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ASU student-entrepreneurs get a running start

Grant program helps further student start-up companies

SCOTTSDALE – Mark Sholin’s desk is littered with handwritten notes about deadlines, leads and operational details that must be addressed before his start-up company launches in three months.

He and three others in his management team are out to show that ARBSource can manage the wastewater of food and beverage production plants in a more energy- and cost-efficient way. So far, they have one client: a brewery.

“The market opportunity is huge, and I want to take advantage of it,” Sholin said.

But there are marked differences between ARBSource and other startups, beginning with its location: SkySong, Arizona State University’s innovation center. For a year that ends in June, Sholin and his team have received free workspace along with a $10,000 grant and mentorship arranged by the university.

In the cubicle next to his, someone is working to get a disc jockey service off the ground. Down the hall is a fledgling snowsports apparel company.

Each of these startups benefited from the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, which since 2005 has selected up to 20 student business plans per year to foster at SkySong.

“Edson was where things got started,” said Sholin, whose business plan won in 2011. “The learning curve for me and ARBSource was accelerated by ASU’s resources.”

The program is made possible by a $5.4 million grant from Orin Edson, founder of Bayliner Marine Corp., a manufacturer of pleasure and luxury boats. Students receive varying amounts of money depending on their needs out of $200,000 available each year.

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Will Curran, an ASU senior who received the Edson grant in 2010 and 2011, is using the program to expand Arizona Pro DJs, a teen entertainment company he founded in 2007.

“You always hear the 1 percent success stories, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses, but you never hear about the people who stay in school and start a business,” Curran said. “Programs like Edson encourage people to start working on their businesses now. While it’s hard because you have to juggle more stuff, it’s actually easier because you have so many resources available.”

Gordon McConnell, executive director for venture acceleration at SkySong, said a good idea often isn’t enough to make a business work.

“Everyone thinks they have the next big thing,” he said. “The great thing about Edson is that it provides the resources and mentorship necessary for success.”

McConnell oversees the Edson program as well as Venture Catalyst, a program helping faculty, students and companies aligned with ASU to launch startups or build on existing ventures.

He said these programs stem from a larger initiative fostering innovation and entrepreneurship at ASU.

“Entrepreneurship is nicely spread throughout ASU,” McConnell said. “Teaching it gives students a grasp of the flavor and art of it, and programs like Edson help students take what they learned and put it into action.”

Almost a year after transitioning away from Edson, Jeff Kunowski said his business, Illumin8 Outdoor Media LLC, which sells portable lighted signs, benefited from the time he spent at SkySong.

“I learned a lot from the different internships I’ve had, but Edson was the first real validation for my idea,” he said. “The office space and mentoring were really helpful in launching me from an idea to a successful business.”

It’s easy to get distracted thinking about the future of a venture, said Kunowski, a 2010 Edson winner. He said he encourages other student entrepreneurs to stay in the present.

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“Remain fully engaged in your project,” he said. “Talk to as many mentors as possible and do your research. Ideas are good, but they’re nothing without execution.”

Brent Sebold, program manager for the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative within the Venture Catalyst, said the program has established a network that helps students.

“We are here to help startups be successful, especially ones that have high potential for job creation,” Sebold said. “In a down economy, people are looking at going into business on their own. If you don’t have a job, you find problems, create solutions and commercialize the solutions. That’s what we’re doing here.”

After almost a year in the encouraging environment of SkySong, Sholin is facing a summer that will test everything he’s learned. If ARBSource fails, however, he said that it wouldn’t be a complete loss.

“If that happened I would be devastated of course, but I would be really happy to take the skills I have learned and the connections I have made and share those with others who are trying to innovate in the water industry,” he said.

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Devin McIntyre/Cronkite News Service

Mark Sholin received a year of free workspace at Arizona State University’s Skysong innovation center in Scottsdale to launch a business that manages wastewater for food and beverage production plants. His business plan was selected for the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, which also provides grants up to $20,000 and mentorship.

The Edson program

  • Began in 2005
  • Launched with a $5.4 million donation from Orin Edson, founder of Bayliner Marine Corp., a manufacturer of pleasure and luxury boats.
  • Benefits up to 20 ventures a year, providing varying amounts of funding up to $20,000 at a maximum of $200,000 a year.
  • Recipients have 24/7 access to a cubicle and conference rooms in ASU SkySong and are matched with mentors.