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Catching the Entrepreneurial Spirit

No idea too big or small, Rebel entrepreneurs have more than business “plans.”

People  |  Oct 18, 2011  |  By Brian Sodoma
Kevin Hwang

Kevin Hwang was too busy working. But ideas nagged at him for years. He didn't have the time or the expertise to turn those promising ventures into viable businesses -- until he came to UNLV.

Attracted to the UNLV College of Business' entrepreneurship programs, he went back to school for his MBA and made his journal full of ideas his top priority.

"This was just an idea I really couldn't let go," he said of the first concept he's recently turned into a reality. The 2010 MBA graduate is now the owner of iAD Media. Its interactive kiosk helps local restaurant vendors boost sales.

Patrons watch a 30-second video commercial, the reward being a coupon. He set up his first kiosk, named "Bixby," in UNLV's Student Union. It has a dozen vendors using it — restaurants inside the union and near campus. His next goal is to expand around town.

Rubbing elbows with all types of past and current business owners during his MBA studies was crucial to his success. "You get great insights into how our local economy works. These are things I wouldn't experience as an entrepreneur on my own," he said.

Like Hwang, Jean Bridges needed to get away from daily business life before she could think about starting a new venture. A Las Vegas native who majored in English literature at UNLV, she went back to get her MBA after a career in finance.

Her business was already percolating with a friendship she had in place for years. Partner and CEO Robert Batemen came up with the idea from his Italian family's many years of making frozen desserts. A little tweaking with the formula to make it appealing to the health-conscious consumer helped the concept pick up steam. Bridges won the 2010 Governor's Cup first place prize for the business plan she wrote for the company.

"A lot of business people within our community are involved in the university -- investors, investment groups, other important leaders in our community. It has plugged me into a lot of those circles," she said.

Bridges is now the chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Tiki Ice, which is sold locally in Whole Foods stores and at a stand in Town Square and in 245 Alberton's grocery stories in Southern California and Nevada.

Entrepreneurship, Our Future

Coupled with rapidly advancing technology for the past two decades, entrepreneurship programs have been sprouting up at colleges around the nation, suggesting that small business creation will see a younger crowd going forward. Locally, the hope is that more entrepreneurial minds like Bridges and Hwang will contribute to a diversified economy with jobs in industries other than gaming.

"In this economy, we should not just be developing employees, but employers as well," said Rama Venkat, interim dean of the Howard Hughes College of Engineering.

Key Collaboration

UNLV's entrepreneurship roots took hold 14 years ago. The first entrepreneurship class was taught in 1997; the one class grew into a minor, then a major, and now an emphasis in the MBA program. Janet Runge taught that first class and also helped establish the school's Center for Entrepreneurship in 2006.

The center has helped build valuable alliances with the private sector, putting graduates, their ideas and business plans in touch with the money and brains needed to get them off the ground. With a new collaborative effort among the MBA program, Center for Entrepreneurship, and Howard Hughes College of Engineering, more valley businesses are springing forth.

The engineering program is a deep well of innovation and ideas. Venkat oversees the senior design course, which requires fourth-year students to develop a product solution and build its prototype. The college also holds the Fred and Harriet Cox Senior Design Competition at the end of each semester, to award $15,000 in prizes for the most innovative projects.

"There are hundreds of thousands of problems out there, and we are able to come up with the solutions," Venkat said. But the dean admits the intellectual capital is the easy part of the equation. Teaching those bright minds to have an entrepreneurial streak is the real goal.

And that's where Andrew Hardin, head of the Center for Entrepreneurship, comes in. Hardin has seen amazing success in the first year of collaboration between the colleges of Business and Engineering. Four of the five winners of the Southern Nevada Business Plan competition came from this collaboration. Several of those plans also took top honors in the graduate and undergraduate categories at the Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup Collegiate Business Plan Competition this past spring:

MAD (Motorcycle Accident Detection) Sensor — Described as an "On Star for motorcycles," the product was developed by Adam Jackson along with other business and engineering students. The idea won a $10,000 second place prize for the graduate student category at the 2011 Governor's Cup competition. Jackson recently graduated with a master's degree in MIS (Management Information Systems) after also receiving a bachelor's in finance.

Scuba Solutions — Curtis Weinstein is the pitchman for Scuba Solutions, another concept that resulted from the MBA students picking through the many new technologies coming out of the engineering program. The scuba gear carrying tote invention and related products currently in development could hit the market within the next year. Patents are in the works and the group's LLC is formed. The group won the $20,000 graduate category first prize in the Governor's Cup competition.

Eighteen at Eighteen — Developed by Anthony Alegrete and his friend, William Wong, the product was the undergraduate category winner at this year's Governor's Cup. The concept, which involves selling 99 cent books through phone apps targeted to the 18 year-old crowd, delivers professional knowledge on topics like business and health using hip phrasings and slang in its 600 to 700-word chapters.

UNLV Impacts