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A Conversation With An Accelerator Team

By: Miranda Knight

In 2019, Ryan Murtaugh and Nathan Brickman, now graduates of biology and agricultural communications respectively, set out to tackle a problem in the mental health industry: it’s outdated communication tactics. What began then as a class project has now developed, through several CIE programs, into incubator company Bridge.

Q: At its core, Bridge is a software platform designed for mental health professionals to communicate more efficiently. Why create this?

Ryan Murtaugh: Right now, mental health professionals are utilizing all kinds of different software, even Facebook, to do things pretty inefficiently. Our collaboration software will strengthen the mental health industry’s infrastructure, enabling professionals to connect with each other, refer clients and grow their practices on a modern platform that’s designed for them.

Q: How did this idea come about?

RM: Nathan and I met in John Townsend’s “Intro to Entrepreneurship” class where we decided to look at the mental health industry, figure out what problems existed in that space and utilize technologies to mitigate some of those problems. Everyone has been personally affected by mental health in some capacity, so we felt that it was really fitting to look at that space.

Q: So, you devised this new business concept for class. Then what? 

RM: After the class, we joined the Hatchery, then applied for the 2019 accelerator — and didn’t get in! That was actually great for us, though. Rather than going into the accelerator with a half-baked idea, we were able to really dive deep into the industry’s problems in a HotHouse MedTech program that summer.

Q: Then you reapplied to the HotHouse Accelerator in 2020?

RM: Yes! We got into the accelerator the next summer. When we first came into the program we had some more hypotheses to test and unfinished development, but by the end of it we had a software with mental healthcare professionals using it daily. The program really gave us the time and resources to strategize and develop the software.

Q: When it comes to resources, accelerator teams are given $10,000 in funding. How did that help Bridge?

RM: The $10,000 was so helpful. Software sometimes seems as though it isn’t that costly, but it can add up. The money helped with simple things like keeping our servers running or paying for APIs, but it also allowed us to really test things and get crucial data points that helped us move forward a lot faster.

Q: What does it mean for students like yourself to have CIE resources? 

RM: It’s incredible. The CIE is the best thing you could possibly have as an entrepreneurial student because you have access to this network of people who have done it before and are happy to guide you. Thinking back to freshman me, I always knew I wanted to go into entrepreneurship and start my own venture. Just knowing that CIE resources were on campus really motivated me to go for it.

Q: It’s hard to imagine students not having a resource like that to support them.

RM: Exactly. It’s such a huge endeavor to even try entrepreneurship in general. Without experienced people to help you through it, it must be exponentially harder.

Q: And you can’t learn everything on YouTube, right?

RM: Nope. And I tried, trust me! I know it’s cliche, but it’s so true about Learn by Doing at Cal Poly. I’ve learned more in the past two years working on Bridge than I have my whole life, in almost every regard — personal development, professional development, business knowledge. Everything.

Q: That’s huge. So, what about the challenges of entrepreneurship? I imagine it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Bridge team.

RM: The CIE makes it really clear that pivots and iterations are extremely common and there’s no point in fearing the inevitable. For us, there wasn’t a whole lot of pivoting, but rather more understanding of the true complexity of the mental health market. While we’re still on the path of focusing on private practices first, our product roadmap has evolved to include strategic developments for other entities to make Bridge a fully integrated, collaborative experience.

Q: Did COVID-19 change anything?

RM: COVID-19 has been really interesting. With mental healthcare, it’s been fascinating. The switch to telehealth set a new precedent that many mental health professionals do not need to be in a certain place to do their work. And the methods practitioners were using before were so outdated, like sending letters or using a Rolodex to call your colleagues. It’s crazy. Of course, COVID-19 isn’t good, but for Bridge, it’s really been a push in the right direction and kind of forced this industry to adopt new technologies.

Q: Now that you’ve graduated from the accelerator, what’s next for Bridge?

RM: Well, we just moved into the HotHouse Incubator which has already been extremely helpful in getting our advisory board together and working toward incorporation. Right now, we’re doing closed beta testing and are working to hit about 300 to 600 practitioners [on Bridge] by December. Then, by June of 2021, we hope to have around 10,000 users and start really turning on the revenue streams. At this point, it’s just total focus and execution on that pathway.

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CIE Graduates Keeping it SLOcal: Tastry

Katerina Axelsson, CEO and founder of Tastry, in the lab testing wine.

By Miranda Knight

Can computers taste? Cal Poly chemistry graduate Katerina Axelsson says so — and she has the data-backed artificial intelligence (AI) innovation to prove it.

While doing chemistry work at local wineries in college, Axelsson noticed that wine scoring was inconsistent and subjective, quickly seeing a need for more transparency in the wine industry and a better understanding of what consumers really want.

“I saw an opportunity to make the subjective wine scoring process more objective,” she said. “I figured that, instead of the 100-point critic system of wine scoring, the answer was in the chemistry.”

So, Axelsson went straight to the lab, where she spent two years innovatively testing wine as a human would taste it, rather than simply for quality control like a typical lab.

By the end of this, she had gathered a mass of data that needed processing, so she set up a meeting with Alex Dekhtyar, the head of the computer science master’s program. The proposed thirty-minute meeting ended up lasting four hours, landed her a business partner in Dekhtyar and was the start of her entrepreneurial journey.

“Around that time, I joined the HotHouse Summer Accelerator for a sort of similar product idea, a wine tasting kit that educated people about wine,” she said. “After that, I went into the HotHouse Incubator where we started getting data from the recommender deployments. That’s kind of when the wheels started turning.”

Thus, Axelsson pivoted her concept and turned it into Tastry, the technology-driven AI company she is the CEO and founder of today.

“The data we were gathering on consumer preferences was unprecedented and led us to build an insights dashboard, like a software product,” she explained. “Now we’re in the business of not only telling consumers what to buy, but telling retailers what to stock and wineries what to make and where to sell it.”

During Tastry’s two years in the incubator until its 2017 graduation, and for some time after, the team fully dove into B2B technology to vertically integrate into the wine industry. Now, they have released their BottleBird app and have plans to launch “Powered by Tastry” software on e-commerce wine websites to keep in touch with consumers.

But while the startup has a history of upward success, Axelsson says that it hasn’t always been easy to be seemingly “selling a rocket ship when people were only looking for a faster horse.”

“We’re making some pretty big claims,” she said. “To say that we can predict how a product will perform in the market just based on the chemistry is almost not believable. And I couldn’t just say this is faster and better and cheaper than what the industry was already using because there’s nothing out there like it. I had to really gain customer trust.”

However, Axelsson confidently utilizes efficacy tests to show, rather than tell, that there is validity in Tastry’s technology. Not to mention, Tastry has no shortage of customers on the Central Coast.

“San Luis Obispo [County] is the perfect environment for this type of company because we’re directly embedded into the wine industry, with the added benefit of being right next to Cal Poly which has a lot of talent to pull from,” Axelsson noted. “Plus, having access to the CIE helped surround me with an incredible network of like-minded people, mentors and investors.”

With that being said, Axelsson doesn’t plan on moving Tastry out of San Luis Obispo anytime soon —  there’s still so much opportunity to tap into and plenty of local wine for her computers to taste.

You can find out more about Tastry at https://tastry.com/ or learn how we can help you grow your SLOcal business today through our HotHouse Incubator program.

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One Engineer’s Unexpected Turn to Entrepreneurship | De Oro Devices

Sidney Collin talking to Jack Brill, a Parkinson's patient using the NextStride device.

By: Miranda Knight

Sidney Collin never saw herself as an entrepreneur. The biomedical engineering graduate hardly expected to start a business and even when she innovated a device for Parkinson’s patients, she simply saw that as another facet of research.

That is, until she got involved in CIE programming.

“I have a very engineering-based mind and don’t think like a businessperson,” explained Collin. “I jumped into entrepreneurship without planning to at all, but I got exposed to this whole other world that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know I wanted to be a part of or even felt like I would fit into.”

While working on a Cal Poly engineering project, Collin was introduced to local veteran Jack Brill who was dealing with freezing of gait, a Parkinson’s symptom that hinders movement. 

Knowing about extensive research backing audio and visual cues as a way to combat this, Collin created what is now the NextStride, a medical device under her company De Oro Devices that uses lasers and metronomes to prevent freezing of gait. 

After Brill found it successful, he sparked demand for it in a local Parkinson’s support group.

“It was completely unfathomable to me that something so simple and so well known to be effective didn’t exist already,” Collin said. “I realized that there was a much bigger need for a device like this.”

The closest thing to a solution then involved a physical therapist laying painter’s tape on a patient’s home floor as a pathway for them to walk along.

“But that confined them to those specific lines,” she said. “We’re allowing them to not only be able to wake up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom by themselves, but also go to the beach or walk around the block. They can take the cues anywhere.”

To serve the larger community seeking this relief, Collin and her advisor needed funding, so they looked into CIE’s Innovation Quest (IQ). Feeling uncertain about pitching her company, she passed it up in 2017, but got involved the following year.

Her device was immediately met with excitement by CIE leaders, inspiring her to gain business skills in the on-campus Hatchery before officially pitching to investors. Ultimately, De Oro Devices didn’t win — but Collin wasn’t shaken.

Instead, she was pushed to apply for the HotHouse Accelerator and got in.

“I came into that thinking there was no way I could be successful because I didn’t fit the entrepreneurial mold,” Collin recalled about her startup journey’s beginning. “But the CIE offers an incredible amount of support and allows students and super early-stage companies to dream big which is so valuable.”

And that value shows. Collin and co-founder Will Thompson went on to take De Oro Devices through the HotHouse Incubator, launch their medical device on a remarkable timeline, win the Central Coast Angel Conference and secure multiple rounds of investments. 

Now post-incubator, the startup remains based in San Luis Obispo as it expands its already-global reach, grows into new disease states and builds out its product line.

“We’re continuously motivated by our customers’ responses saying, ‘I’ve been able to walk for the first time in years, this is amazing, thank you,” Collin said. “It’s crazy to think that there’s no chance I would’ve pursued anything if it wasn’t for the CIE pushing me to realize that there was a business opportunity here and that I could be the one to do it.”

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Entrepreneurship for All: The Freshman Perspective

Overhead shot of four students working at a table.

Close your eyes and picture an entrepreneur in your mind. Are they strong, powerful, leading the business meeting as their company’s CEO? Naturally. Are they a freshman in college? No?

Then close your eyes and try again. Reimagine what it means to be a CEO, an entrepreneur or the next big innovator. This time, envision yourself, a new undergraduate student, as the one leading your own company’s meeting.

Because it’s possible. In fact, if you have a desire to dive into the startup world, it’s probable. 

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) is dedicated to helping forward-thinking students reach their highest potential, whether they’re just beginning their collegiate journey or graduating on to their next venture.

One student who dove headfirst into entrepreneurship during her first quarter as a Mustang is Alexandra Joelson, now a business administration sophomore.

“I was at the club fair on campus and saw Cal Poly Entrepreneurs advertising the Elevator Pitch Competition,” she said. “I decided to join the club and participate in the competition, because I was just a freshman and I wanted to get as involved as possible.”

For the competition, Joelson pitched an innovative athletic footwear concept that ultimately won the $1,000 top prize and led her to Cal Poly Entrepreneurs’ (CPE) Startup Marathon, where she formed the team of all first-year students that now makes up her company, Intego Sports

So, just like that, Joelson found herself becoming a CEO at 18 years old.

“It’s kind of wild trying to balance learning how to start college and live on your own, trying to figure out how to budget your meals, all while also running a company and doing classes,” she explained. “But it was a really good learning experience to figure out how to balance school and life and our company.”

And while Joelson’s entrepreneurial journey centers around her role as company CEO, students don’t have to be the one with the initial vision to get involved in startups.

For one Intego Sports co-founder, aerospace engineer sophomore Jack Browers, joining Joelson gave him the opportunity to meld his love for engineering and entrepreneurship together and get hands-on experience outside of the classroom.

“It was really exciting being a first-year student diving into entrepreneurship,” Browers said. “You get so much flexibility to create whatever you want and there are so many people willing to help you along the way.” 

According to both Joelson and Browers, there are two major reasons why freshmen can and should get into entrepreneurship: for the early Learn by Doing experience and because you’ll never have such a large support system and safety net again.

“There’s no risk in it,” Joelson said. “If you start a company that fails, you fall back on a college education. I think that there’s no better time to start a company than now, especially when you’re a freshman.” 

However, it’s important to know that entrepreneurship and innovation aren’t just about starting a company; cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset can be key for students with any collegiate goals or career aspirations.

When software engineering junior Kalen Goo first came to Cal Poly, he saw entrepreneurship as a daunting, premier thing reserved for business students. During freshman year, though, Goo joined CPE and realized that entrepreneurship was exactly what he needed.

“Entrepreneurship is about so much more than starting a company,” Goo explained. “Had I not followed through with entrepreneurship, I would’ve been stuck with just my software engineer mindset.”

Two years later, Goo, now the president of CPE, says that having grown his entrepreneurial mindset since freshman year has made all the difference throughout his time in college.

Luckily, if you’re interested in entrepreneurship, there are countless CIE resources available starting from the moment you become a Mustang — whether your goal is to be a startup founder or a future intrapreneur building your innovative community.

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Cal Poly Entrepreneurs Fosters Community Despite Social Distancing

Cal Poly Entrepreneurs Club Members

On Tuesdays at 6 p.m., in a typical quarter, you can expect Building 2, Room 210, to be full of Cal Poly Entrepreneurs (CPE) members ready to learn entrepreneurial lessons, hear from startup leaders and connect with their innovative peers over copious amounts of pizza. 

Now, instead of piling into the bustling room across the hall from the Hatchery, members log in to the virtual Tuesday evening meetings from their various locations — but CPE President Kalen Goo said the club’s energy is still the same.

“Most of the challenges this fall lie around how to reach out to people and re-engage them,” Goo said. “But once they come to our meetings, they’ll be welcomed in that typical CPE environment and feel like they’re back at home.” 

With a fresh board of leaders, the club’s focus this year is on re-engaging past members and expanding its reach on and off campus to strengthen the entrepreneurial community in San Luis Obispo. 

Plus, the CPE officers have plans to energize student entrepreneurs beyond the screen.

“Zoom overload is a real thing,” political science senior Sophie Hosbein, CPE’s VP of outreach and community engagement, acknowledged. “We’re putting together basically a workbook, or a toolkit,… to give people entrepreneurship resources that they can pursue [outside of meetings].” 

While they recognized that joining clubs in this virtual climate may seem strange, Goo and Hosbein said that it’s worth it because their club isn’t just another campus organization. 

To them, CPE is an inclusive and supportive community.

One of the best things about CPE, according to Goo, is that there are no requirements to join; they don’t charge membership fees and there’s no expected major, year or experience level, making it the largest interdisciplinary club on campus.

“CPE is for anyone who is interested in entrepreneurship, and I don’t mean just people who want to start a company,” the president said. “A key part of CPE is even just meeting people who are different from you and understanding their perspectives.”

For Hosbein, joining the club was paramount in her college experience, gaining her friendships with like-minded people despite not being interested in founding a startup herself.

“With every CPE meeting I go to, I leave more energized, more excited,” she said. “I’ve always admired the people that [CPE] brings together who are all very driven and ambitious go-getters, but also very ready to have a good time.”

Goo added that, as a non-business major from the College of Engineering, CPE upgraded his academic endeavors by helping him cultivate an innovative mindset to complement his programming and software studies.

However, aside from the educational perks, Goo’s reason for joining, staying in and becoming president of CPE was always the members — whether they’re bonding over slices of pizza in-person or catching up in virtual breakout rooms.

“These are the people who are passionate and really inspirational and are really different from myself who will challenge me to grow and think about the world in a different way,” he said. “These are the people that I want to surround myself with.”

If you’re looking to grow your entrepreneurial mindset, find your campus community and network beyond the classroom, Cal Poly Entrepreneurs is for you, and they’re always welcoming new members. Check them out at https://cpentrepreneurs.com/

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You Already Launched Your Company, So Why Join an Incubator Program?

Three-person business team working together in the SLO HotHouse Incubator program.

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) doesn’t just want to help businesses launch — we want to help businesses thrive. That’s why joining the HotHouse Incubator program can still be a game changer even if your business is already launched and you feel like you can find success on your own. Here’s how our two-year incubator program helps entrepreneurial ventures prosper at any stage.

 

Expert Mentorship

You might be thinking, “I managed to get to where I am by myself, so why would I need a mentor now?” Well, one of our incubator startup founders, David Bartolomucci, put it best when he asked, “Why not learn from others’ mistakes first instead of making them yourself?” At the CIE, we simply believe that there’s no reason not to have mentor guidance along your entrepreneurial journey. For this reason, our HotHouse Incubator program offers one-on-one mentorship from Cal Poly CIE Small Business Development Center (SBDC) expert consultants and Cal Poly alumni to help you celebrate the highs and navigate lows of being a CEO. 

 

Networking for Growth

Gaining connections is oftentimes the ultimate factor for success and the best way to reach people is, well, through other people (and not just on LinkedIn). Being in the incubator program offers access to mentors, investors, seasoned entrepreneurs, innovative Cal Poly students, local businesses and everyone in between. Being a part of the HotHouse community lands you countless opportunities to expand your reach, expand your team and expand your funding… all things that are incredibly important at any stage in business.

 

Encouragement and Accountability

While mentorship and networking bring you business growth, they also bring you human connection. According to one of our former incubator program startup founders, Sierra Scolaro, “What’s really nice about having the CIE as a support system is that they’re not just supporting your business idea, they’re supporting you as an entrepreneur.” Being in the program brings you a community of like-minded people who are excited to watch you grow your business as well as your personal self, all while keeping you accountable in reaching your entrepreneurial goals.

 

“Human Google”

Whether you’re months away from launching or you’ve been in business for years, running a company definitely offers a never-ending level of uncertainty and probably a lot of Google searches. However, incubator company founder Trent Ellingsen calls the HotHouse “human Google” and it makes a great deal of sense. 

Our HotHouse Incubator program allows you to be surrounded by an interdisciplinary and diverse group of people who most likely have an answer to any of your questions (especially the ones that can’t be found with a simple web search). Joining the incubator can relieve you from a ton of uncertainty, confusion and wasted screen time. 

 

Tangible Resources

Along with all of the benefits from interpersonal connections in the program, the HotHouse Incubator program offers incredible workspace resources. Between the downtown SLO HotHouse and the HotHouse Annex, the CIE’s two off-campus locations, you can gain personal office space, private phone booths, tech-savvy conference rooms, spacious lounge areas, kitchen amenities and even a manufacturing lab for your hands-on innovations.

If you’re ready to take your already launched business to the next level, the CIE is here to help. Learn how your company can thrive with our strategic guidance, #SLOcal business network and energetic workspaces at https://cie.calpoly.edu/launch/hothouse-incubator/.

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Calwise Spirits Co. Stays Resilient by Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

Three Calwise Spirits Co. liquor bottles.

The entrepreneurial journey is full of risk, complex challenges and unpredictability, but Aaron Bergh, the founder of Calwise Spirits Co., says that unwavering resilience is what will get a startup through obstacles and on a path toward success.   

Bergh has gone through several Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) programs to grow Calwise into the distillery and tasting room that it is today, encountering several highs and lows along the way. 

Recently, he has met his biggest challenges yet.

“Since I started my business I’ve been very good at predicting things, but the pandemic has turned that all on its head,” Bergh said. “There’s absolutely no way to prepare for what’s going to happen next.”

However, Bergh accepted that instead of preparing for specific market changes and setbacks, all he could do was prepare his business to roll with the punches on a nearly day-to-day basis. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Calwise was forced to close its doors and Bergh had the heavy burden of laying off his staff. Almost immediately, though, Bergh recognized an opportunity for his distillery.

“I turned my business into something it was never designed to be, which was a hand sanitizer manufacturer,” he said of his temporary pivot. “That allowed me to bring revenue in while a lot of people didn’t have that opportunity. I was able to bring my employees back and build up some funds to move forward and continue to grow my company.” 

As San Luis Obispo began to reopen its economy, Calwise then started to pivot back to business-as-usual but was quickly shot down by the second wave of restrictions on the local business community. Now, Bergh and his team are innovating their practices again by creating outdoor seating for Calwise customers to align with current public health mandates.

But why would he keep pivoting when things could change in an instant? Bergh said it’s just simply what you do as an entrepreneur.

“Having obstacles keeps me on my feet and forces me to constantly have to think and innovate,” he said. “When I’m faced with something tricky that would frankly make a lot of people want to run away and give up, I prefer to rise to the challenge.”

So, while Bergh says he has always been a tenacious problem-solver, going through the CIE HotHouse Accelerator and Incubator programs helped him better understand the need to stay resilient in the startup world.

“As simple as it sounds, the main thing I’ve learned is that everyone has challenges and that you just have to get through it,” he said of working alongside other startups and mentors. “Resilience means being able to survive through whatever is thrown at you and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.”

Today, Bergh says that his team’s resilience has allowed business to go better than he expected it would during these economically-challenging times and that he’s found a silver lining in being able to steadily continue to sell Calwise spirits and cocktails online.

You can learn more about this persevering entrepreneur’s company at http://www.calwisespirits.com/ or find out how the CIE can help your company navigate the turbulent startup journey at https://cie.calpoly.edu/launch/hothouse-incubator/.

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Why You Must Embrace Failure to Succeed in Entrepreneurship

Sierra Scolaro pitching her startup idea on stage at Demo Day 2019..

“Failure” is nearly inevitable in the startup world, but how an entrepreneur responds to challenges and setbacks is what determines their career prosperity, as well as determines whether or not they have actually failed. This is something Sierra Scolaro strongly believes.

“The definition of failure isn’t whether or not your business succeeded,” the 2019 Cal Poly business administration and entrepreneurship graduate told us. “Failure is a result of not having learned anything.”

In her final year of college, Scolaro started an entrepreneurial senior project to create a device that allowed for quick, on-the-go water filtration. Her team took their idea into the 2019 Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) HotHouse Accelerator program and continued to work on building the startup in the HotHouse Incubator program for nearly a year after. 

However, when Scolaro’s company began hitting several roadblocks and making many pivots, her team recognized that they needed to reevaluate the business and see if their product still aligned with their original mission — they ultimately decided it didn’t.

“We wanted to build a startup that solved the problem we set out to solve,” Scolaro explained. “It got to a point where we realized we didn’t just want to build a business for the sake of building a business.”

So she closed the doors on her startup.

“Was it a defeat, a significant bump in the road? Definitely. Is it a little bit of a bummer? Yeah,” Scolaro said. “But I wouldn’t consider this a failure because if you look at everything that has happened in the past year, all of the people that we’ve met, all of the lessons that we’ve learned and all of the people who got the chance to work on a really cool startup in the beginning stages, that is priceless.”

While most startups don’t find ultimate success, resilient entrepreneurs know that it’s the journey and experience gained that really matters. Whether or not a company stays afloat, the invaluable benefits of starting a business make a positive impact. 

And at the end of the day, Scolaro said that simply building something from the ground-up was worth the twists, turns and troubles of navigating the startup world.

“One of the best parts of starting your own business is getting to create something out of nothing,” she said. “To see anything come to fruition because of your hard work and effort is one of the most rewarding things about being an entrepreneur.”

A key element to staying on the entrepreneurial path, according to Scolaro, is having unconditional support and guidance along the way.

She pointed out that a major reason why she is able to bounce back from her “failures” and continue to work in the energetic startup world is that the CIE helped her grow a resilient entrepreneurial mindset and continuously supports her in following her passions.

“What’s really nice about having the CIE as a support system is that they’re not just supporting your business idea, they’re supporting you as an entrepreneur,” she explained. “Even though this particular startup didn’t come to fruition and I’m not having a successful exit… I can take the lessons that I’ve learned to the next venture and I know that the CIE will be there the entire time.”

Now that she has closed one chapter in her journey, Scolaro is staying in San Luis Obispo, which she calls an “entrepreneurial hub,” as she mentors current student entrepreneurs and seeks out her next startup venture.

What does failure mean to you as an entrepreneur? Let us know your definition of failure and give us your best #entrepreneurTIP for staying resilient by tagging us on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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Eight Student Startups Venture Forward with Entrepreneurship

Sidewalk art reading "Passion led us here"

While a pandemic swept over the globe causing universities to go virtual and the economy to take a hit, eight student startups set out to prove that innovation doesn’t stop in the wake of challenges, but rather is ignited by them.

These startups, ranging from an intelligent environmental sensing platform to a curated snack subscription box, are solving real-world problems through the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) HotHouse Accelerator program despite running headfirst toward ever-evolving obstacles.

For Nathan Brickman, agricultural communications graduate and co-founder of accelerator company Bridge, his startup’s mission of improving the mental health care industry has recently become an even more important pursuit amid current world issues. 

“We are in a global pandemic, which is a huge public health scare, and associated with that is not just a threat to our physical health, but certainly our mental health as well,” Brickman said. “We expect to see a rise in demand for mental health services, so for us it’s a really important time to help clients that are seeking care.”

Along with Bridge, other accelerator startups have also come to recognize heightened opportunity in the past months. 

Imperium, a startup founded by seven students, is working to maximize the usability of coworking spaces through limitless access to power, which the team expects to be increasingly important as the traditional workplace continues to evolve out of work-from-home measures and social distancing.

One of Imperium’s co-founders, mechanical engineering senior Jamie Jenkins, also noted that not only is now an incredible time to innovate industries in need of an upgrade, it’s also a great time to take a leap of faith into entrepreneurship.

“Starting a startup is a really uncertain task in general,” Jenkins said. “But somehow taking on additional risk or starting something in already uncertain times feels kind of reasonable.”

Vince DeSantis, a business administration graduate and founder of accelerator startup Fruji, had the same opportunistic outlook as Jenkins.

“I was challenged by a friend to pursue Fruji and see if it could become something because, well, what did I have to lose?” DeSantis half-joked after explaining that he lost a job offer due to the pandemic. “The job market isn’t great right now… so I decided it was the perfect opportunity to dive right into [the accelerator program.]”

For all of the accelerator companies, any nerves of venturing into the startup world were outweighed by trusting the guidance within the HotHouse Accelerator program.

Plus, with five of this year’s accelerator companies lacking members with a background in business, the CIE plays an integral role in supporting these young entrepreneurs with business mentorship in order for them to make strong innovative changes to the world.

So, while the CIE has always focused on supporting student entrepreneurs through its several programs and resources, that priority has only heightened in this time of rapid change and uncertainty. 

To explain the overall feelings of the 2020 accelerator startups, Danielle Petrocelli, a business administration graduate and Imperium co-founder, said it best:

“We’ve all taken the perspective of ‘let’s just do this and learn a lot and give it our all,’” she explained. “Maybe this isn’t the traditional job that we were all expecting, but we’ve all been given the opportunity to really work hard on [our startups] now and I think just having that perspective will work in our favor.”

Stay tuned to see how these eight student startups continue to venture forward over the 12-week accelerator program on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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CIE Graduates Keeping it SLOcal: Motoroso

Founder of Motoroso sitting on the roof of his black pickup truck on the beach.

Alex Littlewood didn’t land in San Luis Obispo by chance nor did he grow his startup here out of sheer convenience — in fact, he strategically chose the Central Coast over San Diego and Silicon Valley to do so. 

When Littlewood began building his startup Motoroso in 2014, he was based out of the Bay Area, a place that many would cite as the entrepreneurial epicenter. Upon getting accepted into the Techstars Accelerator, he moved the company to San Diego but decided to leave a year later in 2017.

Then, instead of returning to Silicon Valley, Littlewood found himself en route to San Luis Obispo.

“The decision to move to San Luis Obispo was primarily because I wanted to live here and wanted to build a company here,” Littlewood said. “It’s a place where people are realizing that one of the best ways to build a robust local economy is by supporting and growing entrepreneurship in the area.”

About six months after the move, he joined the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) HotHouse Incubator to build Motoroso into what is now the first-ever platform for automotive and powersports enthusiasts to seamlessly share, discover and purchase parts for vehicular projects.

“I really, really like what the CIE and SBDC have done [with the program] in bringing everyone from the campus level to the community level all together into a single space where people can collaborate,” he explained. “Having that environment is what really makes entrepreneurship work.”

Now that Motoroso has graduated from the two-year program and officially launched in 2019, though, has Littlewood thought about leaving the area? 

Not a chance.

He said that while so many people get the impression that they should start a company somewhere small then move it to the Bay Area, he “honestly can’t think of a worse decision.” 

“It’s not a conducive place for startups anymore,” Littlewood explained. “There’s less noise in San Luis Obispo with fewer companies, so it’s much harder for startups that are nonsense to hide out in the mess just because they just have the right connections, like in the Bay Area.”

Despite the Central Coast being known for its wine country, beaches and laid-back outdoorsy appeal, Littlewood also sees the professional perks of the area.

“Even though San Luis Obispo is a small startup ecosystem, you have people who are very intelligent and working very hard and they’re all in one central space,” he said. “That makes for a very strong, robust and supportive environment that I personally think is one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

And that’s coming from an entrepreneur who has worked up and down the coast of California, as well as in Detroit and Austin.

Whether it’s due to being in a place that supports his lifestyle, the way the CIE supports his company’s growth or getting the upper hand in growing a business in a non-diluted location, Littlewood makes a good case for why entrepreneurs should not only come to San Luis Obispo, but why they should stay.

If you’re considering keeping it SLOcal with your startup, let us guide you in the right direction. 

Learn more about our startup incubator at https://cie.calpoly.edu/launch/hothouse-incubator/ or the SLO HotHouse coworking experience for established small businesses, growing startups freelancers and remote workers at https://cie.calpoly.edu/coworking/.

Find out more about Motoroso at https://www.motoroso.com/.

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