By Meredith White, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship
COLLEGE STATION, JUNE 14, 2021 – The McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship hosted its fourth annual Aggie PITCH on the evening of June 13, 2021. Aggie PITCH is open to all current and former students of the Texas A&M University System and seeks to identify the best Aggie business pitch. 20 startups were selected as finalists to compete for $35,000 in prize money across three divisions: current student full pitch, Former student full pitch, and elevator pitch. This is the first year that Former students were eligible to compete at Aggie PITCH. Each founder competing in a full-pitch division was allotted 10 minutes to give a pitch and answer questions on their business. A panel of anonymous judges made up of investors, successful entrepreneurs, and professionals was hidden among the crowd and selected the winners of the current and Former student pitch divisions. In addition, 9 current and Former student teams gave a 1-minute elevator pitch. Elevator pitch winners were selected by audience vote. The 2021 finalists boasted impressive entrepreneurial endeavors that included medical devices, novel SaaS ventures, and innovative consumer products. At the end of the night, the top startup pitches were announced and awarded significant cash prizes.
Lila Ross ’21, co-founder of Phage Biosciences, won 1st place and $7,500 in the current student full-pitch division. Phage Biosciences provides custom engineered solutions for fighting and controlling disease-causing bacteria. Due to the overuse of antibiotics, many bacteria have become resistant. Phage Biosciences wants to solve this massive public health crisis with their custom tailocins, which are antimicrobial proteins that punch a hole in a bacteria cell, effectively killing it. Ross, who traveled back to campus from out of state to participate in Aggie PITCH, said “Hearing all of the ideas and stuff I would have never thought of was a really unique experience, and so was getting to connect with people who share the same passions as you.”
Blake Petty ’98, Executive Director of the McFerrin Center commented, “The world doesn’t need more great ideas, it needs problem solvers. With Aggie PITCH returning in person, and now including Former students, the selfless service of fellow Aggies is able to thrive in the community that founded it and once again provide the community-based system that leads to the success of many entrepreneurs.”
2021 Aggie PITCH Winners
Current Student Division
1st Place ($7,500): Phage Biosciences| Lila Ross ’20, ’21
2nd Place ($5,000): Al-Ris| Uthej Vattipalli ’22
3rd Place ($3,500): Olera, Inc. | Logan DuBose ’22
Former Student Division
1st Place ($7,500): Datalogz | Logan Havern ’19
2nd Place ($5,000): HelioWave Technologies LLC | Adrian Guzman ’08, ’12, ’19
3rd Place ($3,500): Divergene | Paola Correa, PhD ’15
Elevator Pitch Division
1st Place ($1,500): Real Rejuvenations LLC | R’riel Smith ’20
2nd Place ($1,000): Lazarus | Benjamin Omonira ’20
3rd Place ($750): Exosphere Fitness | Connor Pogue ’16, ’18
A full listing of the 2021 Aggie PITCH winners can be found at aggiepitch.com
Media contact: Shanna Spencer, McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship, (979) 458-8631, email@example.com.
The McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship has released the finalists for the 2021 Texas High School Ideas Challenge. This inaugural competition is the only state-wide entrepreneurial contest offered exclusively to High School students across Texas. Teams from every region of Texas applied for this year’s competition but only 30 ideas were selected to compete. This year’s competition will award over $10,000 in prize money.
Public viewing of the competition is not available. The winners of the 2021 Texas High School Ideas Challenge will be announced via live stream on Friday, April 30 at 3:30 PM. Those interested in viewing the Awards Presentation can do so at tx.ag/TXHSIdeasAwardsCeremony.
Listing of Finalists
The finalist teams and their respective High Schools and cities are included below.
Allowance – Vista Ride High School, Cedar Park
Bible Land – McNeil High School, Austin
Chance Tickets – Centennial High School, Frisco
CollegeHype – Clint ISD Early College Academy, Clint
Connect Link to Creativity – Clements High School, Sugarland
DropaBall – Champion High School, Boerne
Entity – Centennial High School, Frisco
Environmate – Centennial High School, Frisco
Farmer Adam – A&M Consolidated, College Station
Florescents – Elkins High School, Missouri City
Go!Board – The Woodlands College Park High School, The Woodlands
How to Reduce Food Waste in Schools Using Emerging Technology – Cypress Woods High School, Cypress
Indus Naturals – Vandegrift High School, Austin
Industrifilm – Dulles High School, Sugarland
Memory Packages – Liberal Arts and Science Academy, Austin
New Experience for Online Job Search – Centennial High School, Frisco
Panacea Therapeutic Socks – William B. Travis High School, Richmond
PRACTICE PALS – Klein Cain High School, Klein
Pure Bliss Water Production System – The Woodlands Christian Academy, The Woodlands
Rentek – Liberal Arts and Science Academy, Austin
A.P.P.E. by MC – Frisco High School, Frisco
Shuttle – Memorial High School, Houston
Sole Cold – Boerne Champion High School, Boerne
Student Power – The Village School, Houston
Teen Jobs App – Del Valle High School, Del Valle
TowerApp – MacArthur High School, Irving
Track&Charge – LASA High School, Austin
UnDistract – James Bowie High School, Austin
Vitally Green – La Vega High School, Waco
WalkThru – Vista Ridge High School, Cedar Park
About Texas High School Ideas Challenge
The Texas High School Ideas Challenge motivates high school students to explore entrepreneurship and discover the benefit of an entrepreneurial mindset. There is no business plan or product development required for the Texas High School Ideas Challenge. Students must prepare and submit a compelling application that illustrated the creative, careful, and methodical planning that has gone into their idea.
About McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship
The McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship provides experiential programs, events, and education for entrepreneurs at Texas A&M University and across the state of opportunities for entrepreneurial students at Texas A&M University. We are committed to the success of entrepreneurs and believe that they are the cornerstone of a robust economy and nation.
Every once in a while, a new invention is created that makes consumers and investors pause and wonder at the genius in its simplicity. Around seven years ago, Dr. Albert Huang was removing part of a diseased colon from a patient’s body when he struggled to find and avoid cutting the patient’s ureter. This is a common occurrence with pelvic surgeries and even the most experienced surgeons struggle to identify and avoid the small muscle hidden under multiple layers of tissue. By the end of the procedure, Dr. Huang found himself thinking up new ideas that would make locating the ureter much faster and safer. His ideas began to solidify during a quiet moment in front of his computer. The next thing he knew he was building a prototype and scouring eBay and Radio Shack looking for spare parts. He was making progress towards solving this monumental problem, but he was going to need to make some tough decisions in order to go from Frankenstein prototype to full-blown startup. Dr. Huang resolved to leave active practice in order to pursue his idea, a daunting task considering the lifetime of training it took to become a surgeon. He knew the rare opportunity that he had to make an impact and save lives.
Dr. Huang came to view the pause in his surgical career “[…] as an opportunity rather than a sacrifice.” His unique background as a practicing surgeon has proven invaluable in the development of his company, Allotrope Medical. He knows the atmosphere of the operating room and he understands the needs of the doctors, assistants, and most importantly the patients. Dr. Huang is also keenly aware of the standards medical professionals have for new technology. He used all of this information, in addition to his expertise in human anatomy, to create StimSite.
StimSite simply but elegantly helps surgeons identify and safely work around the ureter during pelvic surgeries and procedures. The ureter is a smooth muscle structure that can blend into the surrounding tissue making it difficult to see. Each year, 1% or more of procedures result in accidental harm to the patient’s ureter. Dr. Huang concluded that by generating an electrical signal, similar to that created by the brain of a conscious patient, he could make the ureter move on demand and become distinguishable among the pelvic tissue. This small movement would make it easier to locate the ureter, decreasing the time surgeons spend trying to identify and avoid the ureter and also significantly decreasing the risk of accidentally injuring this small but vital structure.
After much trial-and-error, StimSite was finally ready and it was time for Allotrope Medical to seek outside investment. “Taking and sharing your vision is always hard to do,” commented Dr. Huang, “How do you [take] what’s in your brain and share that passion?” Dr. Huang’s idea is obviously good, but his mindset is even better. He has the drive and creativity to support his ambitions and the charisma required to make others believe in his company as well. It should come as no surprise that Allotrope Medical and StimSite quickly caught the eye of investors, in particular the Aggie Angel Network. In June 2020 Dr. Huang competed in the virtual Texas A&M New Ventures Competition (TNVC) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and won first place and $50,000. In addition to the first-place winnings, Allotrope Medical received the Aggie Angel Network Special Investment Prize.
The TNVC prize money combined with other investments meant that Dr. Huang had finally secured the funding he needed to move forward with manufacturing StimSite. Dr. Huang was notified in November 2020 that StimSite was awarded FDA clearance making Allotrope Medical one of the few MedTech companies within the Texas Medical Center to receive clearance to bring their technology through hospital doors. After his positive interaction with Aggie Angel Network (AAN), Dr. Huang approached the angel investment group and offered an additional investment opportunity for AAN members as Allotrope began to close on their Series A. AAN members have a keen sense for a good opportunity and invested an additional $300,000 in Dr. Huang’s startup in early 2021.
Dr. Huang commented that StimSite is already having an impact on the medical field. Doctors he has never met in cities he has never been to are using his technology on patients he’s never seen. Some surgeons filmed themselves using StimSite and presented the recordings at classes and symposiums. This enthusiastic adoption from the medical community further validates the major need that StimSite is filling for surgeons across the United State and soon, around the world.
Dr. Albert Huang grew up asking questions and with a desire to understand how the world around him works. He restored vintage cars and motorcycles during his years in medical school. He has always been looking behind the curtain, trying to learn how things work and can be made even better. He worked hard to become a doctor to help other people, but when he found another way to assist mankind, he was willing to focus everything he had on an innocuous thought that grew into something more. His advice to other entrepreneurs is to tell them it’s doable. That dream you’ve had since you were a kid, that passing idea that you came up with during lunch, it’s all doable. And there are people out there who are willing to help you. There are people out there that want to make the world better and will listen to you as long as you, too, are asking questions. If you too are also pulling back the curtain and looking at the world around you with a perceptive eye. To those who are ready to follow in the steps of Dr. Albert Huang, it may be time to take that leap of faith.
Mays Business School’s master’s in management degree gives students in-classroom and high-impact experience
On December 2, students and faculty of the Master of Science in Business (MS-B) program gathered virtually to celebrate and share their semester-long projects from the Integrated Business Experience (IBE) class.
Handy Mask, one business run by MS Business students
Associate Dean for Graduate Programs Arvind Mahajan said, “It’s an important day for our students as well as for our program. MS Business admits diverse undergraduate majors and invests in many ways to develop them as transformational leaders with entrepreneurial mindsets. This course is a perfect example of that change.”
The MS-B program is a graduate degree designed for non-business majors who want to grow their business knowledge to supplement their bachelor’s degree.
Century Tree Soap Company’s soaps
MS Business Program Director, Richard Castleberry, said of the students, “Other than students with great academics and backgrounds, a primary component we look for is students who show the Aggie Core Values of excellence, integrity, leadership, loyalty, respect, and selfless service. We insist these traits display in our students, and I can say that the 62 students that are here today exhibit those Aggie core values.”
The Global Consortium for Entrepreneurship Centers (GCEC) recently honored the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship with the 2020 Exceptional Contributions in Entrepreneurship Research Award. GCEC awards are designed to showcase and celebrate the very best of university entrepreneurship.
The award for Exceptional Contribution in Entrepreneurship Research honors a center that is dedicated to supporting the creation of new entrepreneurship knowledge through research that advances the discipline. Dr. Michael Howard, Academic Director of the McFerrin Center, commented, “the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M supports and advances world-class research in the field of Strategic Entrepreneurship; the study of how and why some organizations – whether start-ups or established firms – are successful in identifying and pursuing new entrepreneurial opportunities, while others are not. Our scholars have established an impressive track record of entrepreneurship research, publishing and often serving as editors or editorial board members in top academic journals, demonstrating the broad impact of our center in the academic community.”
This is the 2nd GCEC award for the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship. Blake Petty ’98, Executive Director of the McFerrin Center, commented, “GCEC represents the world’s premier university-based entrepreneurship programs, and the McFerrin Center is incredibly proud to be recognized for Texas A&M’s world-class research across such a wide spectrum of entrepreneurial topics.”
Entrepreneurship Centers who receive this award are evaluated upon the following criteria:
Volume of research produced by those associated with the entrepreneurship center or program
Quality of outlets in which the research was published or disseminated
Potential of the research to significantly advance the discipline of entrepreneurship
Number of faculty and staff involved with entrepreneurship research
Support for research in the discipline of entrepreneurship beyond publishing (e.g., reviewing, journal management, hosting conferences, serving as discussant)
Demonstrated ability to connect research efforts to other aspects of center programming (e.g., teaching, co-curricular programs, community engagement)
In addition, Texas A&M University won 2nd place in the 2020 SEC Student Pitch Competition. Stephanie Young ’21 represented the University at this year’s competition where she pitched her vet-tech startup, SKYPaws, LLC. SKYPaws is a novel medical device that provides accurate, real-time post-operative animal patient data for veterinarians and their staff. The device is an integral tool for saving patient lives and identifying postoperative complications. The McFerrin Center is responsible for identifying a student entrepreneur to represent Texas A&M University at the annual competition. McFerrin Center Assistant Director LauraLee Hughes ’08 worked closely with Young to prepare for this year’s competition. “Stephanie is a great example of the entrepreneurial spirit and student talent at Texas A&M, and we are so proud of her taking second place at this year’s SEC Pitch Competition. She worked persistently leading up to the competition on perfecting her pitch, which conveyed not only a very compelling business opportunity but her undeniable passion for making the SKYPaws device a reality. We are excited for Stephanie to add this as one of her many entrepreneurial achievements while at Texas A&M and look forward to her continued success,” said Hughes.
On Tuesday, November 17, 2020, Texas A&M University was once again recognized by The Princeton Review as a top university for both graduate and undergraduate students interested in entrepreneurship. This is the fourth consecutive year that Texas A&M University has been included in the Princeton Review ranking. This year, Texas A&M was ranked #35 for Undergraduate students and #26 for Graduate students. The McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship is responsible for providing a ranking application to Princeton Review each year.
Dan Tinker ’96 has had many notable mentors and confidants who have helped to support him throughout his career. Now, as the President and CEO of SRS Distribution, Tinker wants to provide the same support structure for his employees. Tinker graduated in May of 1996 with a degree in Industrial Distribution from the Texas A&M University College of Engineering. He credits the Department of Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M University for having a major impact on his career and success. “It prepared me really well for leadership and for managing people and leading teams.” Tinker went on to describe how the ID program provided him with a strong technical background while at the same time providing holistic business education. From finance to strategy, to operations it gave him a well-rounded view of how engineering and business can be used together as a powerful tool.
Tinker is a visionary who fully embraces the entrepreneurial mindset of “Dream big. Be Bold.” He isn’t intimidated by hard work and thrives whenever he faces a problem that seems insurmountable. Throughout his career, he’s lived by the adage of “Small goals don’t stir people’s souls.” Tinker has learned first-hand that when you challenge yourself and your team to achieve impossible milestones that is when the magic happens. It hasn’t been an easy lesson to learn and along the way people have doubted him. “I don’t know if anyone but me early on believed that we were going to achieve what I told them we were going to go do,” commented Tinker. Time and time again, he’s proven that there’s no value in shying away from your passions and goals. It’s only when you are all-in and fully committed to your dreams that you can convince others to do the same.
For Tinker, the best way to encourage others to buy into your big, hairy, audacious goals is by fostering strong company culture. He wants to hire talented people and inspire passion in them by creating a corporate environment that makes them excited to go to work every day. “I want people to get a speeding ticket on the way to work, not on the way home from work. You have to create the right environment to make that happen,” he commented. “I believe talent trumps strategy every time, but the talent is wasted if they’re not engaged and fully passionate about the work they’re doing, the vision of the company, and the mission of the company. Have you ever seen a company with good customer service but bad morale? It doesn’t exist! You can’t do it.”
Tinker engages his highly talented employees by actively living the Aggie values of Respect and Selfless Service. “We want to bring talent here and build wonderful careers for people and change their lives for the better. You end up serving them. As CEO, I’m the lowest person in the company and my job is to serve everyone above me. The front-line employees who serve the customer are at the top.” For Tinker, CEO stands for Chief Excuse Elimination Officer. He believes that his most important role is to eliminate all obstacles and provide all of the resources that their people need to succeed. “That’s my job. I want 5,500 people to come to work that are smarter than me and harder working than me and as a result, they drive the business and I provide them all of the resources and the environment for them to thrive and have fun.” That commitment to culture is evident in the SRS Distribution mission statement; “make money, have fun, give back.” Tinker commented that at SRS Distribution, “We’ve chosen to be a people-first and a culture-led company and a big part of that is a dedication to others and service to others.”
How do you inspire an employee workforce of several thousand individuals? For Tinker, it’s simple.
“The way you do that, in our mindset is to let [our employees] be the entrepreneur.” He wants his team to take ownership of their role in the company and let them be the strategist locally. Tinker wants his team to know that their input and decision-making skills are valued by the company and that they are trusted by leadership to make calls independent of the corporate mandate. Rather than trying to force a cookie-cutter approach on their 390 locations, SRS Distribution instead provides centralized tools and resources, such as technology support and talent management, and encourages their employees to leverage an entrepreneurial mindset. “All of our employees think of themselves as owners and founders of the company. They have a different level of pride and engagement.” This commitment to employee empowerment and success is evident through the SRS Distribution employee shareholder program. All 5,500 employees have some sort of equity in the company. “Every time we’ve sold the company or had a liquidity event every employee stockholder got a payout. In fact, we’ve already made over 115 millionaires in the company, from the employees, and my goal is to make hundreds more in the next 5 years. We have a warehouse worker in Portland who makes $18/hour and is already a millionaire because of his small investment in the company in 2008,” said Tinker. “That’s the fun part. You can have great financial success and not keep it all at the top. You can share it broadly if you have the right structure and right equity program.”
For an Aggie entrepreneur who is so fiercely passionate about selfless service and supporting the goals and dreams of others, it would be remiss not to include recognition of the individuals who have played a major role in supporting Tinker’s career. The most notable champion for Tinker’s career is his wife, Audrey Tinker ’96. “My wife is the smart one in the family. She has her Ph.D., Masters, and Undergrad all from A&M and has taught at A&M. All I know is how to sell stuff for more than I paid for it. She’s the real brains of the family,” said Tinker. The two met freshman year in college and have been together ever since. She played a huge role in his career since Tinker’s first job out of college. At the ripe age of 22, Tinker was able to convince the leadership at Cameron Ashley Building Products to promote him to the branch manager. “It was a hard sell, but they did give me the worst branch in the company which was in Little Rock.” Audrey agreed to uproot her life in Texas to move to Arkansas so that Tinker could pursue his career. In just 1-year Dan turned that branch from “dead worst” to branch of the year out of 165 locations. During his time reinvigorating the Little Rock branch, Tinker experienced tremendous growth as a leader. He learned how to motivate your team to be passionate about their work. He discovered the impact that a talented, experienced employee can have on a team’s morale and a business’s bottom line. Tinker distinguished himself as a force in Little Rock. It wouldn’t have happened without Audrey by his side.
Another individual who was monumental in supporting Tinker is Mr. Ronald Ross, Chairman of the Board at SRS Distribution being one in particular. Tinker met Ross while he was a student at Texas A&M and Ross was serving on the advisory board for the Department of Industrial Distribution. For over 2 decades Ross has served as a mentor and font of wisdom for Tinker. “We have a great friendship. I consider him to be a second father to me. He was a mentor right out of college and taught me how to acquire businesses, how to value companies, and the operations of the business as well,” said Tinker. Ross was actually responsible for hiring Tinker at Cameron Ashley Building Products. He is also a co-founder of SRS Distribution alongside Tinker. “It started with buying a small bankrupt company in Florida that only had 6 locations and 30 million in sales. In the past twelve and a half years we’ve done 84 acquisitions, 133 greenfield new openings, and our sales are now approaching 4 billion.” Ross’s wisdom, leadership, and mentorship have been integral to the leader that Tinker is today.
Dan Tinker ’96 is the President and CEO of an almost $4 billion-dollar company. He’s a living example of how the education and values provided by Texas A&M can serve as a springboard for success. But the greatest lesson that can be learned from the story of the 2020 Summit Award Recipient is that when you treat people with respect and invite them to be a part of your dreams, great things can and will happen.
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.
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.”
“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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 Baker, T. and Nelson, R.E., 2005. Creating something from nothing: Resource construction through entrepreneurial bricolage. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50(3), pp.329-366.
 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.
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Young (right) and Armstrong (left) pitching at Aggie PITCH 2019
In 2017 Stephanie Young competed at her High School science fair with SKYPaws,a “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 pressurewithout the need for wires. Their devices saves lives and provides the means for unprecedented levels of patient care within veterinary medicine.
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 lives, Armstrong 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 students. Young commented, “I have my entire life to be an adult. I’ve learned a lot about don’t wish your life away too quickly”
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 madeArmstrong more prepared for her career as aveterinarian 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, Armstrongfirmly believes more veterinary students should be involvedin 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, Armstrongcreated the executive position of Innovation Ambassadorwithin 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.” saidArmstrong.
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 Idea, Raymond Ideas Challenge, and Aggie PITCH Young had to streamlineSKYPaw’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 semester. She used her access to the Fischer Engineering Design Center and her programmingclasses 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.”
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-everMars Leap Ventures Academy in 2019, exclusively 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 foundershave caused Armstrong and Young to be even more dedicated toSKYPaws success. They hope that if theirefforts 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 (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 dedicatedfounders 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.
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!