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Senior Sequence: Experience Building a Startup

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Business Building

Senior projects are a norm across Cal Poly’s campus. These graduation requirements differ between the university’s six colleges and, in the Orfalea College of Business, differ between concentrations.

Within the realm of entrepreneurship, students are able to choose from one of two “senior sequences.” In one sequence, students get to work with a San Luis Obispo-based startup. In the other, students are given the opportunity to experience building their own company.

The latter sequence, referred to as “Experience Building a Startup,” most directly involves engineering students and business students concentrating in entrepreneurship, but students from all six colleges are welcome to take the course with their respective department’s permission.

For engineering students, the three-quarter Learn by Doing project acts in-totality as their senior project and consists of ENGR-463, ENGR-464 and ENGR-465. For non-engineering students, the sequence involves three, four-unit classes, in which one counts as their senior project credit: BUS-488: Building a Startup Skillset, BUS-487: Launching and Growing the Technology Start-Up, and BUS-464: Applied Senior Project Seminar.

“The course is ideal for anyone who thinks they want to start their own venture and want to see what that’s like, and it’s great for people who want to be a product manager,” explained one of the two course professors, Dr. Tom Katona. “The top feedback I get on why students choose this sequence, though, is that they want to take classes with people they haven’t been taking classes with for the last three years.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the course is what makes building a startup possible.

Over the course of the sequence, students form company teams to practice problem-solution tactics, ideation, customer development, competitive research, prototyping and user testing — all accomplished by having a range of skill sets and backgrounds involved. 

And while some students come into the course with an idea for a startup or product, Dr. Katona says there isn’t a guarantee that a whole team will want to work on it, nor is it as simple as having a cool idea.

“I tend to tell students who say they have an idea of what they want to make that I’m far more interested in hearing about the problem that they want to solve,” he said. “Then we’ll let the time in class help them figure out what the right solution to that is.”

While students can continue to build their startups post-graduation, that isn’t always the outcome — but second sequence professor, and CIE Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Dan Weeks says that continuing on with the company students build isn’t the whole point.

“I think 5% of students will continue on with their created companies and 95% we’re teaching an entrepreneurial mindset to,” Weeks explained. “If you go through a 9-month program with all of the detail we offer, no matter where you work after college, you’re going to look at things differently.”

This is exactly the reason mechanical engineering senior George Luebkeman chose this senior project.

“As an ME student, this option sounded like an excellent way to learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, which really sets me apart from other applicants for jobs I am applying to,” he said. “Having a Cal Poly engineering education paired with this entrepreneurship experience makes one a prime candidate for small, disruptive tech companies.”

Similarly, electrical engineering senior Russell Caletena says this senior project was one he couldn’t pass up.

“[The course has] taught me to prioritize empathy, creative thinking, and perseverance when working with others for a shared common goal,” he said. “The skills gained, challenges faced, and people I’ve networked with are all valuable experiences I’ll not only cherish, but also apply to my post-grad plans.”

Luebkeman and Caletena are students who plan to utilize their entrepreneurial mindset within already-established organizations in the future — often called “intrapreneurs.”

Business administration senior Kasey Moffitt, however, plans to take the knowledge she learns in this sequence to one day build her own company.

“As an entrepreneur, my ultimate goal is to one day start my own business,” she explained. “My entrepreneurship courses have given me a glimpse into how to start a business, however this course is giving me the hands-on experience that you can’t get from a textbook.”

Regardless of students’ post-grad game plans, this senior sequence provides them with endless experiential knowledge and the ability to mold the course to their needs.

“This is the good and the bad: there’s a lot of ambiguity in the class,” Dr. Katona said. “We can’t tell these innovative students exactly what to do, but we do understand the process by which these things get off the ground and that’s what [Weeks and I] help with.”

And as daunting as it may sound to build a startup versus taking a more typical senior project, course professors and students alike advocate for the course as the ultimate “Learn by Doing” experience with the safety net of school.

“Our whole attitude here is to fail often, but fail early,” Weeks explained. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you do things. That’s what Cal Poly is all about.”

Through this hands-on senior project, Caletena’s biggest takeaways have been to “think bigger,” “be bold” and “explore beyond your comfort zone.”

“For me, senior project means a lot more to me than a grade on paper,” said Caletena. “The sky is not the limit; the limit is whatever you set it to be and I strongly believe that ideas, no matter how small or big, can truly make a difference in people’s lives as long as we continue to pursue them wholeheartedly to bring them to reality.”

Ultimately, that is the essence of this entrepreneurial senior sequence: setting future intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs up for success and apart from others to make a difference in the real world.

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Senior Sequence: Experience Working in a Startup

Cal Poly campus education building

Across campus, Cal Poly students are asked to complete a senior project prior to graduation. Project requirements differ across Cal Poly’s six colleges and, in the Orfalea College of Business, differ across concentrations.

In their senior years, business students with entrepreneurship concentrations are able to choose from one of two “senior sequences.” In one sequence, students are given the opportunity to build their own startup. In the other, students work with a pre-established startup team in the San Luis Obispo area.

The latter option, often referred to as “Experience Working in a Startup,” is a two-quarter sequence that consists of two, four-unit classes: BUS-488: Building a Startup Skillset and BUS-464: Applied Senior Project Seminar.

“In the first quarter, BUS-488, we have [students] working on the side to make sure they understand the value proposition of the company, the customer segments — the kind of stuff they need to be good entrepreneurs in the future,” explained course professor Jon York. “By the end of the first quarter, they’re pretty embedded in the company, so they really start to rock and roll.”

The overall experience offered by the course differs notably from student to student. The work students are asked to do and the skills they develop are entirely dependent upon the needs of the startup that he or she has been assigned.

Because this assignment is so involved, course professors Jon York and Lynn Metcalf do their best to pair students with startups that they have a genuine interest in. They screen a number of local startup teams, looking for founders who can provide a valuable learning experience to students. Then, they present these companies to the students and, in turn, present descriptions of their students to the startup founders, or “company mentors.”

“There’s sort of an interviewing process, and then we let the cards fall where they fall,” said York. “So, for the most part, students end up choosing who they work with.”

According to business senior Nicholas Thorpe, the company that a student is paired up with heavily influences the value of this assignment. 

Thorpe was initially paired with a startup that he believed could not provide him with the opportunities he had wanted to obtain through his senior project. He voiced his concerns to York, who reassigned him to BlueLine Robotics, a startup founded by two engineering students, Ryan Pfarr and Geoffrey Smith, that manufactures tactile robots for law enforcement use.

Through his work with BlueLine, Thorpe said, he has been “able to stretch my wings and exercise some of the things I’ve been learning at Cal Poly.”

Working with BlueLine has taught Thorpe how to apply the skills he has learned in the classroom to a real-world business. 

“In class, you get the skill set you need, but then the reality of how that plays out is very different sometimes,” he said. “In typical lectures, you don’t see how complicated things can actually be in real life.”

Metcalf believes that it is this hands-on learning that makes this senior project such a valuable experience.

“The thing that’s unique about this is it is a ‘Learn by Doing’ experience, but [students] are working alongside a founding team and are really treated as a part of the organization,” she said. “They sit in on important meetings and are privy to the kind of information that makes them feel like a part of the team.”

Students become integral members of the startup teams, sometimes even going on to work for the startup after graduation. 

According to Pfarr, Thorpe and the other students assigned to BlueLine have been valuable assets to his startup and prime examples of how this project is not only beneficial to the students involved, but also the companies.

“[The students] are super talented and well-prepared to a level beyond what I expected,” said Pfarr. “They taught me things that I didn’t even know I needed to know. They’ve both gone above and beyond what the class requires them to do and are great members of the team.”

While Thorpe entered his senior project with a strong understanding of entrepreneurship, working with Pfarr and Smith provided him with a unique perspective on how to run a business.

“Ryan is an encourager,” said Thorpe. “He’s good at seeing what people are good at and thanking them for that. He and Geoffry are intelligent guys. They’re humble and willing to seek out help and advice and mentors, and I think that’s something to look at, see as valuable and try and imitate.”

Throughout the senior sequence, students have both their company mentors and course professors at their disposal for the guidance they need.

“The professors are great,” said Thorpe. “They’re equipping students and then they’re actually there as a resource. I have the ability to connect with them, and because I switched companies, I switched from being under Professor York to being under Professor Metcalf, so I’ve benefited from both.”

York and Metcalf are eager to see their students succeed. Both believe that success in this senior sequence is indicative of a successful career post-graduation.

“This is really about life-long learning and finding resources,” said Metcalf. “[Students] are learning how to keep their skill sets relevant and current, which is what you need to do after you graduate. Nobody is going to give you an assignment. You need to be able to go to someone and say this is what I need in order to do my job better. They’re learning how to do that.”

York echoed similar sentiments.

“For the last 16 years of their life, [students] have lived off of someone telling then when to turn work in and what it should look like — in college, we call that a syllabus,” he said. “If [students] can get to the point where they can create their own goals and objectives and get through it, they’re going to be way above other students who have just been sitting in the classroom.”

Learn more about this senior project course sequence, contact lmetcalf@calpoly.edu.

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Hatchery Spotlight: Venue

VENUE hatchery startup

Success as a musician is not an easy feat. It requires relentless hard work, unwavering dedication and, more often than not, connections to an established professional in the music industry. 

Senior computer science major Matthew Lawler is looking to change that with Venue, a mobile application that makes the music industry more accessible to small musicians. 

Venue connects musicians to local venues looking to showcase new talent.

“Musicians can bootstrap their careers, and venues can find new and promising talent that helps draw a crowd to their business,” Lawler explained.

The idea for Venue originated when Lawler was in high school and watched his classmates struggle to use their passion for music to earn revenue that could put them through college.

“They didn’t really have the same opportunities that people who were well-connected did,” said Lawler. “I wanted to see if there was a way I could help empower these smaller musicians to give them the same opportunities as those at the top.”

Lawler began developing Venue about three years ago. This past year, he and his co-founder, senior software engineering major Rohan Ramani, began to expand their focus from product development to business development, working with the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) to turn Venue into a full-fledged startup.

The Hatchery, a CIE program that helps Cal Poly students turn their innovative ideas into viable startup companies, has played a key role in the growth and development of Venue.

“The Hatchery has been invaluable in helping us learn how to actually run a business,” said Lawler. “We’re all technical founders, so we can do all the coding and the programming, but we don’t know much about marketing or sales, so we need the Hatchery’s support in all the other aspects of our business.”

The Hatchery has acted as a guiding force for Lawler throughout his first entrepreneurial endeavor. The program’s resources have provided him with not only the business expertise needed for his startup to succeed, but the morale needed for Lawler to succeed as an entrepreneur.

“The Hatchery has done everything they can to learn about who we are as individuals and what we want to do with this company,” Lawler said. “They’re really willing to invest in you as an individual, and you’re going to learn a ton of skills that you won’t learn in the classroom.”

With the first rendition of the Venue mobile app set to launch within the next month, Lawler and his team are working with the Hatchery to grow their customer base beyond their minimal number of prospective users. They also have a goal of participating in Innovation Quest, a prototyping competition hosted by the CIE in spring.

While Lawler personally hopes to one day see his startup succeed, he is just as excited to witness the success of small musicians who have inspired his creation of Venue.

“Right now, 50 percent of musicians are undiscovered, which means that they can’t actually make a living off of it,” Lawler explained. “I would love to see that number drop significantly so that we can have a lot of new talent entering the market.”

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Hatchery Spotlight: Celebrate

Celebrate team members

Giving the perfect gift is far from an easy task. In fact, an estimated $15 billion is wasted on unwanted gifts each year, resulting in hundreds of tons of additional waste in landfills and incinerators.

Sophomore business major Julie Arnette has set out to remedy this issue. She and Juan Pèrez have created Celebrate, an online platform that makes it easier than ever to give purposeful gifts.

“I’m actually a terrible gift-giver,” said Arnette, one of Celebrate’s two co-founders. “I never know what to buy and I always wait until the last minute. I think [gift-giving] is so difficult— and kind of unnecessarily difficult— but I love giving gifts. That’s kind of where this idea started.”

The fix? Personalized interest boards which friends and family can view to find a gift idea that the recipient is guaranteed to love. 

Arnette and her team have been working on Celebrate for just over a year. In that time, they have won the audience choice award at the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s (CIE) annual Elevator Pitch Competition and joined the CIE Hatchery.

The Hatchery, a CIE program designed to help students develop their startup ideas, has been an extremely beneficial resource in building Celebrate. According to Arnette, the guidance offered through the Hatchery has been paramount for Celebrate’s success.

“The mentorship is super valuable,” Arnette said. “They [mentors] provide so much feedback and a different perspective to your business than you can come up with on your own.”

The Hatchery has also introduced Arnette to a community of student entrepreneurs who have acted as a support network through the highs and lows of building a company.

“Having that support and knowing that there are other people going through the same exact thing that you’re doing, like figuring out what you want your business to be and how you’ll get there — I think that’s important,” Arnette said.

Celebrate has recently launched their new landing page, which provides what Arnette describes as “a snapshot of the company in a few pages.” Through the site, users can sign up for Celebrate’s limited beta testing or register to receive their company newsletter.

Now, with their landing page up and running, the Celebrate team is shifting their attention to prepare for Innovation Quest, a prototyping competition hosted by the CIE. They are also continuing to develop their product and enhance their knowledge of Celebrate’s customer base.

“Our mountaintop is getting to the place where we understand exactly when people are having those rough days or when their birthdays are coming up, using data to figure out when they could use a little pick-me-up gift and communicating that to their gift-givers,” Arnette explained. “That way, people are giving the right gift at the right time.”

Learn more about Celebrate at celebrategifting.com and follow the CIE on social media to keep up with all things entrepreneurship and innovation on the Central Coast. IG | FB | LI | Twitter

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3D Printing for Airplane Pilots in the HotHouse Annex

RAO Ideas Aviation Headset Holders

Ryan O’Toole founded his business RAO Ideas at just 15 years old. While flying in his pilot father’s airplane a few years ago, O’Toole noticed that smaller airplanes weren’t equipped with storage for the expensive headsets needed when flying. That’s when he set out to design and 3D-print a headset holder for his father, who shared the product with others in the flying community. 

RAO Ideas has since developed into a fully functioning business with various headset holder designs available through both their website and the wholesale market. Its current base of operations: the HotHouse Annex.

The HotHouse Annex provides local entrepreneurs, small businesses and remote employees with a professional coworking space that encourages productivity and collaboration. Along with dedicated office spaces, conference rooms and kitchen amenities, the Annex offers coworkers a manufacturing lab fully equipped for product development.

“It’s a great space to induce that workflow,” O’Toole said of the Annex. “Everyone in there has a similar entrepreneurial mindset, and I definitely like that. It gets the brain juices flowing.”

O’Toole, who is currently a freshman at Cal Poly, hadn’t always planned to continue RAO Ideas into college. The 3D printers he uses to create his headset holders, in addition to the packaging materials used to ship his products, wouldn’t exactly fit in his dorm room. But the Annex was the perfect solution.

“I was thinking about seeing if I could get my parents or a friend back home to ship orders for me, but I really couldn’t figure it out,” O’Toole explained. “Then I found the CIE… I reached out and got pointed towards the Annex, found a space here and so far it’s been great.”

The practicality of the Annex is what originally appealed to O’Toole. The Higuera Street location is easily accessible and its manufacturing space allows O’Toole greater creative freedom in how he creates and produces his headset holders. 

It’s the people, however, that have quickly become O’Toole’s favorite aspect of coworking at the Annex.

“Everybody here is super nice, and it’s just a great workspace and environment,” O’Toole said. “I’ve met nothing but amazing, innovative people at the HotHouse.”

The young entrepreneur plans to continue building his business throughout his college years, with hopes to branch out from aviation headset holders and pursue new innovations. Coworking at the Annex is an integral facet of that plan.

“As long as my business is going strong, I’m planning to stay [at the Annex] at least until I’ve graduated from Cal Poly,” O’Toole said. “And maybe even after that. I really don’t know where my business is going to take me next.”

Find out how you can start coworking at one of the CIE’s coworking locations today at https://cie.calpoly.edu/coworking/

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Hatchery Spotlight: PolyVolunteers

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an economic downturn that has caused a rapid increase in unemployment and homelessness throughout the United States. But in the midst of these challenges, student entrepreneurs have found inspiration. 

Communications studies seniors Maureen Turnbaugh and Marissa Soza saw the obstacles posed by the pandemic as opportunities to encourage togetherness and instill a sense of community in San Luis Obispo. Along with classmates Connor Haitfield (Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies), Alejandro Quintero (Interdisciplinary Studies in the Liberal Arts) and Kenzie Rutherford (Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies), they founded PolyVolunteers, a startup company with a mission to make finding volunteering opportunities easier than ever. 

The PolyVolunteers team is utilizing the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) Hatchery program to create an app that will connect users with local organizations seeking volunteers and resources.

“We want to be that middle party that can connect people in the community with volunteer groups that they’re actually interested in,” Soza said. “Kind of like a matchmaking app.”

PolyVolunteers originated as a class project for the business and communication hybrid course BUS 458: Solving Big World Challenges. Each quarter, the class presents students with a social or environmental challenge specific to a local community — like the impact of COVID-19 on the San Luis Obispo community.

“From that course, we were able to identify that the homeless population is heavily hit by the pandemic,” Turnbaugh said. “We focused on how we could help and whether our solutions help the greater good. We needed to fine tune our ideas into a very specific position within the community and that’s when we really zoned in on volunteer work.”

BUS 458 professors Lynn Metcalf and David Asky suggested that PolyVolunteers take their idea to the CIE and connected Turnbaugh and Soza with CIE Director of Student Innovation Programs José Huitron. 

“We met with José and clicked with him and he told us everything that the Hatchery was about,” Soza said. “We just fell in love with it, so we decided to give it a go and so far it’s been very beneficial.”

The CIE Hatchery program provides student entrepreneurs with the tools they need to help their startups thrive. The on-campus program has connected PolyVolunteers with mentors to help them navigate the intricacies of entrepreneurship, as well as introduced the team to computer science and software engineering students who can help design the app. 

“You know, being a student and not really knowing how to create a business from the ground up, it’s really helpful to have people who are trained to coach you through it all,” Turnbaugh said.

Hatchery resources have proved extremely valuable in creating PolyVolunteers. 

Four of the five students involved in PolyVolunteers come from liberal arts backgrounds who, prior to their involvement in the Hatchery, had minimal experience with the startup scene.

“All of our team, besides our newest member, are liberal arts students, so we had no idea what goes into creating a business — or creating an app for that matter,” Soza said. “Being in the Hatchery has been very interesting and I think we have all found a new passion that we never thought we would even be interested in.”

PolyVolunteers is still in its early stages. According to Turnbaugh and Soza, their team is focusing on customer development, reaching out to the local community to ask what they would like to see in an app like PolyVolunteers. They’ll soon begin prototyping and hope to participate in Innovation Quest, a prototyping competition hosted by the CIE in the spring.

Turnbaugh and Soza envision a bright future for PolyVolunteers and hope to one day see their app used nationwide.

“We’re starting with Cal Poly and SLO because that’s what we know and what we’re close to,” Soza explained. “Big picture, we want to be able to take [PolyVolunteers] to other universities across the United States and across the world.”

As Turnbaugh explained, the fundamental goals for PolyVolunteers remain faithful to the startup’s core values: helping others and making an impact.

“Our overall hope is that this is a product that’s useful and bridges the gap between volunteer organizations and the students that want to give back.”

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Innovation Sandbox Reopens for Entrepreneurial Student Projects

The Innovation Sandbox is an on-campus space that provides students with access to the latest prototyping and ideation tools. It was closed at the start of the current COVID-19 pandemic, but with their COVID-safe reopening on Jan. 25, the student-run organization now hopes to resume its role as a creative hub for the Cal Poly community.

The space, equipped with cutting edge technologies like 3D printers and laser- and vinyl-cutters, fuels creativity and allows students to explore the power and possibilities of innovation.

“We function as a sort of makerspace,” Innovation Sandbox student director Hailey Casino said.

The Innovation Sandbox has reopened with limited capacity and a new safety protocol that has been approved by both the Cal Poly College of Engineering and the university itself. Per this new protocol, no more than one person at a time is allowed within the Sandbox and access to the resources is limited to students participating in approved on-campus activities.

“We’ve been granted approval for limited opening in support of in-person classes and research that has in-person approval,” Tom Katona, faculty director of the Innovation Sandbox, said. “Our operations through the end of this academic year will be in support of these limited activities.”

While select students are able to utilize its resources, they are not permitted to enter the Innovation Sandbox to maximize safety. 

“We’ll have a limited number of Innovation Sandbox officers who will be allowed to run the printers,” Casino explained. “Students who are taking in-person classes will be able to use our services, but they will have to submit parts to us. We’re not going to have any students coming into the room.”

Although the Innovation Sandbox is limited to students with in-person classes, it is open to students of all majors.

“Bringing students from across campus together is hard,” Katona said. “Our intentionality about this helps bring creative, innovative and entrepreneurial students together, but it still requires outreach and students that want to collaborate and learn from others with backgrounds different from their own. We learn more about this each year, and I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.”

The regulations necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic do pose obstacles for the Innovation Sandbox team. Their reopening requires minimal interaction between students, making it difficult to unite students from across campus or recreate the comfortable, collaborative environment that the Innovation Sandbox fostered prior to the pandemic. 

“Many places for prototyping are intimidating and that’s what keeps students from starting projects they are thinking about,” Katona said. “This is much more difficult in our COVID-19 operating restrictions, but our goal is for students to want to use [the Innovation Sandbox] without feeling intimidated.”

Despite the limitations, however, Casino is excited for the reopening of the Innovation Sandbox.

“I’m looking forward to reopening as much as we can and getting things up and running being able to help students and see the impact we make,” she said.

Casino, a fifth year biomedical engineering major, worked with the Innovation Sandbox as an officer prior to being appointed student director at the start of this academic year.

“I just became student director at the beginning of this quarter, so I haven’t been able to do a lot of the normal tasks that student directors do,” she said. “But I was an officer last year, so I was pretty involved with the way the [Innovation Sandbox] was being run.”

In her time as student director, she has been heavily involved in developing the Innovation Sandbox’s new safety protocol and coordinating communication efforts to promote the upcoming reopening. Her favorite aspect of working with the Innovation Sandbox, however, is not the administrative work, but watching students use Innovation Sandbox resources in creative, inventive ways. 

One standout project, Casino said, was a prosthetic finger that a group of biomedical engineering students manufactured using the 3D printers in the Innovation Sandbox.

“Someone sent us a 3D model of their hands because they were missing a thumb,” Casino recounted. “Biomedical students could then make a prosthetic thumb for him even though that person wasn’t in SLO at the time, which I thought was pretty cool.”

Some have gone beyond using the Innovation Sandbox for academic projects and have instead used its resources to develop their own inventions. 

“We have entrepreneurial students who find the Innovation Sandbox as a space that enables their initial concepts of innovation to be brought to life,” Katona said.

Casino echoed similar sentiments and believes the Innovation Sandbox can be a valuable resource to students looking to start their own business.

“It’s a great resource for students who don’t have big companies backing them,” she said. “It’s a great way to create prototypes to get access to future funding.”

Whether utilizing the space for academic projects or personal endeavors, the Innovation Sandbox will continue to prioritize students’ needs throughout its reopening.

“At the end of the day, the students will continue to drive what and how the Innovation Sandbox serves them,” said Katona. “That is what will ensure it remains relevant as students’ needs change.”

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A Conversation With An Accelerator Team

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.

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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