Chris Brooks knows what it’s like to pull himself up over towering obstacles.
The UW-Whitewater senior from Cross Plains has guided intrepid rock climbers across the quartzite bluffs at Devil’s Lake State Park in Sauk County for more than five years. But the most difficult ascent he’s currently facing isn’t a cliff or mountainside. Brooks is out to scale the business world, and he’s found a unique support system to make that happen.
Brooks is part of Launch Pad, a program that gives students resources to take an idea and turn it into a real business.
“When students show initiative, it’s imperative that we foster it,” said Jeff Vanevenhoven, assistant professor of management at UW-Whitewater and Launch Pad co-director. “Economic activity happens through new businesses.”
Vanevenhoven and six other UW-Whitewater faculty members serve as mentors, using their experience and business know-how to help students advance their ideas.
The work happens at the Innovation Center, a business incubator for entrepreneurs on the city’s east side, and the first building constructed in Whitewater University Technology Park. UW-Whitewater reserved a suite known as the iHub, complete with technology, offices and space to allow students to develop their business ideas.
Launch Pad exemplifies the combination of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in the College of Business and Economics that makes UW-Whitewater a leader in education and economic growth.
Nine young entrepreneurs were accepted into the first Launch Pad program. Every Monday, the group meets to talk business before sharing lunch. Conversations are informal and motivational, dealing with a variety of topics, like how to take credit card payments over the phone or whether a business should be registered as a limited liability company or C corporation.
“It’s not theory anymore. It’s real business experience,” Brooks said. “It’s encountering a problem today and figuring out how to fix it by tomorrow.”
Brooks’ idea is to manufacture a portable hang board for rock climbers to practice indoors. Current products on the market require people to fasten the boards to a wall or door frame using large screws. Brooks’ prototype is removable and doesn’t damage walls. Plus, it features interchangeable grips so people can customize their workouts.
“It’s a niche product, but a really good idea,” Vanevenhoven said.
Brooks traveled to a national outdoor trade show to get a sense of the competition. When he launches his product later, he will be up against entrepreneurs with more money and name recognition.
Still, he’s determined to succeed.
“They may have the resources, but they’re not going to outwork me,” he said.
Participation in Launch Pad is voluntary and extracurricular. The hours students spend working on their business ideas are their own. They receive neither course credit nor pay for participating. It’s a shared commitment between the students and their mentors.
“These are passionate students with an indomitable spirit,” Vanevenhoven said. “They make me want to work harder.”
“These kinds of students attract one another,” said William Dougan, Irvin L. Young Professor of Entrepreneurship and Launch Pad co-director. “They’ll push and grill one another on their presentations and ideas.”
Phone calls and brainstorming sessions lasting well into the early hours of the morning are common. Justin Nothem, a senior entrepreneurship major, drove to Oklahoma to purchase a vending cart for his hot dog business, College Dogs.
“To be able to operate my business on downtown streets I had to learn the permit system,” Nothem said. “I was on the phone every other day with the city clerk working things out.”
“We hear from so many entrepreneurs who say they wish they had this kind of experience when they went to school,” Dougan said. “Real estate agents will tell you it’s all about location, location, location. In business, it’s all about people, people, people.”
Some Launch Pad students have taken that advice to heart, focusing their business plans on helping others.
Mehul Kar, a senior finance student from Fairfield, Iowa, and David Quintero-Rojas, a senior international studies student from Colombia, wanted their business to be socially responsible. Through their company, FridgeWaves, they rent appliances to college students and use the money they earn to provide microloans to borrowers in Third World countries.
“We’re providing something of value to people, and breaking the cycle of poverty,” Kar said. “Our customers feel like they are making a difference.”
Two international students – Sara Amiri of Morocco and Maxim Abdusselimov of Kazakhstan – founded a global academic network, Peer2Connect.com. The website is a place where international students can interact with other international students, find information like immigration requirements or locate specialized academic services like history or language tutoring.
“Launch Pad was our accountability,” Amiri said. “We had to be ready every Monday with our work progress, and ready to problem-solve.”
“It was a real confidence-builder,” Abdusselimov said. “Not only did we learn how to develop a business idea, we learned how to pitch it.”
Between the two of them, Amiri and Abdusselimov speak seven languages. Judges in the fifth annual Stateline “Fastpitch” Elevator Competition, held in Rockford, Ill., were so impressed by the pair that they awarded them first prize and $1,000.
Other Launch Pad students have also won prestigious competitions for their business ideas.
Student entrepreneurs behind Renwig Custom, a company that builds retro-style guitar amplifiers, won first place and $5,000 in the BizStarts Mason Wells Business Plan Contest as well as UW-Whitewater’s own Warhawk Business Plan Contest, which comes with a $5,000 prize. Nothem captured the People’s Choice Award and won second place in the National Elevator Pitch Contest in Dallas.
“We expect many of these businesses to succeed and to stay in Wisconsin,” said Robert Boostrom, a Launch Pad mentor and assistant professor of marketing. “Launch Pad is an engine for economic growth within the region.”
Growth opportunities extend to the UW-Whitewater campus, too, promoting collaborations between Launch Pad and university departments.
“New businesses have a variety of needs,” Boostrom said. “Those needs relate to different majors, and we’re able to tap into faculty expertise and student skills to help.”
For example, public relations students are helping entrepreneurs craft advertising campaigns. Marketing students are assisting with search engine optimization and targeting consumers. Computer science students are building websites and apps.
Other Launch Pad faculty mentors include Ann Knabe, lecturer of communication; Renee Melton, associate professor of art; Seth Meisel, associate dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education; Sameer Prasad, professor of management; and Denise Ehlen, director of Research and Sponsored Programs.
“Even if their businesses don’t succeed, these students are getting incredible experience — combining book knowledge and working in the trenches,” Boostrom said.
Students are expected to make mistakes, said Dougan. “Not every idea will work and that’s OK,” he said. “That’s the benefit of being immersed in a semi-sheltered business program.”
“It’s pretty amazing that the university is willing to make that kind of commitment to help us succeed,” Brooks said. “Launch Pad is pushing us further than anyone thought we could go.”
For more information on Launch Pad, contact the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at 262-472-5212.