Bill Erickson, 1st place winner

It happens every time registration rolls around: Students ask their friends what courses they should take, what kind of assignments they should expect and what teaching style from given professors.

But in the everything’s online world of 2007, answers from friends and classmates will soon be easier to find at Texas A&M and beyond. That’s thanks to one ambitious new media entrepreneur and the Coursevote tool he developed for sharing course reviews—and voting on the helpfulness of those reviews—with a network of trusted friends via Facebook.com, the social-connecting site that began with college students and now links more than 25 million users worldwide.

Sophomore business major Bill Erickson won $3,000 and patent lawyer services for his Coursevote platform at the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship’s 6th annual Ideas Challenge this spring. Now, he’s taking his product live, adapting to new features in Facebook to look for a profitability model supported by college bookstore sponsors.

Erickson will roll out the social networking and course-rating tool for students across the nation this summer. He won first place in the Ideas Challenge at Mays, a university-wide competition that encourages students to test the commercial potential of their biggest ideas in front of panels of industry and capital venture judges.

“Coursevote.com takes existing technologies and adds value by putting the tools together,” Erickson said. “Social networking operates on a basic idea: you trust your friends’ opinions, and you’ll be able to drill down through all the votes, comments and books to the opinions that really matter—your friends’.”

His is not the first idea to garner attention, but it is the first in the competition’s six years to be launched into a broad marketplace for general consumption. A non-invasive colon cancer early detection technology that took 2nd prize at the 2005 Ideas Challenge placed highly in other ventures competitions, garnering more than $12,000 in support of its commercialization. But patent woes have served up complications in its path to market.

Generating idea support
David Bell Blue Magic Inc. President David Bell, an Ideas Challenge judge, talks commercialization with a competitor in May.As part of the challenge, 40 student teams gathered in front of 125 judges in early May. Students had 10 minutes to sell judges on their for-profit ideas, outlining commercial opportunity as well as potential markets, competitors and suppliers. The top 10 teams split a total of $13,000, and the top two winners were also granted pro-bono provisional patent work with patent experts at Texas law firm Jackson Walker LLP.

Eager judges heard one important instruction before they spent the day meeting leading students at Texas A&M. “Remember,” Center for New Ventures Director Richard Scruggs said, “it’s their idea, and you can’t take it. But you can tell them if it’s the kind of idea that will make it in the real, tough world of business.”

Three-year veteran judge Bill Muldoon ’84, director of chemical sales for Houston-based Aspen Technology, explained he wouldn’t have had the skills as a first-year college student to pitch ideas for for-profit business in front of expert judging panels. He pointed to the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship’s efforts to encourage skill development, as well as entrepreneurship, as a step forward in preparing Texas A&M students for the world that awaits.

“It’s amazing to see these freshmen up there with their ideas, whether they win or lose,” Muldoon said. “We need to encourage these students to succeed and to keep trying. If they can tap the skills, resources and network of the university and the center to get help with their ideas, they’re already ahead.”

That’s precisely what administrators in the new ventures center are hoping to encourage in the students and faculty of Texas A&M and partner businesses in the region. They aim to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in Aggie students early on, and to grow a network of resources to support just such a cause.

And it’s just the response they’re getting from budding students. Take freshman business major Emma Griffin. She presented a far-out idea for a snowskate—akin to wakeboarding, only on the snow—with foam interlocking pieces that allow a performer to slip his or her feet in or out of the snowskate to do midair tricks, instead of strapping their feet to the board. Griffin was part of a team in an environmental design class that came up with the idea and gave it a shot in front of judges. Though the idea wasn’t hers, the business plan behind it was.

“This is kind of what I want to end up doing with my life,” she said as she mingled with student entrepreneurs and judges in May. “I want to know the people who have the idea, and take their idea plus my business skills…I’m just kind of excited that I figured out what I want to do.”

Sophomore finance major Mary-Pat Moyer, who was championing an idea for a helmet camera that would alert motorcycle drivers to potential rear-end collisions, is of the same mind. The idea was one of four projects she and a team presented for class, but it spurred her to a new line of thinking. “I think I want to start a consulting business,” she says. “This really gave me the idea of taking some entrepreneurship classes, really seeing what this is all about.”

Ideas Challenge 2007 winners

First Place: Sophomore business major Bill Erickson for Coursevote.com, $3,000

Second place: Donelson Shannon, senior electrical engineering major, $2,000 for the Digitube guitar amplifier.

Third place, $1,000-winning groups and individuals and their big ideas are:

  • GlucoBeads and BeadReader: Matt Hickey, junior biochemistry major; Harrison Kalodimos, senior biomedical engineering major; Larry Laugesen, junior computer engineering major; Derek Lebsack, junior petroleum engineering major; Annie Maniha, sophomore business major; and Alyssa Rahaim, sophomore biomedical science major.
  • Hydraulic gate opener: Senior industrial engineering major Josh Meeh.
  • Shark Away: Freshman business major Lauren Heintzelman.
  • Crate Escape: Andrew Arnold, senior engineering technology major; and MBA student Marie Hollinger.
  • RFID tagging system incorporated into university identification cards and attendance policies: Bryan Holekamp, junior chemical engineering major; Tara Kingsley, freshman biochemistry major; Ayaka Ono, freshman architecture major; Dillon Pechal, sophomore general studies major; Courtney Thompson, junior biomedical science major; and Rodney Yost, senior communication major.
  • Computer game development for teens: Michael Farnsworth, senior computer science major.
  • The Bank Backboard: Geena Bhatla, sophomore business major; Kyle Borque, a senior biomedical engineering major; Alison Cooley, sophomore construction science major; Sam Pavliny, a freshman chemical engineering major; Samuel Ponzio, sophomore business major; and Jennifer Williams, junior political science major.

Ideas Challenge is underwritten by Lynntech, Inc., a technology company headquartered in College Station. First prize sponsored by Paragon Innovations; second prize sponsored by Gulfstream Graphics; and third place sponsored by Lockard & White and Lynntech.