(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series focused on opportunities for University of Tennessee, Knoxville students to hone their entrepreneurial ideas.)
As noted in our set-up article for this series, the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Knoxville campus is a key player in the institution’s activities to help students hone their entrepreneurial aspirations.
The Center offers three competitions, each with a monetary award that helps students. The programs are the twice-a-year “Vol Court Speaker Series & Pitch Competition,” “Graves Business Plan Competition,” and “Boyd Venture Challenge.”
We wanted to know how these initiatives helped students, so we asked several past winners to share their thoughts. Our first response came from Lia Winter, a graduate student pursuing both an MBA and a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering. She is a native of Pittsburgh, PA and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in April 2017 with a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering.
What stimulated you to become interested in entrepreneurship? My background is in biomedical engineering, and I’ve always been interested in working to develop new biological or healthcare-related innovations. During undergrad, I had an amazing opportunity to intern for an orthopedics biomedical engineering company in the research and development department. I loved working so closely with the products, but by the end of the summer I realized that I wanted to know even more about how the work I was doing in the lab impacted the company overall. I decided to apply to dual MBA/MS graduate programs and ended up coming to the University of Tennessee. As I started learning about business topics like marketing, accounting, finance, and management in my MBA classes, I found it extremely exciting to think about how I could apply these concepts in a biomedical engineering context. I actually happened to meet the Director of the Anderson Center, Lynn Youngs, at an MBA networking event. We started talking about entrepreneurship and innovation, and I thought it would be a great environment to practice applying what I was learning in my business courses to an engineering idea. So I decided to get involved in the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and it’s all history from there.
What is the name of the current idea or actual start-up that you are pursuing and will you briefly describe it? My invention is called EasyWhip, and it is a modification to the current whip stitching needle that is used during orthopedic reconstruction procedures, like ACL surgery. EasyWhip’s inherent value is that it has dual cost savings for providers as well as patients. My product reduces the time that the graft preparation process takes and improves consistency, which decreases the incidence of technical errors and improves patient outcomes.
Is it your first venture or were there others? If others, what were they? This is my first venture!
How has the Anderson Center programming helped you advance your current project/start-up? I pitched an idea in a 90-second elevator pitch competition called “Vol Court” and won first place. I was awarded $1,500 and several services to help me start a business. I used the money to get a sole proprietorship license, and I also filed a provisional patent application to protect my idea. I then pitched my invention and business plan in the “Boyd Venture Challenge” and was awarded $12,500 in seed funding. There are so many resources available for students who have ideas and are interested in starting a business at the Anderson Center, and I am extremely grateful for all the mentorship and services they have provided me with. Without the help of the Anderson Center, I definitely would not be where I am today.
On a different note, after winning the Boyd Venture Challenge, I have also had such an amazing wave of support from people outside of the Anderson Center. The judges of the competition helped put me in touch with their contacts for IP lawyers, venture capitalists, and other engineers. I’ve had two UT alumni who created healthcare start-ups reach out to me to share their experiences and wisdom to help guide me along my entrepreneurial journey. I think it’s a really unique culture at UT and in Tennessee in general – people are willing to go out of their way to help students and budding entrepreneurs succeed.
What are your entrepreneurial plans going forward, either with the idea on which you won or generally? I would like to continue to pursue intellectual property for EasyWhip and potentially license the product to a medical device company. I also have other ideas that I would like to develop to help make whip stitching easier.