TechArb accelerator taking on more student entrepreneurs

By Alyssa Adler, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 6, 2011

Student entrepreneurs looking to develop start-ups won’t have to look further than The Offices at Liberty Square — the new home of the TechArb Student Startup Accelerator.

After moving into the larger space on East Washington Street, TechArb is preparing to take on about 20 student business teams in addition to the several returning groups. In addition to increasing the number of students, the accelerator is expanding its contacts.

“This year, we will be bringing in more partners (venture capitalists, alumni, local and national business leaders) to connect help support ventures to scale and grow,” Moses Lee, an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Entrepreneurship who helps to manage TechArb, wrote in an e-mail interview.

Founded in 2009, TechArb is the product of a collaboration between the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. Its goal is to help student entrepreneurs pursue their start-up ideas and reach their businesses’ full potential — whether that be furthering their research for their business idea or helping them market their product.

Lee expressed enthusiasm for student entrepreneurs at the University given their strong academic backgrounds.

“UM has so many top 10 schools in the nation,” Lee wrote. “Imagine if we can bring students across these schools together to work on 'change the world' ventures. We would give silicon valley a run for its money!”

Paul Kirsch, an associate director of the Zell Lurie Institute who also helps manage TechArb, said the accelerator hopes to connect with more students and host a greater number of events in its new space, which moved in September from its former location in the McKinley Town Centre across the street.

“We also want to engage a larger community of student entrepreneurs, and not just the ones that are officially tenants of TechArb,” he said. “The previous space was functional but didn’t have enough room for any event that was bigger than a few dozen people.”

In addition to TechArb’s weekly advisory sessions, Kirsch said the accelerator holds monthly board meetings to update staff members on the progress of each business team and challenges each group faces. TechArb also facilitates networking opportunities for students to help them further their businesses, according to Lee.

“This upcoming year, we are going to do more to catalyze community, engage more mentors from the area and connect student teams to funding opportunities,” Lee wrote. “Our hope is that TechArb becomes the best in class student incubator in the world. We have already seen several student teams receive venture capital funding or get bought out.”

One of the companies that has secured capital funding and reaped many benefits from working with TechArb is Giant Eel Productions, a company that works on innovations for 3-D media. University alum Edmund Zagorin, a Giant Eel executive producer, wrote in an e-mail interview that TechArb’s close-knit community of businesses inspired the company to take the risk of starting a business and helped him and his colleagues avoid certain mistakes.

“One of our first video production clients was a TechArb company and provided us an amazing experience to gain feedback and build relationships,” Zagorin wrote.

Benjamin Blackmer also said TechArb’s constant support helped develop his team’s company, called “Are You a Human?” The business gives websites a new way to verify that users are actual people, and not robots. The company’s option is an alternative to a program that generates distorted words that users must translate.

TechArb isn’t looking for one specific start-up to join the accelerator, but a diverse group of students with a range of different business ideas and companies in a variety of stages, Kirsch said.

“It’s an environment where students can learn from each other as well as from the whims and learning moments the other teams experience as well,” he said.

Among the qualities TechArb looks for in its applicants include a drive to succeed and a willingness to be coached, according to Lee. Zagorin echoed the importance of having these qualities.

“If you want to apply to TechArb, be honest about how much time and energy you have to commit to your vision,” Zagorin wrote.

He added that TechArb is “good at helping people with neither a business or engineering background."

"So don't be scared off if your company idea doesn't fit the profile of a high-tech start-up,” he wrote.