With more than 100 ventures successfully initiated since 1999 and many of those businesses still in existence, UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Launching the Venture program has been helping entrepreneurs at various stages in their business careers for years. An intense but rewarding process that covers three Mods from feasibility to business planning to financing, the program offers teams the opportunity to shape a business concept from the ground up. With the help of UNC Kenan-Flagler professors Patrick Vernon, Ted Zoller and Randy Myer, as well as almost 100 business men and women in the area who serve as team coaches throughout the year, a number of teams that have participated in the 2012-2013 cycle are poised for success.
The youngest participant in the program as a first-year undergraduate, Taylor Robinette has flown solo in developing a new social networking website called LifeClickz via Launching the Venture. As a double major in business management and computer science, Robinette was in middle school when he began formulating the idea for LifeClickz, a site designed to create social interactions that mimic those in real life.
LifeClickz offers multiple, dynamic levels of friendship and more user-friendly mobile frameworks. “I see serious flaws with the current social networking sites,” Robinette says. “It’s just about seeing a problem and wanting to fix it; wanting something better not only for yourself but for everyone else.” While Robinette has recently dropped out of the program to develop his idea further before approaching investors, he says Launching the Venture was extremely helpful in turning his concept into a reality.
“Launch really helped me formalize the business plan and get what’s in my head onto paper,” Robinette says. “The connections I made were awesome and the professors were also my mentors. They have been great resources.” Robinette, who hopes to eventually get funding to develop a beta site, will launch the website first at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University, before expanding to other schools and the public. “If we can take the solution we have and implement it in the way I think we can, it should be pretty dangerous,” he says.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of businesses to emerge from the program is Blue Ridge Lighting Solutions, an LED lighting company founded by Sara Paisner, Michael Peña, Randy Faucette and Rodney Bame. With more than 70 years of combined experience in lighting and engineering, the Blue Ridge team had already been working for a year and a half to get the company off the ground before participating in Launching the Venture this year.
“We decided to get professional help in creating a business plan, and it’s been enormously helpful having the coaches to give their advice throughout the program,” says Paisner, the only team member currently studying at UNC Kenan-Flagler for her MBA. “When you’ve been developing a product for as long as we have, you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and what you see can be different from what other people see as the advantage, so the coaches helped us tease out what our competitive advantage really is.”
Blue Ridge Lighting Solutions targets the industrial manufacturing sector, which requires high quality and quantity of light that can endure environments with constant operation of heavy machinery. The company’s innovative LED design offers a linear, homogeneous fixture that produces light from end to end without casting shadows, and is tailored to produce more than 90% of light on the actual work surface. Paisner says the team will pitch their design to angel investors in April with the goal of obtaining $500,000 to pursue aggressive market expansion after completing Launching the Venture.
“The biggest thing that’s amazing about the program is the coaches,” Paisner says. “We pitched to the people who started MapQuest – that’s the level of people they have. They’re entrepreneurs who have gone through what we’re going through and have great advice.”
Open to students, faculty and staff at UNC-Chapel Hill, Launching the Venture includes lectures, workshops and coaching sessions across the three Mods. Teams must show some sort of traction or commitment to pursuing an idea to be accepted into the program, and once accepted gain access to an extensive network of professionals with years of business experience.
Professor Randy Myer, who has taught the third Mod on financing for the past 11 years, says the value in Launching the Venture is that it’s an experiential learning class. “From a learning point of view, the program pulls together many disciplines of a business school education, including marketing, finance, operations and leadership,” Myer says. “What students have learned in other classes becomes applicable in this integrative course. And, what’s more is that the teams get adult supervision from people in the entrepreneurial community that dedicate much of their time to the program.”