loved one who has passed away. It would also help grieving families cover funeral expenses.

The third Web-based idea came from a group of seven students who believe there is a high demand for and low supply of tutors available, and they tend to come at a high price. Their site would allow students to connect and teach each other their skills.

Murray said the winning group will be offered a year of free help from Jalenak Accounting Services and the opportunity to participate in the Catalyst program, which “provides an opportunity for entrepreneurially-minded KU students to create and build their own companies,” according to its website. It is a partnership between the School of Business and the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, which housed and co-sponsored the weekend’s events.

Murray said she and other organizers hope all four teams will continue to work on their businesses. Last year’s winning team, called PhotoNoteIt, is still together and growing the business, she said. One of its founders, Anthony West, also served as a coach Saturday.

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