Shortly after COVID-19 brought a halt to business as usual, entrepreneur and Texas A&M alum Alfredo Costilla-Reyes read about farmers across the United States having to dump produce due to supply chain disruptions. They poured gallons of fresh milk into manure piles, dug ditches to bury millions of pounds of onions, and plowed ripe vegetables back into the ground. With restaurants, hotels, and schools closed, farmers lost half of their buyers overnight. Meanwhile, grocery stores and food banks experienced shortages because they didn’t have enough equipment like refrigerators to accommodate all the excess food.

“I was reading about farmers having big problems reaching customers. They need a marketplace, and it shouldn’t be so difficult,” Costilla-Reyes said over a Zoom call, smiling brightly in front of a virtual background of a library packed with colorful books. “But for a lot of them, to try to figure out how all this online stuff works is stressful and cumbersome.”

And so the idea for Costilla-Reyes’ newest company, DayOneAI, was born. Currently in the initial stages of invite-only beta testing, DayOneAI will help farmers create an online presence in order to reach new customers. Farmers will text information like a description of their business and products to DayOneAI, which will use machine learning and AI to automate a website, online store, and social media accounts. Farmers will also receive alerts about Google and Twitter trends, so they can write targeted social media and blog posts and keep their sites optimized for SEO.

DayOneAI is a direct extension of BitGrange, the company that Costilla-Reyes founded while pursuing his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M. Having been raised in a family of farmers, Costilla-Reyes wanted to expand his PhD research to help improve the lives of people he grew up with. This desire propelled him to venture over from the Electrical Engineering department to the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship and the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars. There, he realized he could combine his interests into a single company, BitGrange, which lies at the intersection of technology and agriculture and builds hydroponic devices so anyone, anywhere can grow produce indoors. BitGrange gained recognition in Mexico, when President Enrique Peña Nieto presented Costilla-Reyes with the Mexico National Youth Award at a reception in Mexico City.

Alfredo Costilla Reyes holding a BitGrange device with a newly sprouted plant. The device is a small cyliner and comes equipped with an individual LED light to help plant growth.When stay-at-home orders started, Costilla-Reyes realized it would be too difficult to continue developing and deploying hardware like hydroponics. He leaned on his learnings from Texas A&M to quickly pivot from hardware that grows produce to software that sells it: “What we learned through programs like Blackstone LaunchPad and the Techstars Entrepreneur’s Toolkit is that it’s not about you as much as the problem itself. You have to be able to evolve and transform in order to improve the life of as many people as possible.”

Despite the shift in focus, Costilla-Reyes sees DayOneAI as a direct extension of BitGrange. At the end of the day, as long as he’s using technology to make farmer’s lives easier and better, he’ll be satisfied — even if that means shifting to focus on helping farmers be in direct contact with customers, so they can sell food locally and earn more money. “I believe that AI shouldn’t be competing for jobs,” Costilla-Reyes explains. “It has its advantages, like looking for patterns. But growing plants, taking care of customers, caring for the environment, those are all things AI can’t replicate. With DayOneAI, farmers can do what they do best and leave the complexity of building an online presence to AI.”

Over the next few months, Costilla-Reyes will further develop DayOneAI as a participant in Rice University’s OwlSpark accelerator. By the end of the summer, he hopes to complete the private beta, roll out a public beta, pitch to investors in Houston, and start a capital raise ($250K for a pre-seed round, and $1M for a seed round). Rather than be frustrated by the way the pandemic affected BitGrange, Costilla-Reyes is nothing but excited about the new opportunity on hand. “I want to embrace this opportunity… It’s nice to be an entrepreneur and have a company that’s so small because you can switch from one place to another and you have that agility.”

LauraLee Hughes, Assistant Director of New Ventures for the McFerrin Center, home of Blackstone LaunchPad and other entrepreneurship programs, worked closely with Costilla-Reyes as he explored the school’s entrepreneurial offering. She’s unsurprised by Costilla-Reyes’ adaptability when faced with a crisis. “Alfredo is a bright young mind with a true passion for changing the world through technology. During his time as a PhD student, he pursued numerous startup ideas, engaging in almost every program the McFerrin Center has to offer. His entrepreneurial spirit, never-ending desire to learn, and eagerness to help others have made him a true asset to the Aggie entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

More than anything, Costilla-Reyes’ engagement with Texas A&M’s entrepreneurial ecosystem shifted the way he thinks about his work. “When you’re doing a PhD, people tell you that you have to compete, you have to do something that’s publishable. It’s all about I and ME. But if you go to [the school’s accelerator] Startup Aggieland and Blackstone LaunchPad, you begin to learn about other people, and that’s really crucial. I enjoyed grad school so much because I started to think like an entrepreneur instead of a scientist. At first, I wanted to build something to win a Nobel Prize. But now, I want to improve lives. It’s not about my skill, but how I can serve others with my work.”

For other Aggies thinking about entrepreneurship, Costilla-Reyes has a few pieces of advice. First, believe in yourself and don’t give up when you face a failure. “We see these big businesses and think they’re overnight success…. But being an entrepreneur you have so many ups and downs. When I first tried to use hydroponics, I thought maybe I’m not meant for this. But I kept going.” Second, build something that solves a problem — even if that solution isn’t what you originally set out to make. And third, serve others. “If I make a product and the end goal is nothing more than a research paper, I’ve failed. I want my work to be useful for other people. And there’s not a better way to do that than through entrepreneurship.”

Costilla-Reyes’ attitude about entrepreneurship has helped him remain optimistic in the face of COVID-19. “When others see hectic times, horrific economic downturn, entrepreneurs see opportunity… That’s the best way to approach crisis.”

Categories: McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Uncategorized

“Creative destruction” is a phrase used by Joseph Schumpeter, an early 20th century economist and probably the “OG” scholar in the field of entrepreneurship. Schumpeter was talking about the role of entrepreneurs in our society as agents of change. Entrepreneurs recognize opportunities that others often miss and create new markets for products and services that sometimes have the potential to disrupt or even destroy established industries.[1] In a sense, change and market disruption is nothing new to entrepreneurs. For that reason, we can anticipate that their skills and unique way of looking at the world will play a critical role in our social and economic recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of us shy away from risk. We try to live our lives and achieve our desired goals while mitigating risk as much as possible. That’s one reason why we struggle with such unexpected and extreme developments as those set-in motion by the global pandemic. In fact, we may feel that our “risk-meter” is off the charts, with few options for bringing it back down. There are reasons to suggest that entrepreneurs, on the other hand, perceive risk very differently. Research shows that they tend to make an objective assessment of the level of risk in the market environment and then work to control or guide outcomes in the best way possible, given that degree of risk.[2] Under the current conditions, entrepreneurs may react by simply resetting their risk estimates at a higher level. With this updated information, they can start planning new strategies and taking actions to improve their likely outcomes, while many of the rest of us remain focused on, or even paralyzed by, the risk itself.

There are other characteristics and perspectives we associate with entrepreneurs that may help them face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. First of all, entrepreneurs are persistent. They find ways to thrive in harsh business environments. We have observed this in emerging markets, areas of the world often lacking financial capital, legal, regulatory, and other resources and institutions we tend to take for granted in developed economies. Entrepreneurial activity still emerges in such settings, growing organically through informal economic systems outside of the traditional institutions.[3] Entrepreneurs are also resilient. They find new paths forward in the aftermath of devastating events. Research following the 2008 global financial crisis shows that many young, entrepreneurial ventures were well-positioned to weather the storm.[4] Startups are generally smaller and may be more agile than established firms, making it easier for them to quickly react and adapt even to extreme and unexpected changes.

Entrepreneurs know how to build businesses through conventional planning, but they have other tools in their toolkit that can help them react and adapt. The business planning process we frequently teach in MBA programs involves causal thinking, the careful assessment of how current conditions and possible strategies can lead to future results. This calls for upfront resource planning, the development of market and production strategies, and the analysis of which outcomes are most likely to occur after executing the business plan. Many entrepreneurs certainly have this skill – think of the carefully constructed plans they often present to investors when seeking capital investment. This process is popularized in TV and streaming shows such as Shark Tank or Elevator Pitch. The problem we have right now is that COVID-19 has thrown everyone a curve. We don’t necessarily have the context to effectively analyze and predict future outcomes. For that reason, most causal-thinking business plans probably aren’t going to work until we get further along in this extraordinary period of uncertainty.

Fortunately, many entrepreneurs can leverage other tools to successfully identify and pursue opportunities, even under difficult conditions such as those presented by the COVID-19 crisis. First, rather than wasting time in the current market environment writing up a wish-list of resources, they would like to have (and are unlikely to get), entrepreneurs are very good at bricolage; making use of what is at hand to construct something useful.[5] The closest many of us get to using bricolage is probably when we have to scrounge something for dinner – we grab some cans from the pantry, leftovers from the refrigerator, maybe pulling the odd tomato from the plant growing on the back patio. Luckily, entrepreneurs tend to be much better at this technique.

My favorite examples of bricolage during the COVID-19 pandemic showcase creative efforts to provide products that help prevent and treat the infection. Cummins Inc. has a stockpile of materials used in producing air and fuel filters for diesel engines. With the shutdown of their engine production line, this inventory would be sitting in giant rolls, collecting dust in a warehouse. Through some creative connecting of the dots, the technical managers at Cummins realized that this material could meet the standards for producing the vital N95 masks that may soon help us begin to safely return to work. We have seen a similar process of bricolage in Ford Motor Company with their use of stock auto parts in the production of medical ventilators. Numerous breweries, distilleries, and even perfume companies are using their materials and equipment to produce hand sanitizer. We can only imagine the countless other acts of entrepreneurial bricolage that are happening all throughout the economy.

Entrepreneurs have another trick up their sleeves. Many of them show skill in effectual thinking. Similar to bricolage, effectuation starts with a look at the readily available skills, tools, and resources.[6] However, the interesting difference in this type of thinking is that it doesn’t start with any particular outcome or destination in mind. Refer to our search of the kitchen pantry at dinnertime – this might involve looking through our available supplies, and instead of preparing a meal, we find spaghetti noodles and marshmallows and decide to start a quick project to build a model of the Eiffel Tower. We had no prior intention of pursuing this project – the available materials, the situation, and our own interests may have organically led us down this path.

Our social network society makes this type of effectual thinking more effective. As entrepreneurs brainstorm various uses for their available skills and resources, they need to test and refine these ideas. This requires a sounding board to communicate their thoughts to potential customers, partners, investors, or others who can help refine and advance the project. Researchers have shown that social media platforms such as Twitter can enhance this process by allowing entrepreneurs to work through their effectual thinking more quickly, getting input from followers, and directing them toward new and unexpected opportunities.[7] Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo provide another example of this rapid feedback process. Investors and campaign participants can preview early-stage ideas, post comments and questions, and ultimately let their money do the talking by offering financial support to worthwhile projects. These social network platforms have dramatically improved the pace and potency of effectual thinking for entrepreneurs.

As we speak, entrepreneurs are undoubtedly scanning the new environment shaped by SARS-CoV-2. They are imagining unexpected opportunities to match available resources to market needs, serving end goals that none of us (including them!) could have anticipated a few months ago. It’s hard to say what they will come up with next, but some areas of activity seem likely. As social beings, we’re all growing tired of these periods of isolation. Entrepreneurs may find new ways to balance our craving for social interaction with our need to control the risk of infection. Internet streaming and digital interaction have been the most obvious domains for these activities, but others could certainly emerge.

Through entrepreneurial thinking, we can crowdsource the restart. Businesses throughout the country face the challenge of reopening while protecting the safety of their customers. We have already seen creative solutions as restaurants and stores find new ways to provide curbside and delivery service, sometimes even offering unconventional grocery products or packaged deals. As they return to in-store dining and service, entrepreneurs will find a wide variety of ways to enable social distancing and limit the risk of contagion. The best ideas are likely to catch on, further speeding the pace of the economic recovery.

We live in unprecedented times; working to balance aggressive actions taken to limit the health impact of COVID-19 with pressures to reopen our businesses and restart the economy. This is creating risk, uncertainty, and challenges to our prior business models and ways of viewing the world. Fortunately, we have an extraordinary group of individuals in our society who often view the world through a different lens. They understand risk, thrive in conditions of uncertainty, and are uniquely equipped to handle these challenges. Fortunately, we have entrepreneurs.


[1] Schumpeter, J., 1942. Creative destruction. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 825, pp.82-85.

[2] Sarasvathy, D.K., Simon, H.A. and Lave, L., 1998. Perceiving and managing business risks: Differences between entrepreneurs and bankers. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 33(2), pp.207-225.

[3] Webb, J.W., Bruton, G.D., Tihanyi, L. and Ireland, R.D., 2013. Research on entrepreneurship in the informal economy: Framing a research agenda. Journal of Business Venturing, 28(5), pp.598-614.

[4] Davidsson, P. and Gordon, S.R., 2016. Much ado about nothing? The surprising persistence of nascent entrepreneurs through macroeconomic crisis. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 40(4), pp.915-941.

[5] Baker, T. and Nelson, R.E., 2005. Creating something from nothing: Resource construction through entrepreneurial bricolage. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50(3), pp.329-366.

[6] Sarasvathy, S.D., 2001. Causation and effectuation: Toward a theoretical shift from economic inevitability to entrepreneurial contingency. Academy of management Review, 26(2), pp.243-263.

[7] Fischer, E. and Reuber, A.R., 2011. Social interaction via new social media:(How) can interactions on Twitter affect effectual thinking and behavior? Journal of Business Venturing, 26(1), pp.1-18.

 

Categories: Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurship, Faculty, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship

 

Image of Young and Armstrong pitching at Aggie PITCH 2019.

Young (right) and Armstrong (left) pitching at Aggie PITCH 2019

In 2017 Stephanie Young competed at her High School science fair with SKYPaws, “spaghetti monster of wires” that would allow veterinarians to wirelessly monitor their patients post-operatively. Now, SKYPaws is led by Stephanie Young and her co-founder Brianna Armstrong. “When we started this we weren’t sure if it was something people really wanted. With each competition that we won it was another step of validation” stated Armstrong, “What is exciting, has built our confidence, and is still humbling is that the people we pitch to in the veterinary space really see this as a thing that needs to happen” she concluded. “And even people who aren’t in the vet space” added Young. “We need to make this change and shape our standard of care in this direction,” said Armstrong. 

 Animal patients will chew through wires attached to them, which requires veterinarians and their staff to visually monitor patients in order to assess their recovery and health. If there is a problem with a patient, such as a sudden drop in blood pressure due to internal bleeding, they often aren’t aware of the issue until it’s too late. SKYPaws accurately monitors veterinary patient vitals such as heart rate and blood pressure without the need for wires. Their devices saves lives and provides the means for unprecedented levels of patient care within veterinary medicine.  

Picture of Armstrong pitching SKYPaws during the 2019 Raymond Ideas Challenge, at which they won 1st place and $3,000

Armstrong pitching SKYPaws during the 2019 Raymond Ideas Challenge, at which they won 1st place and $3,000

THE RIGHT CO-FOUNDER 

It should be noted that in addition to launching a tech startup, Young and Armstrong both have part-time jobs and are full-time students at Texas A&M University. Young is a junior Animal Sciences major and Armstrong is a fourth-year veterinary medicine student. When asked how they manage such hectic livesArmstrong resolutely stated: “We have each other.” 

Young and Armstrong met in the Fall of 2018 after being introduced by a faculty member within the College of Veterinary Medicine. The two have developed a level of trust that allows them to lean on one another when life is particularly daunting. “If I were gone, I could fully trust her with the company. She can handle this and much more. Our co-founder relationship is very much like a marriage. If you don’t have the communication and trust and overall shared values that you’re both set on then it’s not going to happen.” commented Armstrong. “We met to become founders, but we’ve grown to become friends before founders,” said Young. 

Being entrepreneurs has also taught Armstrong and Young how to prioritize the myriad of responsibilities in their lives“It all boils down to time management,” said Armstrong. “My schedule is planned to the minute every day” Young stated“Now when I study I have to be productive because it’s the only time I have to study. And, honestly, it’s made my test grades a little higher. Both founders also commented that they schedule down-time to avoid burnout and to still enjoy life as studentsYoung commented, “I have my entire life to be an adult. I’ve learned a lot about don’t wish your life away too quickly”

Image of Young and Armstrong giving a presentation on SKYPaws during Season Premiere at Startup Aggieland.

Young (right) and Armstrong (left) giving a presentation on SKYPaws during Season Premiere at Startup Aggieland

MORE THAN ENTREPRENEURSHIP 

Armstrong and Young’s experience as founders have challenged them to grow as entrepreneurs, but also as professionals and individuals. SKYPaws has made Armstrong more prepared for her career as a veterinarian and has even elevated her experience at school. “I wouldn’t have gotten the same thing out of veterinary school here without having taken these opportunities. It’s shaped how I view the profession,” she commented. Because of the positive impact that entrepreneurship has had on her life, Armstrong firmly believes more veterinary students should be involved in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship. “[When you’re a student] you’re learning medicine, learning how to be a doctor, and learning how to think critically. But you aren’t getting any exposure to what is happening in this industry that you’re going to be a part of.” From legislature to novel pharmaceuticals Armstrong explains how during vet school you’re isolated from the working field and solely focused on school. “If I hadn’t gone to the Veterinary Innovation Summit and the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy I would not have this new-found appreciation for the industry. I now understand how a veterinary hospital is run and the business behind it,” said Armstrong. Because vet school is so rigorous many students don’t have the time to attend conferences and trade shows where one would typically learn more about industry trends. And so, Armstrong created the executive position of Innovation Ambassador within the Veterinary Businesses Management Association at Texas A&M. The Innovation Ambassador explores and learns about new trends and technology in veterinary medicine and share them with other students. There is an issue within the profession with inflexibility. My hope is that with some of these new efforts students will see that there’s more to the DVM than they ever could have imagined. The only way we’re going to change the profession’s thought process as a whole is to impact the upcoming veterinarians. Texas A&M is one of the few schools that is implementing programs that allow for this growth mindset.” said Armstrong. 

Being an entrepreneur has taught Young to never doubt her skills or allow others to tell her she can’t achieve something. “Entrepreneurship is a lot of learning on the fly and then doing it. If you fail, fine! Do it again.” said Young. In order to succeed at competitions such as The IdeaRaymond Ideas Challenge, and Aggie PITCH Young had to streamline SKYPaw’s circuitry and programming to create a minimal viable product. As an animal science major, she had a limited background in programming and had no access to soldering equipment. So, Young did what any clever student would do. She changed her minor to computer science for a semesterShe used her access to the Fischer Engineering Design Center and her programming classes to help fill the gaps in her skill set. Her new knowledge even helped her develop facial recognition software during an internship with Mars“I’m the type of person who if you tell me I can’t do something, or won’t do something, I 100% will.” said Young, I had people tell me you can’t fix this code because you’re not an engineering major. But I did and I can fix it.” 

Image of Young and Armstrong giving a presentation on SKYPaws during Season Premiere at Startup Aggieland.

Young (right) and Armstrong (left) giving a presentation on SKYPaws during Season Premiere at Startup Aggieland

BEING A YOUNG FEMALE FOUNDER 

Recent data shows that in Q1 of 2019 15% of United States venture capital investments went to companies with at least one female founder with only 2% invested in startups with all-female founders. In addition to being female founders, Young and Armstrong are young students. Because of this, they’ve faced a lot of push-back in the investment and entrepreneurial world. “There’s nothing that anybody ever does where someone doesn’t doubt them. It’s just something where you say I’m still going to do my best to make this happen. I don’t feel it from the veterinary side as much as the investment and business side” said Armstrong. “If I were [older] and a male and doing this it would be a completely different story” commented Young. Even when the two are faced with challenges they persevere and do their best to learn from their experiences. Young attended the first-ever Mars Leap Ventures Academy in 2019exclusively for women founders. After pitching SKYPaws to a panel of mock investors she was picked apart with personal questions about her age and experience“I came out of there and I was angry. I started talking with several of the other ladies and they told me that a lot of these investors aren’t saying this just to tick you off. They want you to step back and reframe what they said, and they want you to prove them wrong so that you can move on to the next step.” stated Young. Rather than view her age as a handicap, she uses the flexibility of a student schedule to capitalize on as many opportunities available to SKYPaws as possible. She pours her youthful energy into her company and the payoff is evident. In less than two years the duo has won over $30,000 in competition prize money, participated in the Leap Ventures Academy, are members of the current LaunchPad Lift cohort, and just signed with a manufacturing firm in Houston, TX to begin production of the beta series of SKYPaws devices. The team has also attended multiple entrepreneurship academies and have been keynote speakers at veterinary conferences. 

Their experiences as young female founders have caused Armstrong and Young to be even more dedicated to SKYPaws success. They hope that if their efforts will help the next generation of young, female founders find their confidence to follow their passion. “We’re creating a device that’s going to impact the industry in a positive way.” said Armstrong, If we do this, all the way and are successful people will know us. They’ll know these two women created this disruption in the veterinary space. And we’re doing it at such a young age. These two ordinary people did it so I can do it.” 

Armstrong and Young holding a large check at the 2019 Raymond Ideas Challenge where they won 1st place and $3,000

Armstrong (left) and Young (right) at the 2019 Raymond Ideas Challenge where they won 1st place and $3,000

Throughout our interview, Young and Armstrong repeatedly said “if SKYPaws is successful” rather than “when SKYPaws is successful”. When asked why their answers only further illustrated the maturity and sense of responsibility that Young and Armstrong bring to their venture. There’s always a thought in the back of my head that 3 out of 4 startups fail. And it’s again, from a place of feeling humble. I’m so grateful for everything that we’ve learned thus far and how much opportunity has come from this and how far we’ve actually gone. It’s just been incredible experience after incredible experience. Now that we’re getting into the investor phase, I’m even more conscious of the fact that we could take money from people. And still not make it. That is really difficult for me. We could do everything right, take this as far as we can get it, but at the same time that’s someone else’s money that’s in our hands. We could do everything right and still not make it. It’s a reality check for myself.” said Armstrong. Young too is humbled by the immense opportunities they have been given. She refuses to allow their current success to inflate her ego. “Every startup wants to be the one that makes it. There’s is that chance we could be one of the 3 out of 4. But we’re going to take [SKYPaws] as far as we can. We’re going to do our best to bring our gifts and attention to this company and try our hardest. A lot of my “if” comes from not being too cocky.” stated Young, There’s a difference between speaking something into existence and manifesting it. Just like there’s a difference between being positive and being cocky and thinking you deserve it. All of this stuff, I still feel undeserving and humbled to be a part of it.” With such inspiring and dedicated founders at the helm of SKYPaws, it’s hard not to believe that they will beat the odds.

About The McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship

The Texas A&M McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship provides encouragement, education, networking and assistance to entrepreneurially-minded students, faculty and staff. Founded in 1999, The McFerrin Center is part of Mays Business School’s Department of Management. The McFerrin Center provides experiential learning opportunities through workshops, competitions, guest speakers, and other events and programs such as Aggie 100. Texas A&M faculty and students benefit from the center’s educational programs, extensive business community network, and entrepreneurial support services.

Categories: Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurship, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Startup Aggieland, Students

EDITOR’S NOTE: Irvin Ventura ’21 traveled to Chile in January of 2020 as a part of the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship’s study abroad program. This program supports Mays Business School’s Strategic Mission and Grand Challenges. Below is his reflection on his time in Chile and the impact it had on him as a student, entrepreneur, and Aggie.

Learn more about study abroad experiences offered through the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship.


Traveling abroad indisputably challenges your notion of reality and exposes you to a new understanding of consciousness and human existence. I have had the privilege of traveling to multiple Latin countries during my time at Texas A&M, but I can honestly say that visiting Chile has had the greatest intellectual impact on my appreciation for nature and understanding of entrepreneurship.

The geographical sights of Chile are truly breath-taking. The country has an array of natural landforms to be captivated by, from the snow-covered Villarrica volcano to the crystal-clear waterfalls in the Huilo-Huilo Biological Reserve. Witnessing the different landforms in Chile left me astonished by the beauty that nature is capable of producing. As Americans, it is very easy to forget about how mesmerizing the creations of nature can truly be, as we are often focused on our work, school, and other implications of Western civilization. Chileans pursue many of the same things that Americans do as far as entrepreneurial aspirations, but they don’t forget about the beauty and power of nature; they embrace it. Environmental conservation is something that has become a widespread concern in America since about the 1960s, but in Chile, it is a lifestyle that has been passed on for generations. The Mapuche tribe, which is an indigenous group in Chile, is largely responsible for the passing of these principles. When conversing with locals, many of them explicitly expressed to me how important environmental preservation is for their culture. From a more observant perspective, I was able to see that they truly practice what they preach. The streets of Santiago are relatively free of litter, and the fields of Villarica will not hold a speck of litter either. This was one of the most inspiring parts of the trip.

The intriguing aspects of Chilean culture stretch far beyond their environmental concerns. Due to Chile’s unique history, its culture is influenced by many different backgrounds. For example, many schools in Villarica actually teach German as a result of early German colonization. Many small businesses have German-influenced names and architectures as a result of this, too.

Meeting the entrepreneurs was definitely a highlight of the trip. I had the opportunity to work with an array of businesses, from wood-craft shops to jewelry shops. Each of these businesses had their own unique obstacles they were looking to overcome, but nevertheless they were all extremely grateful to be meeting with students from Texas A&M. They were very open to the suggestions we gave them, asked insightful questions and even fed us. I was a translator for my group, which was definitely a bit of a challenge at times, but it was well worth it when I was able to see how much the entrepreneurs appreciated everything we did for them.

From an entrepreneurship standpoint, I gained a new perspective on a few things. Entrepreneurs in Chile served as problem-solvers for the community, just as American entrepreneurs do here. One of the main differences is that they generally want to make enough to get by and provide for their families; scaling their business is not much of a concern for them. Here in America, entrepreneurship is often associated with scaling-up and becoming the next Amazon or Google. However, most Chileans define success as being able to provide for their families year-round on a consistent basis. This is an idea that I found surprising initially, but after conversing with the entrepreneurs I began to understand why. Scaling means more costs, time, resources and much more energy that the entrepreneurs would rather use to spend time with their families.

Another new perspective I gained was the importance of competitive advantages. In American entrepreneurship, one of the early stages of starting a business is developing a competitive advantage. Business owners strive to create a competitive advantage for themselves to rise above their peers. In Chile, markets are very homogenous. Everyone in markets essentially sells the same thing for the same price, thus the idea of competitive advantage is not something people think about. We found that the lack of competitive advantage was holding many ambitious entrepreneurs from reaching the next level of their business. Many of them were exhilarated when we introduced them to these ideas.

The McFerrin Global Entrepreneurship trip to Chile has been one of the biggest highlights of my college career. I am certain that I will look back on this experience many years into my professional career and still appreciate every moment of it. I fell in love with the Chilean culture and have enthusiastically shared aspects of it with my peers back in College Station. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people while over there and am ready to explore other countries who seek help from Aggies!

Categories: Entrepreneurship, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Students, Uncategorized

SKYPaws, LLC, founded by Stephanie Young ’21 and Brianna Armstrong ’20, was awarded first place and $3,000 at the 2019 Raymond Ideas Challenge. The idea behind SKYPaws came to Young while she was working at a Veterinary Clinic in her hometown. “We had a dog named Charlie that came in for a routine procedure and passed away shortly after due to improper monitoring. The entire mission of SKYPaws is to equip Veterinarians with the accurate information that they need to know about their patients when they need it most” said Young.

Veterinary clinics must visually monitor patients post-operatively as animals will often chew through wires and tubing, or remove other monitoring devices. Unfortunately, this means that veterinarians and their staff don’t receive accurate information regarding a patient’s blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs that typically alert physicians of critical issues during recovery. SKYPaws provides veterinary clinics with a wireless monitor that provides them with accurate, real-time data to better monitor patient recovery. “Right now, SKYPaws is in the process of working with a professional engineering firm. This prize money will allow us to continue our discussions with them until we get Angel investment in the next 4-6 months” stated Young. Young encourages students who are interested in entrepreneurship to “take the plunge” and get involved with campus resources such as McFerrin Center, Startup Aggieland or Aggies Invent. “These resources will gradually allow you to get your feet wet in a structured way, so you don’t feel lost or helpless! Entrepreneurship is a major portion of my life and I feel as if my college experience would be lackluster without it” she added. Young is a sophomore Animal Sciences major and Armstrong is a 4th-year student in the Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine Professional Program. SKYPaws is a client of the Startup Aggieland Business Incubator.

Over 130 industry professionals judged this year’s 40 finalists. Recent Texas A&M graduate Rhett Bruck competed as a finalist at the 2018 Raymond Ideas Challenge and returned in 2019 as a judge. When asked why he decided to serve as a judge he commented on the impact that McFerrin Center programs had during his time at Texas A&M and his desire to help aspiring student entrepreneurs. “I thought it would be fun and I wanted to give back,” said Bruck “Startup Aggieland and the McFerrin Center put me on this amazing track where I can use the skills I developed everywhere.” The 2019 Raymond Ideas Challenge awarded $10,000 in prize money to student entrepreneurs at Texas A&M University. Second place winner Luke Raglin of SimpleSeat is the first Texas A&M Corpus Christi student to place at a Raymond Ideas Challenge. In addition, Axle Box Innovations has awarded all 40 finalists with access to their brand new “Fab Lab” that will open in January 2020. Raymond Ideas Challenge is held annually each fall semester. For more information visit mcferrin.tamu.edu.

2019 Raymond Ideas Challenge Winners

  • First Place: Brianna Armstrong, Stephanie Young; SKYPaws, LLC.
  • Second Place: Luke Raglin of Texas A&M Corpus Christi; SimpleSeat
  • Third Place: Shreedevi Arun Kumar, Kaivalya Deo; 3D Bio-Printed Pancreas

Best Video

  • Bruce Kelly, Stephen Lorenzen; Lit Seating

Honorable Mentions

  • Daniel De Clute-Melancon; Changing the World by Providing Local Access to Urban Air
  • Seth Polsley; Accessible Fitness Tracking for People with Disabilities or Injuries
  • Mary Chandra, Molly Coon, Elizabeth Matthews; G-Sense
  • Hassan Anifowose; Chronos 360
  • Nash Porter; Kisby Virtual Lifeguard

AXLE BOX Award

  • Nash Porter; Kisby Virtual Lifeguard

Categories: McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Uncategorized

November 14, 2019 (College Station, Texas) – Texas A&M University has once again been recognized as a top university for both graduate and undergraduate students interested in entrepreneurship by the Princeton Review. For the third consecutive year, Texas A&M University ranks within the top 25 U.S. schools, coming in at #22 for Undergraduate students and #23 for Graduate students.

Texas A&M boasts a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem that includes the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, which operates Startup Aggieland and Blackstone Launchpad powered by Techstars. Blake Petty, Director of the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship stated, “We proudly acknowledge this recognition on behalf of the vibrant entrepreneurial community continuing to grow throughout Texas A&M. Our campus culture is rooted in developing students who want to change the world, and our recognition as a top 25 entrepreneurship program for 3 consecutive years proves we excel in this area.”

The McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship is housed within Mays Business School but its resources and programs are available to all future, current, and former students of Texas A&M University. Dr. Eli Jones, Dean of Mays Business School commented, “We are excited to once again be recognized for the importance we place on entrepreneurial education at Texas A&M University. Entrepreneurship is a strategic pillar of the Mays Business School’s mission, and recognition of our excellence in both Graduate and Undergraduate programs speaks well to our emphasis.”

Specialized entrepreneurial programs are also offered through the Texas A&M Colleges of Engineering, Agriculture, Veterinary Medicine, Liberal Arts, Architecture, the School of Innovation and many other academic units across campus. Students at Texas A&M have a myriad of pathways to pursue entrepreneurship and innovation during their college careers.

More than 300 schools reported data about their entrepreneurship offerings to Princeton Review. Rankings are based on entrepreneurial curriculum, student, faculty and staff entrepreneurial ventures, extracurricular offerings, and scholarships and aid provided to students pursuing entrepreneurship.

Categories: Entrepreneurship, Mays Business, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Programs, Rankings, Texas A&M

SIA Solutions has been ranked as the #1 Aggie 100 Company for 2019 with an astonishing growth rate of 284.88%. At the helm, Dr. Srini Neralla, CEO of SIA Solutions, LLC, leads the company with an entrepreneurial attitude that seamlessly incorporates his academic background. His innovative and solution-oriented mindset lends itself to an uncanny ability to poignantly serve clients in a way that benefits their local community and the surrounding environment.

Dr. Neralla credits the growth of the company to their client-first attitude which serves as the foundation for SIA Solutions’ company culture. “Our culture is based around a client-first attitude,” he said, “if we can take care of our clients and we can take care of our people there’s nothing better than that.”  Dr. Neralla believes that SIA Solutions is able to successfully deploy a client-first culture because “[We] focus on understanding the needs and challenges of our clients and providing them solutions as appropriate.  We help them navigate through the maze of technical, regulatory and funding challenges, which makes our clients successful and hence we are successful.”  SIA Solutions believes in building strong and trusting relationships with their clients. In fact, approximately 95% of their clientele are repeat customers. “Our philosophy is establishing ourselves as a trusted advisor to our clients. That is the key to our success.”

Although SIA Solutions is a small-sized business they aren’t afraid to take on challenges that many firms their size may shy away from. “Because of our client-first philosophy, we’re willing to take on tough challenges and deliver. It’s in our culture. It’s natural to us. We put together strong teams comprising of firms our size or larger, including universities, in order to deliver what our clients want,” said Dr. Neralla. SIA Solutions is constantly pushing boundaries, including their own core business lines. One such example is a project that SIA Solutions is working on right now for the US Army Corps of Engineers. The project’s mission is to support and protect the mainline levees across the Mississippi River in order to keep excess material out of the channel and maintain a favorable channel alignment and depth. “This is currently done through the use of a Mat Sinking Unit (MSU) which, due to its age, requires significant upgrades to its infrastructure and health and safety of its operations,” said Dr. Neralla. SIA Solutions was selected to develop and field a full-scale prototype system that employs modern technologies to automate the processes of handling, assembling, and placing articulated concrete mat on the banks of the Mississippi River.  The system is purposefully designed to utilize robotics to help ensure the safety of the USACE employees and/or contractors implementing the program.  This modernized system will also help to reduce the time it takes to place the mats and increase the operation’s cost efficiency. SIA quickly recognized the unique opportunity for the company to take on one of their client’s biggest and most challenging projects in a way that has never been done before. “We put a team together that included Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) to develop a process that includes robotics that will allow this project to be automated. We are willing to take on challenges and we’re willing to deliver.”  SIA’s willingness to think and work outside the box paid off and they were recently awarded the next project phase during which they’ll build the actual robotics system on a barge and begin placing the mats.

A large part of SIA Solutions’ portfolio includes their infrastructure asset management services where they deploy sophisticated strategies and processes to help solve complex asset management challenges for government and industry clients. Many times, this requires innovative solutions to existing assets such as underutilized property or facilities that are beyond their useful life. Dr. Neralla recalled one project where a Department of Defense (DoD) base had invested in a state-of-the-art water/wastewater treatment plant, but a few years later the base was downsized due to BRAC actions. Although DoD didn’t need the full capacity of the plant moving forward, the plant still had a high market value. The surrounding local communities needed additional water treatment capacity because of their own population growth. “We were able to assess the value of the plant and basically marry the local communities’ needs with the excess capacity of the DoD plant. This is a “win-win” situation for everybody, by providing a solution and reducing costs for both government agencies through the transfer of the asset! At the end of the day, anything we do has an impact on the community and an impact on the environment. Whether it is disposing of radiological waste properly or providing increased energy efficiency within a community around a military base.” SIA Solutions is a multi-faceted company that is able to identify innovative opportunities regardless of the project size or scope.

Dr. Neralla says that a key component in providing clients with unparalleled service and solutions is building the right team at SIA. He humbly expressed the integral role his staff has had in the growth of SIA Solutions. “You need to hire the right kind of people with the right mindset and right mentality,” said Dr. Neralla “You need a good staff that believes in your culture and believes in your vision. We could not have been as successful without the wonderful staff that we have at SIA.  Our clients have given us the opportunity to do what we do best and helped us in our growth and success”. “If you can develop solutions to address client needs in an efficient manner, that helps the community and helps the environment then it’s a win on all fronts,” said Dr. Neralla.  SIA Solutions has also developed a robust teaming network that allows them to leverage the resources of partner corporations. “There are a few small and large businesses that we team with that have helped us in our delivery to our clients. Such mutually beneficial relationships are possible due to a similarity in culture and values.”

Dr. Neralla stressed that entrepreneurs need to surround themselves with a supportive network, “hire quality staff that believes in your company culture, values and vision; surround yourself with a network of individuals and resources to guide the success of your company.” He believes that patience, persistence, and perseverance are key elements for success, and he has even woven these characteristics into the culture of SIA Solutions. He also noted that his success, and the success of SIA Solutions, would not be possible without the continuous support of his wife and family. Dr. Neralla is a truly inspiring Aggie entrepreneur and it comes as no surprise that his leadership and hard work have led SIA Solutions to new heights of success. Congratulations to Dr. Neralla and the team at SIA Solutions for being awarded the 2019 Aggie 100 #1 ranking.

Categories: McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Uncategorized

As the largest electrical contractor in the state of Texas, it’s no surprise that Walker Engineering is the 2019 Aggie 100 Summit Award recipient with $342,698,749 in total revenue. Brent Walker, President of Walker Engineering, said that receiving the award was incredibly meaningful, “it’s something we’re very humbled by but also very proud of. We’re really excited.” Walker Engineering’s portfolio ranges from museums to hospitals to corporate campuses, and even includes Texas A&M University’s beloved Kyle Field. But Walker Engineering is more than a company, it’s a family. Founded in 1981 by Charlie Walker the company is now led by his son Scott Walker ‘00 and nephew Brent Walker ‘97. “We’ve learned a lot over time, about what not to do to avoid making mistakes and our goal is to be the best partner we can for our collaborators and customers.” Brent attributes the continued growth and success of Walker Engineering to Charlie’s mentorship which has shaped both him and Scott as leaders and entrepreneurs. “[Charlie] taught us about the necessity of keeping our employees happy and motivated. Having good, talented folks around him was how he built his business.” Charlie also taught them to prioritize and respect their employees. “The best leaders have a natural social awareness and empathy of others,” said Brent. “When you have thousands of employees who are coming to work each day they each have their own things going on in their life. That can make them great at their job one day and maybe they struggle the next because they have something that’s taxing their well-being. Being conscientious of that is something we learned from Charlie and something we try to continue to emulate today.”

Although Walker Engineering is a family business Scott and Brent had to first prove themselves as employees before they could pursue a leadership role within the company. “It didn’t matter that my last name was Walker,” said Brent, “without question we had to earn our stripes. No one would have respected us if we were given the keys to the kingdom without earning them.” Both Brent and Scott have worked for Walker since they were teenagers. “We started working in the warehouse when we were in High School. We were working on job sites when we were in college. We were in the field, learning how hard it is to be an electrician. Without question, the empathy I have for those in our field and our employees is because I’ve done their job and I understand that it’s hard and challenging. Having to do that earned us the respect of our employees and in turn, gave us respect for our employees.” In total Brent has been working for Walker Engineering for 28 years and now as president, he has a deep understanding of the mechanics of the company.

Brent comes from a family of proud Aggies and estimated that there must be over 30 Walkers who have graduated from Texas A&M throughout the years. “I grew up in a maroon household and I knew the Aggie War Hymn before Jesus Loves Me” he joked. Although Brent learned many things during his time as a student in the department of construction science, one key lesson he gained from Texas A&M was that “you’re going to have to work hard to be successful.” In addition, Walker Engineering tries to incorporate a bit of Texas A&M’s culture within their own. “There’s a family environment at A&M and we very much try to incorporate that into our own company.” Peer-to-peer support and mentorship is a pervasive cultural aspect at Walker Engineering. They aim to create an environment where people enjoy coming to work. “Even though we’ve grown so big we try to continue to keep that small-town family feel, just like Texas A&M.”

More than anything Brent stressed the value that Walker Engineering places on their people. “We are nothing without our employees,” he said. “Finding folks who want to come in and work hard and rewarding that is what we’re all about. We’re not micromanagers. We hire people to do a great job and have great ideas. We very much like to recruit, train, and promote from within our company.” They’re trying to change the culture of their job sites as well. Gone are the old guard ways of running a site like a military operation. “We’ve tried to really promote a different mindset. We want young people to come into the trade and feel like they have a chance to succeed. You can share your wisdom without screaming at some poor kid.” When asked what advice he would give to a leader who wants to develop a strong company culture, Brent emphasized the importance of hiring the right people. “Identify talent that organically has that mentality. You get a better environment of collaboration and long-term tenure when you have a family culture. There are a lot of folks who are smart and good at their jobs that we don’t hire because they don’t fit our culture. A lot of folks job hop and we look for that. We want someone to be here for the long-term.”

Walker Engineering is also dedicated to making an impact outside of the industry. “In every community where we build we owe it to be generous with our success.” Walker Engineering is a charitable giver to many non-profit organizations including Joey’s Dream Builders, Make a Wish, and March of Dimes. “When we have big fundraisers we involve our employees whether that’s through volunteering or helping to raise money.” As a company, they’re aware of the power that they have to be a force for good. “We want to continue to be a great place to work, provide for thousands of people’s families, and continue to build cool buildings.”

Categories: McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Uncategorized

COLLEGE STATION, OCTOBER 28, 2019 – Mays Business School’s McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship is proud to reveal the businesses from across Texas and around the world who are part of the 15th Annual Aggie 100. The ceremony, held Friday (10/25), honored the fastest-growing Aggie-owned or Aggie-led businesses. Members of the exclusive club were honored by hundreds of attendees at a private event held at the Hall of Champions at Texas A&M University’s Kyle Field.

The top 10 ranking companies were:

10. 91.38% Growth Rate- LASAL, LLC of Water Valley, Texas

9. 96.32%Growth Rate- Steel Frame Solutions & Drywall, LLC of Kerrville, Texas

8. 103.19% Growth Rate- Diamondback Energy, Inc. of Midland, Texas

7. 104.90% Growth Rate- Escondido Resources of Katy, Texas

6. 109.59% Growth Rate- Premier Coil Solutions, Inc of Waller, Texas

5. 115.19% Growth Rate- Ark Financial of Austin, Texas

4. 117.46% Growth Rate- Odin Heavy Industries, LLC of Bryan, Texas

3. 143.56% Growth Rate- LJA Infrastructure of Houston, Texas

2. 190.07% Growth Rate- Raider Pumping Services, LP of College Station, Texas

1. 284.88% Growth Rate- SIA Solutions, LLC of Houston, Texas

Summit Award Winner: Walker Engineering of Irving Texas with an average revenue of $342,698,749.

A full listing of the 2019 Aggie 100 honorees with detailed ranking information was publicly released Friday night and can be found at Aggie100.com.

The Aggie 100 program identifies, recognizes, and celebrates the 100 fastest growing Aggie owned or operated businesses throughout the world. To be considered for the Aggie 100, companies (corporations, partnerships, sole proprietorships) must operate in a manner consistent with the Aggie Code of Honor and in keeping with the values and image of Texas A&M University and must meet specific criteria.

“As we mark the 15th Crystal Anniversary of the Aggie 100 program, we celebrate our success by raising up the newest class of Aggie 100 honorees. Knowing how each member company of the Class of 2019 has overcome their own adversities to reach astounding levels of growth and prosperity, we dedicate this significant milestone to the excellence exhibited by our newest additions to the Aggie 100 family.”

About The McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship

The Texas A&M McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship provides encouragement, education, networking and assistance to entrepreneurially-minded students, faculty and Texas businesses. Founded in 1999, The McFerrin Center is part of Mays Business School’s Department of Management. The McFerrin Center enhances student education through campus speakers, competitions, work experiences and financial support. Texas A&M faculty and students benefit from the center’s educational programs, extensive business community network and entrepreneurial support services.

The McFerrin Center also reaches out to the state’s business community offering educational programs, business assistance and access to University resources. The McFerrin Center is supported by corporate and individual members and sponsors who believe in the value of entrepreneurial education and the value of Texas businesses working with Texas A&M University.

 

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Media contact: Kiri Isaac, Communications Specialist, Mays Business School, (979) 845-3167, kiri@mays.tamu.edu.

 

Houston Companies: SIA Solutions LLC (1), LJA Infrastructure (3), Slate Construction, LLC (14), AmTex Machine Products, Inc (16), Eventellect, LLC (21), Able Industrial (22), 3-C Valve & Equipment, LP (23), CIMA Energy (33), JP Services (36), Method Architecture (47), SagisDx (57), Satori Marketing (69), Sallyport Holdings, LLC (78), Big Data Energy Services (83)

Categories: Mays Business, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Texas A&M

Meet Connor Pogue, Startup Aggieland’s newest entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR). Connor is the CEO and co-founder of Exosphere Fitness, a consumer fitness product that looks like a yoga mat, but functions as a full gym.

Ever since he was a little kid, Connor dreamed of being a doctor. “The plan was that I would be an orthopedic surgeon and my brother would be a physical therapist and eventually we would open a practice together,” he said. However, during an internship at a hospital, Connor quickly realized his dream had changed, “I was already getting frustrated with the paperwork and healthcare industry. I would look around and think about how I could make things better but wasn’t actually able to make a difference.” After graduating from Texas A&M in 2016 with a BS in Kinesiology, Connor made the difficult choice to turn down his acceptance into medical school. Instead, he enrolled as a graduate student in Mays Business School and eventually earned his MS in Business. “I enjoy what I do now,” he commented. Connor still achieved one of his childhood dreams though; his brother is the co-founder of Exosphere Fitness. “I’ll never forget the moment my mom saw our first prototype,” he recalled, “she looked at it and then just hugged me and said ‘I love you, but you’re crazy.’”

Now, Connor is working on his startup full-time, serving as Startup Aggieland’s newest EIR, and has several contracts as a business consultant. Connor is most excited about helping Texas A&M students achieve their goals as entrepreneurs. “I love working with students,” he said, “I love the passion of student entrepreneurs. I don’t care what their idea may be. I’m driven by their passion and the work they’re putting into their dreams.” As an EIR, Connor will help students engage with the Startup Aggieland community and provide guidance and support as they explore their ideas and launch their companies.

About Exosphere Fitness

The Exosphere Gym is deceptively powerful. The entire system weighs a little over 20lbs, but users can do over 100 exercises with 5-200lbs of resistance. “Our slogan is ‘this isn’t a gym you put in your home. It’s a gym made for your home,’” said Connor. The entire gym is designed with today’s modern lifestyle in mind, allowing for maximum benefit while taking up minimal space in your home. When your workout is complete, the gym folds in half with a single movement and can be stored under a bed, in a closet, or behind your sofa. The founders also developed the system to be safe for users and their families. Free weights and heavy, gear-laden machinery can injure or fall on children but not the Exosphere Gym. “The entire device is completely self-contained and incredibly safe.” Exosphere Fitness is a finalist for the 2019 Extrapreneur Award presented by Extraco Bank.

Categories: Entrepreneurship, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, Uncategorized