Category: Get Involved With CIE

Meet the professor bringing entrepreneurship to Cal Poly’s College of Science and Math

Dr. Erik Sapper speaking with a student. His hands are raised and his brow is furrowed.

Biochemistry professor Erik Sapper is on a mission to introduce entrepreneurship to Cal Poly’s College of Science and Math (CSM).

The mission began when Sapper was working with a chemistry student who expressed an interest in starting her own materials design company, but didn’t have the resources to do so — or rather, didn’t know the resources available to her. Sapper, still new to his role at Cal Poly, also didn’t know the resources the university offered for students interested in entrepreneurship.

“I was frustrated because I was a new faculty member at the time and I did not know how I could support a student like this,” Sapper said. “I didn’t know anything about starting a company from scratch. I also did not know about resources on campus, so the opportunity with this student was unfortunately wasted.”

Sapper’s student eventually found a job at a local chemical company, and according to Sapper is happy with her profession, but Sapper said that he felt like he had missed an opportunity to help foster his student’s “entrepreneurial spirit.”

He began to look into entrepreneurship opportunities at Cal Poly so that he could help future CSM students with an interest in entrepreneurship. He discovered the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), and applied to become a CIE Faculty Fellow.

Faculty Fellows are Cal Poly instructors from across campus who incorporate entrepreneurship into their coursework, and introduce students to entrepreneurial opportunities. 

Sapper incorporated entrepreneurship and innovation into his chemistry classes by utilizing concepts of design thinking, which allows “students to think about problems in interesting and different ways that they might not have been exposed to in the past,” according to Sapper.

“Scientists typically think about the scientific method,” he said. “They don’t think about design elements that might not be relevant to a scientific solution, but are very relevant to business solutions.”

Sapper was recently appointed as the first ever Innovation Lead within CSM, which will allow him to introduce CSM students and faculty to the principles of entrepreneurship, as well as entrepreneurial resources on Cal Poly’s campus. The CSM Innovation Lead role was made possible with a donation from Tim Geistlinger, a CSM alumnus and the founding scientist behind Beyond Meat. 

“My number one objective as Innovation Lead is to get the message out that science and math majors can participate in entrepreneurship,” Sapper said. “Entrepreneurship is a method of problem-solving, and scientists and mathematicians are really good at solving problems.”

One of his first endeavors as Innovation Lead was to create an Innovation Summer Camp, a program offered to CSM undergraduate students conducting summer research.

The summer camp was a crash course in innovation and design thinking. Students read and discussed a book about how design shapes the world; toured Cal Poly’s Innovation Sandbox, an on-campus lab of prototyping and ideation tools; and sat in on the CIE Summer Accelerator’s guest speaker series at their downtown HotHouse.

“We learned a lot in the summer camp that you don’t really think about in science and math classes,” said biology senior Paul Kim, who participated in the summer camp. “It opens you up to new ways of thinking.”

Sapper intends to hold another Innovation Summer Camp in the summer of 2023.

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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

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Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Mindset: Where Creativity Meets Science

For many, entrepreneurship means creating a startup; for others, it’s about being your own boss. But for students like fourth-year biology major Maddie Alexander, it’s about recognizing innovative opportunities in unlikely places.

Although Alexander’s post-graduation plans originally consisted of her becoming a doctor, she felt like her studies lacked creativity and collaboration, two things she really valued.

That’s when she found Cal Poly’s entrepreneurship minor.

“In most of my biology classes, information is super black or white and there’s not a lot of room for creativity and working with other people,” Alexander explained. “I have so many random interests that I want to play off of in my career and the entrepreneurship minor has encouraged me to explore these interests rather than stick to one specific path.”

When she began taking classes for the minor her junior year, Alexander was able to pinpoint exactly what those interests were: innovation, genetics, human connection and business. 

“Wanting to go into healthcare, I was really interested in the empathy aspect, so I always thought I had to be a doctor,” she said. “This minor taught me that I’ll still help people as an entrepreneur by seeing a customer’s needs, putting myself in their shoes and building off of that.”

Although her immediate plans are to gain more hands-on experience in the healthcare industry or continue her studies, Alexander noted that she wants to build her own company in the future. Until then, though, she said that her entrepreneurial knowledge won’t be wasted.

“Cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset is about having the ability to see opportunity in places other people wouldn’t,” Alexander said. “Having that mindset in a biology setting is kind of unique because not everyone is willing to look at the established, black-and-white information as an opportunity to innovate.”

Alexander recognizes that not many of her College of Science and Mathematics classmates are interested in becoming CEOs; however, she said that entrepreneurship really isn’t just for people who want to launch a startup.

“Sure, some people are more drawn to the entrepreneurial mindset, but there’s always room to innovate and come up with ideas and put in new input,” she said. “You can still use the principles of entrepreneurship in your life even if you don’t have the fire in your body to start a company.”

And that’s why thinking like an entrepreneur is truly for anyone. There’s no downside to seeing things from different perspectives and thinking outside of the box.

“Anyone can follow procedures and go through the tasks of a job,” Alexander said. “But it’s the people who can recognize problems and see where growth is needed who help a company or industry progress.” 

You can build these skills for success regardless of your future plans, and we’re here to help. Visit or to find your entrepreneurial fit.

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The Making of a CIE Donor: Russ Nash

In 1982, Russ Nash graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in Business Administration, leaving with the dreams that everyone at the time had: working for a big firm. Nash successfully landed that dream job and began working for a Fortune Top 20 company.

Flash forward a few years, though, and Nash decided to walk away from that company and build his own. In the past 32 years of working for himself, not only has he done so with great enthusiasm, but also with great impact on fellow entrepreneurs at his alma mater.

“I got involved with the CIE from the very beginning. Jon York and Lou Tornatzky had a vision to start the CIE and they got a hold of a friend of mine, Jeff Witous,” Nash said. “He called about 20 of his friends and said ‘Hey, we need to get together and hear these professors out,’ and from that point they basically said ‘If you guys believe in the vision, we need a commitment of time and we need money now.’ So, I got involved in that on day one.”

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) was founded 10 years ago, but Nash’s years of experience before that was valuable for his program involvement. 

Nash’s specialty since becoming self-employed is in small businesses, which he had previously done mentoring for on a small-scale basis. He also has a strong passion for public education, specifically for Cal Poly, and had spent time working with his children’s school board. When Nash took on his CIE role, not only was he well-prepared to help student entrepreneurs, he was thrilled to do so.

“My favorite part of working with student entrepreneurs is the level of excitement,” he explained. “They are so fired up and so excited that it’s contagious. It’s just really something special.”

Along with his mentorship and guidance of these young innovators, his support has also come in the form of financial aid.

“Investing in the startups is a combination of a gamble and a passion, and the hope is that at some point in time one or two out of 10 will actually make some money,” Nash said. “But initially, the real goal at this level of [CIE] startups is to help the program go forward.”

Nash notes that had the CIE been around when he was a student, it would have made his self-employment career easier; however, there really wasn’t a market for such a program at the time.

“When I left school, the bottom line was that you had to leave San Luis Obispo because there were no jobs here. You went north or you went south,” Nash explained. “Now there’s enough infrastructure in town to start and grow a large business, and this is a place people dream about living, so it’s a very nice place to do it.”

Luckily, people like Nash helped the CIE grow, allowing countless students to fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams through mentorship, access to investors and other entrepreneurs, as well as tangible resources to launch them forward.

Over the past 10 years of Nash’s support, not only has the CIE gained a lot from him, but he, too, has gained a lot from the experience. One thing he learned is the value in giving back.

“I think alumni should follow in my footsteps of supporting Cal Poly in general. They should find their niche in what they can get involved with–and we should give back to the future generation,” Nash prompted. “Getting involved in the CIE just happens to be in my wheelhouse. I enjoy it and others should do that, too, if that’s their expertise.”

That’s the advice Nash has for his fellow Cal Poly alumni, but what is his go-to advice for the students he mentors? It’s to take advantage of the human capital around them.

“What I would say to a young entrepreneur who is just starting to build their company is to look around at all the people throughout the CIE, the older teams and the volunteers who come back, and ask and ask and ask more questions,” Nash said. “Starting a business from scratch is difficult, but that’s okay. You just need to know what you’re getting into.”

If you are ready to get involved with the CIE and make an impact on entrepreneurship and innovation like Nash, consider donating to the program, becoming a mentor or joining our Founder’s Circle today.

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What iQ Can Do for You

Each year, the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship holds Innovation Quest (iQ), a competition for students to pitch their product ideas to judges and investors in hopes of winning thousands of dollars in cold hard cash.

Since it is one of the more demanding competitions that the CIE offers, students may fear investing their time and energy only to not win in the end. However, past competitors say the value of Innovation Quest isn’t all in the money, but rather it’s in the process of competing.

Sam Hunt, CEO and co-founder of incubator company Armadillo Designs, knows that there’s still much to be gained even if you don’t take home the prize.

“My co-founder and I pitched our idea in Innovation Quest last spring,” he said. “We actually didn’t end up winning that year, but it was still a super valuable experience because we learned how to really craft a pitch in a short amount of time, how to display our product and how not to display it.”

Each student or team in iQ gets the opportunity to develop their innovative ideas from judge and investor feedback, ultimately gaining them the knowledge needed to perfect their pitches and products to find out what they’re lacking and if their idea could be a viable product.

CEO and co-founder of De Oro Devices, Sidney Collin, came out of the competition with a takeaway similar to Hunt’s.

“Any student that’s thinking about starting their own company should definitely apply to Innovation Quest because it allows you to really think through the business strategy,” Collin said. “Even if you don’t win, it’s a really valuable experience to show what needs to be worked on in the company to be able to pursue it further.”

Although winning is not the only source of value for competitors, ending the process with a check can be a game-changer for many. 

Past iQ winner Chad Kihm, CEO of GamerSpeak, says the competition is the reason he is a CEO today, as winning the $10,000 second place prize gave him the confidence and finances he needed to pursue his startup idea further. While Kihm says he understands that people might question if competing is worth it, he encourages them to at least try.

“I like to tell people who are thinking about Innovation Quest and are trying to decide how much they should really invest in this sort of competition to think about how long it would take them to make $10,000 working at $15 an hour,” Kihm explained. “If you put at least half as much effort as that into winning it, you’ll probably win the money, and much faster, too.”

Another winning innovation, Flume, went from being a senior project to a growing incubator company thanks to their iQ involvement. The company’s CEO and co-founder Eric Adler says that iQ was the first program the founders took Flume into and that winning the competition lead them to the HotHouse Accelerator and Incubator programs. He also said that any startup will have several pivots in their business plan and that iQ allowed the Flume team to move in the right direction early on.

“Any time you go apply for a program like Innovation Quest where you talk to investors or meet with advisors, you’re constantly getting feedback,” he explained. “You have people with a lot of expertise giving you feedback and you can take that to potentially change what you’re doing.”

Between critical feedback, pitch experience, momentum, confidence boosts and  money, Innovation Quest can do a lot for students looking to pursue their startup ideas. Like Kihm believes, time spent competing in Innovation Quest, regardless of outcome, is never wasted and is worth the potential knowledge and money gain.

Adler even sees a big-picture reason for competing in Innovation Quest.

“If you have a passion for trying something on your own, starting your own company, not working for the man,” Adler started. “it’s great to take an idea and see if you’re really making something innovative that can change the world.”

If you have an innovation that could help change the world, let Innovation Quest help change your world through guidance, support and maybe even financial support. Head to for more information on how to get involved.

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Which On-Campus Resource is the Right One for You

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) has countless entrepreneurial outlets for students of all interests and goals on Cal Poly’s campus. Whether you just want to see the innovations of fellow Mustangs or immerse yourself in the startup world, the CIE has just the resource for you.


Entrepreneurship Forum Series

Throughout the school year, the CIE holds forums in the Performing Arts Center Pavilion for anyone interested in innovation, startups and small businesses. The forums are open to students and the public alike to bring the community together to see all that is going on with Cal Poly’s entrepreneurial efforts. At these events, attendees can expect guest speakers, Cal Poly student entrepreneurs, pitch competitions and networking.

Who this is best for: Students interested in entrepreneurship and the CIE.

Cal Poly Entrepreneurs (CPE)

If entrepreneurship sounds daunting, or you don’t have a startup idea of your own but still want to be part of that community, then Cal Poly Entrepreneurs is for you. As the largest interdisciplinary club on Cal Poly’s campus, CPE welcomes students of all backgrounds, ages, majors and interests. The club offers networking, skill-building, resources and more at its weekly meetings and constantly welcomes drop-ins and new members.

Who this is best for: Students looking to meet their entrepreneurial peers and discover how to get involved in the startup world.       

The Hatchery

Oftentimes, students have a great business idea to pursue or want to be part of a startup company. If you fall under this category, the Hatchery program is the perfect way for you to learn the business model canvas, gain entrepreneurial skills, get mentorship and work toward turning an idea into a company—all on your own schedule. With a focus on multidisciplinary teams and hands-on learning, the Hatchery allows for exponential growth in learning and is often a stepping stone to the CIE HotHouse Accelerator program.

Who this is best for: Students with a desire to create and be a part of a startup company.

Innovation Sandbox

Students looking for a workspace to make their product ideas tangible need not look further than the on-campus Innovation Sandbox. The space has prototyping and ideation tools, like a 3D printer, for creativity and innovation to collide. The CIE resource allows students to Learn by Doing and turn their dreams into reality. If you have a business idea that requires prototyping and modeling, the Innovation Sandbox could be your one-stop-shop.

Who this is best for: Students looking for a workspace to create prototypes of innovative product ideas.



The Elevator Pitch Competition (EPC)

When you think you have the next big idea, but you’re not ready to commit to making it happen, the Elevator Pitch Competition is the way to go. Any student is welcome to submit a 90-second elevator pitch of their innovative product or startup idea to our panel of judges, getting them in the running to win the $1,000 prize. The competition does not require tangible business plans or implementation commitments, making it a low-stress and fun way to get involved with the CIE.

Who this is best for: Cal Poly and Cuesta students with innovative ideas and a desire to practice their pitching skills.      

Innovation Quest (iQ)

A little more advanced than the EPC is the Innovation Quest competition, which is for students looking to showcase what they have built, coded, designed or prototyped throughout their efforts at Cal Poly. Participation in iQ gives you the chance to win up to $15,000, so if you have a startup or product in motion and are looking to find investment money, the iQ competition would be great for you and your team. 

Who this is best for: Student teams with a viable startup plan or product creation looking to take their work a step further.

Startup Weekend

With 54 hours to create a startup, this event is perfect for Cal Poly’s ambitious, creative and entrepreneurially-minded students. If you are interested in being part of the startup world, Startup Weekend is your chance to pitch your big idea and build a team to launch it. Culminating in presentations to a panel of judges and investors, Startup Weekend is the best way to meet your peers, elevate your skills and get the opportunity to become an entrepreneur in action.

Who this is best for: Students who want to be part of Cal Poly’s entrepreneurial community and become part of the startup world.

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Meet the CIE Entrepreneur-In-Residence: Dan Weeks

About seven years ago, Dan Weeks discovered the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). After visiting and speaking with student startup teams at the CIE, he returned home to San Diego to tell his wife that they were moving to San Luis Obispo.

Upon venturing back to the Central Coast, the Cal Poly alumnus dove full force into the local entrepreneurial effort. Weeks, a seasoned entrepreneur himself, currently splits his time between leading tech programs at the SLO County Office of Education, teaching entrepreneurship courses at his alma mater and mentoring student startup teams in the CIE HotHouse.

As the CIE entrepreneur-in-residence, Weeks mainly works with the innovative student teams that have already gone through the summer Accelerator program, helping them stay motivated through the trials of entrepreneurship.

“When you’re an entrepreneur, the highest highs and the lowest lows can happen on the same day,” he explained. “To some degree, I’m the cheerleader helping them persevere through the low spots, which happens with every team.”

Weeks says that he often helps the students stay committed to their goals once the fast-paced summer program ends and team members start seeing. He always reminds them that the path of entrepreneurship is not an easy one, but that it is a rewarding one.

While he is motivated to help each team reach success, Weeks acknowledges that plans can change for individual team members. Nonetheless, he stresses the value of going through the Accelerator program for both the overall startup team and each student themselves.

“All the attributes they’ll learn over the summer program will be valuable whether its a startup or any kind of company,” he said. “The entrepreneurial mindset is what makes you actually have more leverage within a company because you’re able to speak the language of business in a way that’s not boring.”

Between priceless mentorship and real-world experience, the CIE Accelerator offers students a platform to transform their ideas into companies. The 13-week summer program involves hands-on learning for the teams, following Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing spirit.

But as Weeks likes to put it, “entrepreneurship is Learn by Doing on steroids.”

Anyone ready to dive full force into their visionary startup can apply to be part of the CIE’s programming or can start by dipping their toes into entrepreneurship with Weeks’ Introduction to Entrepreneurship course at Cal Poly. 

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What’s in the SLO HotHouse: Incubator Program

By: Lauren Arendt

On any given day, the SLO HotHouse crawls with activity and energy. After walking passed the coworking space in the forefront, visitors come to a vibrant plethora of desks, whiteboards, banners, students and community members, or as the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) calls it, the incubator program.

The CIE  SLO HotHouse Incubator is a two-year, full-time program that includes everything needed for early-stage companies to develop into financially stable, high-growth enterprises by providing the tools needed to facilitate smarter, faster growth. Startups from Cal Poly and the community alike are encouraged to apply for the incubator program.

SLO HotHouse Incubator Program Perks


Every company in the incubator program receives a mentor and advisory board to help out with the difficult decisions and planning that go into the early stages of development. Whether incubators are confronted with legal struggles, financial challenges or other uncertainties, someone in the SLO HotHouse will be able to guide them through.

Furthermore, startups in the incubator program receive exclusive invitations to various entrepreneurial events in the community. These include pitch nights, forums and networking opportunities only accessible through the network provided by the CIE.

SLO HotHouse Resources

Members of the incubator program also have the vast resources of the SLO HotHouse at their disposal. This includes 24/7 office space located in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo equipped with multiple conference rooms, a full kitchen, and all of the coffee you can drink.

The SLO HotHouse offers more than office space. It serves as a hub for all entrepreneurial activities at Cal Poly and in the San Luis Obispo community. This creates one-of-a-kind networking opportunities for startups in the incubator program. From monthly peer-to-peer roundtable discussions to an invaluable network of fellow entrepreneurs, Cal Poly professors, esteemed alumni, and more.

Entrepreneurs interested in applying for the CIE SLO HotHouse Incubator program can get more information and find the application at

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Did you know that Cal Poly OCOB now offers an entrepreneurship minor?!

This minor is open to all students! No matter your college, major or career goals, an entrepreneurship minor could be beneficial in growing your professional skill set. This minor encourages students to embrace the entrepreneur inside of each of us, as students learn to draw on dedication, teamwork, and grit to solve real-world problems and create sustainable businesses.

Watch the video to see for yourself why a minor in entrepreneurship could be the right choice for you! 

Become A CIE Faculty Fellow Today!

CIE Faculty Fellows are essential to the cultivation of entrepreneurship and innovation on Cal Poly’s campus. Their efforts bring entrepreneurial thinking into action through the courses they teach and their co-curricular experiences.

To be a CIE Faculty Fellow means being a part of an interdisciplinary community that shares an interest in innovation and entrepreneurship, and is committed to inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Watch our video below to hear first-hand why this experience is so rewarding, and may be the right fit for you.

For additional information about the CIE Faculty Fellows Program and how to apply, please click here.

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