WMU officials hope the Starting Gate program will produce entrepreneurs who will have a positive effect on Kalamazoo's business community. Courtesy Thinkstock
Western Michigan University has added an educational catalyst to the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem of Kalamazoo.
That catalyst fired up this summer with the birth of Starting Gate, WMU’s new business accelerator program. WMU students with business startup ideas can submit applications to enroll in the program for one semester and receive access to resources that can turn their business dreams into reality.
The students spend their time in the semester-long program developing their business ideas, working with faculty and local business mentors and receiving extra training through monthly entrepreneurial forums, said WMU’s Robert Landeros, interim director of the Haworth College of Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
As students develop their businesses ideas, the program connects them to networks of faculty, local businesses and outside entrepreneurs who can offer feedback.
The students also attend a planned series of events to guide their progress, he said.
Students must attend a Mentor Day, when they are matched with a mentor in their field; a Demo Day, when they must demonstrate their prototypes to members of the business community and WMU; a Media Day, when they present their ideas before the media; and finally, at the end of the year, an Investor Day, when they present their ideas to investors to receive feedback and possible funding.
Starting Gate is looking to grow a group of WMU alumni who have the entrepreneurial spirit, Landeros said.
“If we can help these students create local businesses that can help the economy, that’s one thing,” he said. “The other goal is to give the students an opportunity to learn and to grow. Businesses do fail, and sometimes that first idea will mutate into something else — or, as the entrepreneurs call it, pivot. … This is their first try at it.”
The program, operated by the Haworth College of Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, is run out of the Business Technology and Research Park, a high-tech business development that shares WMU’s 265-acre Parkview Campus with the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
It’s the perfect location, Landeros said, because Kalamazoo — hometown to companies like Upjohn and Gibson Guitar — is a great place to train the next generation of business leaders and welcome them into the city’s entrepreneurial culture.
Starting Gate, currently free of charge to students, kicked off this summer with a pilot program. Of the 20 students who applied, only five of the student-initiated business ideas were chosen for the program’s first run, Landeros said.
One of those first businesses — Xcheapskate — developed a website for bargain hunting and is still among the current eight student companies in Starting Gate’s fall cohort.
Although Starting Gate is still young and no student company has yet struck gold, Xcheapskate, developed by students Daniel May and David Seldon, is a favorite success story of John Mueller, an assistant professor of management at WMU who works with Starting Gate.
Mueller said the business accelerator program is something students were asking for and he’s hopeful its function as a higher education interface with the Kalamazoo community’s startup ecosystem will lead to an increase in WMU’s future enrollment.
WMU also is working to develop a degree in entrepreneurship, he said, and when that’s in place, Starting Gate will connect to it.
“This is just one of the many things going on here in Kalamazoo in terms of the startup community,” Mueller said.
“I hope the students learn how to build a business, whether it works or not. This gives students a chance to try doing something about their ideas while at the university they’re enrolled in.”