U-M Sweeps Accelerate Michigan Competition

Student and Alumni Entrepreneurs Bring Home More Than $650K at One of North America’s Largest Business Competitions Awards 


University of Michigan student and alumni entrepreneurs took home the top prizes at the 5th annual Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition on Friday. The $500,000 grand prize went to Sky Specs, LLC – a company leading the way in drone safety with software that eliminates collisions. The second place prize of $100,000 was awarded to Cribspot which aims to revolutionize how college students find and manage their off-campus housing. AlertWatch and Turtle Cell,  both with founders from U-M, each took home $25,000. U-M dance student Kiri Chapman was among the student winners, clinching $5,000 for her new venture, HeelSecret.

Accelerate Michigan aims to connect later-stage entrepreneurial companies with national and international investors, and showcases the best and brightest businesses to the investment community in order to foster engagement and economic growth. Competition founders include the Business Leaders for Michigan, the University Research Corridor (Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University) the New Economy Initiative, and the region’s four key business accelerators: Ann Arbor SPARK, Automation Alley, Macomb-OU INCubator, and Tech Town. More than $1 million in cash prizes plus awards of services, staffing and software was up for grabs. University of Michigan alumni and students took home the bulk of this year’s prize money, and were joined by several Ann Arbor based winners.

“We’re super excited about the win!” said SkySpecs CTO Ryan Morton. “It is quite amazing how far we’ve come as a team and individually from the halls of Computer Science and Engineering, Aerospace, and the Wilson Center.  There are lots of people back on campus that have helped us along the way.”

The team says the new resources will allow them to launch a beta-program to get their product into the hands of drone operators. They plan to increase their operational tempo with some new hires to help improve current technology and business processes. They’re also getting help from TechStars, through the R/GA Accelerator in New Your City as part of an exclusive group tailored toward connected devices and “Internet of Things” startups.

CEO Danny Ellis credits U-M resources for much of SkySpecs’ success. “We are here today because of support from the Center for Entrepreneurship, the engineering dean’s office, TechArb, and countless others around the university,” he said. “These mentors have helped us through the struggles of raising money, learning the legal frameworks of business, and maintaining the confidence to start and continue SkySpecs. Everyday we’re learning new skills and doing a different piece of the puzzle – not too much different than back at the Wilson Center.” See more about the SkySpecs story.

After taking entrepreneurial classes at U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship, where they learned what it takes to start a business, Jason Okrasinski and Cribspot’s other founders realized that it was possible for their idea to turn into a real opportunity. They launched the Cribspot website in the fall of their senior year, and since then have helped over 90,000 students find housing in a simple, easy and efficient way. Although relatively new, Cribspot appears poised for success and in addition to Friday’s Accelerate Michigan prize, has raised $660,000 from venture capitalist firms.

“It was awesome to see so much enthusiasm for Michigan based start-ups. The competition seemed to be especially strong this year, so it’s exciting that two U-M startups stood out as the most innovative,” said Okrasinski. The Cribspot team plans on using the winnings to hire a mobile engineer and focus on accelerating growth on several campuses.

“This is another great example of the remarkable entrepreneurial talent coming out of the University of Michigan,” said senior counselor to the provost on entrepreneurship education Thomas Zurbuchen. “The university has a long history of arming our students with the entrepreneurial skills needed to succeed through programs in business, engineering, law, and more. And we’re making great progress expanding and uniting this network across the university so that students from all backgrounds can benefit.”

In addition to the business competition, Accelerate Michigan hosted a business venture idea contest for student-led teams from throughout the state of Michigan. Eight U-M students pitched for the student competition. Students were judged on content, structure, delivery and creativity and were eligible to win $15,000 in prizes to help launch their venture.

Kiri Chapman’s journey began with a practicum course, part of the Center for Entrepreneurship’s Program in Entrepreneurship. “I had heard about it from a friend and had just enough open credits to squeeze the 9 credit program into my schedule,” she said.  “I learned a lot in that class, but perhaps most importantly I gained the personal contacts, and through them the confidence to pursue an idea I had, HeelSecret.”  HeelSecret aims to solve the problem of slipping and uncomfortable high-heels.

“There were some incredible pitches and really innovative ideas, so I was really honored and slightly surprised to win second place,” said Chapman. She plans on using the money to fund the next round of HeelSecret prototypes. Combined with support from Ann Arbor SPARK, she expects to file a patent before the end of the year.

For Chapman and the other competitors, opportunities like Accelerate Michigan are crucial for getting new ventures off the ground.  They not only help bring together entrepreneurial companies with local and national investment capital, but also provide current and aspiring entrepreneurs opportunities to network and receive feedback.

Entrepreneurship programs and activities all across campus help students to prepare for events like Accelerate Michigan, and there are several competitions right here at U-M that provide cash for entrepreneurs. Among them is the Zell Lurie Institute’s Michigan Business Challenge, which takes participants through the entire cycle of new venture creation from creating a strong pitch to conducting a marketing and financial assessment and writing a comprehensive business plan. Students across campus, from undergrad to PhD are eligible for prizes totaling over $75,000. This is one of several opportunities available to enterprising U-M students. The good news is that the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus is thriving and has many resources available to help students get the funding they need to give their ventures a boost.


Comments (2)
  • andrew

    November 14, 2014

    I’m on the fence when it comes to promoting entrepreneurship in college. For me institution of college seems to promote staying in comfort zone and NOT trying new things. But this seems interesting, I admit.

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