Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute at Michigan / Ross
CA: Are there any particular companies that started at Ross that still stand out to you today?
ST: My history at Ross is relatively short, since I’ve only been here since 2013. I’ll mention a couple of companies that are still early-stage, but I think interesting and I think worth watching.
One is called Neurable, which is a mash-up of the words “neuroscience” and “wearable.” It’s a headset you can put on and effectively control things in the real world by your brainwaves.
I used an early prototype, about a year ago. They won a lot of money in business plan competitions when they graduated. The founders are an MBA student, a former military officer and a PhD in neuroscience. They’ve built a team, raised some money, relocated to Boston, and are continuing to grow the company. It’s one of these that’s almost “science-fictiony” ideas, but it is really interesting.
Another company that came out of our program a couple of years ago, which is now located in Chicago, is called Mindwell. Their product is a vegan jerky. It’s a mushroom-based product that replicates beef jerky, but obviously for the vegetarian and vegan market, which is huge and growing. Honestly, I was a little skeptical when I heard about it, but I tasted some of their products about six months ago and was impressed. I think they may be on to something as well.
CA: What are you most excited about at the Center right now?
ST: I work with a group of students, called the Founders Fund. What makes the Founders Fund different than the other funds is, it includes a student from each of our four fund courses: Our Social Venture Fund, our Wolverine Venture Fund, the Undergrad Fund, and our Commercialization Fund. The five of us invest in companies that are led by graduates within their first year of graduation. So, we’re 100% focused on investing in and helping facilitate the growth of student-led companies.
We target those companies because that first round of capital is often very hard to get. The two ventures that I mentioned, Mindwell and Neurable, are both in our portfolio of companies that we invested in as they launched. We are really looking for those gems that are coming out of the University ecosystem, and doing our part in helping get them started. Hopefully if we make some good bets and make some good investments in these companies, not only will they get started, and grow, and thrive and prosper, but if we have a positive return on our investment, that goes back into the Fund and helps finance the growth of more companies in the future.
CA: Is there anything else you’d like to cover?
ST: One of the most encouraging things is that even though across the country there’s clearly been a historical under-representation of women and minority students in populations of Entrepreneurship and Venture Investing, when I look at our funds at Ross, we are starting to make headway on those under-represented populations. More and more are participating, taking significant roles and contributing to the growth and overall quality of our programs. I think that’s something that’s been a long time coming, but that we are actually starting to see some movement on now.
CA: Speaking of trends, what do you see as up-coming trends in entrepreneurship?
ST: There have always been these “flash-in-the-pan” trends: One year, every business plan you see is an app, the next year every business plan focuses on block-chain. More recently, we’ve been seeing activity around the cannabis industry as it has been legalized. I think any given industry or sector has its bursts of popularity, but the larger trend that underlies all of that is—Entrepreneurship has moved from being a marginal goal for students, to something that is mainstream and something that is on equal footing with some of the more traditional business school pursuits: Consulting, Consumer Package Goods, and Finance.
It used to be that entrepreneurs had to mumble, “Yeah, I want to be an entrepreneur” because it didn’t have the legitimacy of the other tracks. I think that is now changing. Entrepreneurship has become something that’s much more aspirational than it has been at any point in the past.