By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Lia Winter recalls the advice that her grandfather offered her when he said, “Who you know will get you there, but then you’re on your own.”
The Pennsylvania native is clearly following his advice while pursuing two graduate degrees at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) and a medical device start-up. In many respects, either one could be a full-time undertaking. Winter took four classes in the Fall Semester and is enrolled in five this semester to complete her dual Masters’ Degrees in Business Administration and Biomedical Engineering and graduate in May. She’s also taking advantage of every network she can tap and connection she can make to be a successful entrepreneur.
“My days are really busy,” Winter says. We first spotlighted her entrepreneurial interests last September in this Q&A on teknovation.biz. Since then, we’ve seen Winter at almost any event where entrepreneurs and those who support them gather. Those ranged from the “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” in Nashville in August to “Startup Day Knoxville” in September; “SEC Student Pitch Competition” in October in College Station, TX; and the National Science Foundation’s Fall Regional I-Corps program.
Winter says she is driven in many respects by a “hunger for more knowledge.” That motivation has caused her to connect with anyone who can help advance the idea for EasyWhip, her start-up that was birthed out of a senior design class at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We were asked to think of an unmet medical need, come up with a solution, and do everything from prototyping to developing an FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) design history file,” the then undergraduate student in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering explained.
“I came up with the idea of a needle to be used for orthopedic reconstruction procedures like ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery,” Winter said. “I didn’t think it was going anywhere (after the class project).”
Shortly after arriving at UTK in 2017, that outlook changed when she attended a faculty event and sat next to Lynn Youngs, Executive Director of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) in the Haslam College of Business. The Center is focused on helping student entrepreneurs.
“I told him about the idea, then pitched in a ‘Vol Court’ competition, and won,” she said. “It took off from there.”
Taking-off included the $1,500 top prize for winning “Vol Court” and another $12,500 from the “Boyd Venture Challenge” last academic year.
“I came back this fall (from an internship at Dish Network) and hit the ground running,” Winter says. Those activities include working with Brian Krumm and students in the UTK Business Clinic (see our recent teknovation.biz post about that program) to convert her company to a limited liability corporation, filing a full patent, representing UTK in the SEC competition, and participating in the I-Corps program.
“The I-Corps program was a really good experience,” Winter said. It is focused on customer discovery and validation, and she completed 20 interviews with prospective customers and others knowledgeable about the sector.
“I was surprised at how receptive people have been,” she noted.
Along the way, Winter has secured a business partner – Ryan Cunningham, an undergraduate student entrepreneur who is the Founder of Campus Car, a ridesharing concept. “He’s doing the business and management side,” she says. That includes talking with prospective contract manufacturers.
So, what happens after graduation this May?
Winter has a full-time job offer that she’s still evaluating. If she and Cunningham gain sufficient traction and win a few more competitions, she may follow the entrepreneurial path. What started-out as a class project has become much more than just that.