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A Startup for Every Student

Four years later, CREATE-X founders look back

Jan 22, 2018

CREATE X statistics

Four years ago, Georgia Tech alumnus Chris Klaus had a vision of what a true startup culture could look like at Georgia Tech. As an entrepreneur himself and Atlanta business leader, Klaus felt that enabling students to run their own businesses would be the most instructive way to encourage entrepreneurship. For years, he pitched his concept for a startup program, hoping to create a formalized group at Tech for students. Klaus talked to the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) in Tech Square and worked with Flashpoint, a program that combines training and mentorship in startup engineering concepts and techniques, to bring his vision to life. But neither organization focused specifically on students. Finally, Klaus met with Ravi Bellamkonda, former chair of the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, who agreed that a startup accelerator for students was necessary for Tech, and they had the idea to use the summer co-op internship program to enable students to create their own businesses and “intern at their own company.”

“Startup accelerators have been successful elsewhere, but Georgia Tech is the first and only university in the world that supports a startup accelerator exclusively for students,” Klaus said. “The accelerator sits inside the academic side of the university, so that all students are touched by it.”

Klaus at Product Day

At the same time Klaus was working on his startup accelerator model, Steve McLaughlin, former chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and now dean of the College of Engineering and Southern Company chair, noticed there was a problem on campus. He realized students were creating new applications, devices, and technologies, even getting patents, but they didn’t know how to take their inventions to market.

“A winning team from InVenture Prize approached me with their patent and seed money and asked, ‘What do we do next?’ and I said, ‘Go talk to people!’” McLaughlin recalls. “I realized students needed a platform to learn how to advance their ideas and take them to market. That was my ‘ah-ha moment’ that we needed a way to teach students about startups.”

The next day, McLaughlin ran into his electrical engineering colleague and Wayne J. Holman Chair, Raghupathy “Siva” Sivakumar, and told him about his conversation with the students. Sivakumar, who had successfully launched a number of startups on his own, immediately agreed that a student startup program needed to happen. As McLaughlin and Sivakumar looked into how to get a program off the ground, they shared it with Bellamkonda and quickly learned about Klaus’ plan to leverage a startup accelerator model to drive entrepreneurship for students.

And when the four of them finally put their ideas together, CREATE-X was born, with Klaus serving as the program’s founding donor, making a $2 million philanthropic commitment. He was also the initial investor to provide outside seed funding resources, which have recently surpassed the $1 million mark. Klaus previously funded an endowment, which has grown to $1 million, to support entrepreneurship education for computer science students at Tech.

“The support CREATE-X received early on from senior leadership at Georgia Tech gave me the confidence to invest,” Klaus said. “I knew CREATE-X wouldn’t just be a project on a shelf. The president and provost could really see the value of giving students a chance to build their own businesses.”

Today, CREATE-X has grown to include more than 2,000 student participants and 75 faculty member mentors. The program is divided into three phases: Learn, Make, and Launch. Students get to explore entrepreneurship through the ultimate experiential learning mode — launching their own startups with seed funding, legal assistance, and intensive coaching.

Steve McLaughlin and student

McLaughlin learning about startup Top Time Coffee

The three phases of the program are the natural progression of a startup. Today, “maker spaces” around campus allow students to create products. But the ultimate step is the Launch phase of taking the product to market. Many students come into CREATE-X with an idea, and the program either nurtures it and helps it come to life or refines it to make it better. For students who don’t have a startup idea, the program helps them discover what they want to do.

“When I was at Tech, there was nothing like this, nothing that encouraged students to be entrepreneurs,” Klaus said. “The startup culture here is fairly new. We’ve been able to change the culture and create the expectation that, as a student, you can go off and build a valuable product, and CREATE-X will help you take that idea to market.”

Along with his initial gifts to the program, Klaus continues to fund the program with seed money for startups in the Launch phase. He considers this an important early investment to help get the startups funded.

“From a value creation standpoint, if you look at the student startup, even with a small $20,000 seed money investment, it immediately gains value,” he said. “If the startup shows signs of success, attracting customers and revenue, the value becomes even greater.”

Reaching all students

Experts are finding that students today have a passion to change the world, and entrepreneurship through startups gives them a way to do that, as well as control their own destinies. They start out at Tech thinking “How can I give back and make a positive change in the world?” and CREATE-X enables them to be agents for change.

“We define entrepreneurship as pursuing an opportunity that’s beyond the resources that you control,” Sivakumar said. “It’s a life skill that every student needs when they go out into the world. When they leave Tech, we hope they have the entrepreneurial confidence that they can go into the world and be successful.”

Siva teaching

Sivakumar teaching a CREATE-X Learn class

Many students who participate in CREATE-X would have been entrepreneurs no matter what, but 80 percent of the students in the program would not have been exposed to entrepreneurialism otherwise. CREATE-X hopes to grow this number even higher in the coming years, with a 10-year goal of 300 startups per year with 100 percent participation from every Tech student.

McLaughlin, Klaus, and Sivakumar all agree that entrepreneurial confidence is a critical life skill for all students to have upon graduating from Tech, not just engineers.

“Ultimately, it’s a skill set that creates self-assurance,” Klaus said. “It helps students understand how to put their ideas into action, which can be applied outside of the entrepreneurial world as well.”

“More than almost any other program that we have here at Tech, this one really empowers students because it connects them to customers, and they learn how to execute marketing strategies and become profitable,” McLaughlin said. “CREATE-X has tapped into the many abilities of our students, and they have really latched onto the idea of starting companies in a way I didn’t anticipate. The energy around CREATE-X continues to grow each year.”

Becoming No. 1

CREATE-X is working hard to differentiate itself from other startup programs around the country and it is intent on Georgia Tech becoming the No. 1 startup campus in the nation. Already, it has a scale that other programs do not, with more than 1,200 students enrolling in the program this year. At Tech, CREATE-X is the only entity exclusively focused on student entrepreneurship, and students are taking notice.

According to Klaus, the most unique aspect of CREATE-X is the Launch phase, giving students a platform to build their startups. Tech is extremely supportive of students who are focused on their companies, understanding that this is a critical skill that will enhance their academic career.

“Tech is the only school where you can intern at your own company,” Klaus said. “You don’t have to drop out to pursue your business goals. CREATE-X enables students to spend their summers working on their startups, risk free. No other school is doing this.”

The faculty and administration’s support of the program is critical to ensuring students stay in school, which is sometimes a challenge, especially when they see early monetary success with their startup. CREATE-X focuses on making sure students feel totally supported to work on their startups while in school, completing their academic degrees.

The evolution of the program

While scalability is a big focus of CREATE-X, it comes with the challenge of scaling responsibly. The program would like to involve all 26,000 students eventually, but it also must maintain quality. One way to do this is involving faculty members. Currently, there are 75 faculty members involved, and Sivakumar wants to grow that number as well. The program is always changing, and CREATE-X leadership is very introspective of what’s working and what’s not. Last year, the Startup Launch component of the program received 185 applications for just 30 open spots. CREATE-X decided to run a booster program for those students who didn’t get in, giving them money but no mentorship, and most of them failed. The team learned that it’s the mentorship, not the money, that is critical to the success of students. Sivakumar believes that it is just as important to grow the mentorship aspect of the program while growing student participation.

Sivakumar sees CREATE-X as a startup in itself, with students as its customers. Like any savvy entrepreneur, Sivakumar had to first identify the problem or need he was going to address. In this case, a consumable program was needed to give students the opportunity to launch a startup. Sivakumar has learned over the years that there are three core philosophies of CREATE-X that make the program successful. First, it has to be faculty led because there is an implicit trust between student and teacher. Second, the program offering must be like a funnel, with an early introduction to CREATE-X to incoming freshmen. Third, the program has to be hands-on, with full experiential learning.

“It’s critical that students create real startups on their own,” Sivakumar said. “That’s a big difference between CREATE-X and other programs around the country. Chris Klaus ensures the startups have funding, and then they are built. So it’s not simulated or academic, which makes the degree of learning far more than what they would get in a classroom setting.”

A booming tech metropolis

Tech Sqaure

With Tech being in Atlanta, the program already has access to a city that is quickly becoming a technology hub — home to the likes of NCR, SAP, and First Data. The Atlanta ecosystem is very supportive of Georgia Tech — in fact, it’s hard to find a technology company in Atlanta that doesn’t have some sort of affiliation with the Institute.

McLaughlin sees Tech as a powerhouse that can accelerate the Atlanta ecosystem in ways that folks have been waiting for. “With CREATE-X, we continue to fulfill the promise that Georgia Tech is where some of the best talent resides for job creation,” he said.

CREATE-X founded companies are winning startup competitions all over the state. The annual Atlanta Startup Battle included two CREATE-X startups out of the six finalists. Another conference, called Siege, held a startup pitch competition and a CREATE-X startup won it as well. CREATE-X startup Gimme Vending won the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) business launch competition in a field of 120 other startups in Georgia.

“CREATE-X startups are on par with other technology businesses that are just starting out,” Sivakumar said. “It’s really promising to see our startups dominating the competition space. We are clearly contributing to Atlanta’s startup activity.”

CREATE-X has become a breeding ground for students to take their idea to a formal business launch, and alumni of the program are going on to participate in other accelerators and co-working spaces around the city. In order for CREATE-X to keep growing, it must continue tapping into the Atlanta ecosystem. And to achieve its lofty goals, like Georgia Tech becoming the No. 1 startup campus in the nation, CREATE-X will need to continue focusing on its core consumer: the student.