When I was an undergrad student at the University of Texas at Austin I very much wanted to become an entrepreneur. During those years (1990-1994), however, there was almost no support for entrepreneurship at the University. I didn't feel "developed" enough to pursue my dream, so I decided to go into consulting instead and became an entrepreneur a few years later, while I was earning my MBA.
In September 2013, I began my tenure as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of Texas at Austin. I was proud to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, who taught at UT Austin his entire career. Instead of imposing what I thought the community would be need during my time as EIR, I took a lesson from building Bazaarvoice and Coremetrics. I created a team of four very influential and entrepreneurial student leaders and asked, “What does the student entrepreneur community need?”. The four were Taylor Barnett, Verick Cornett, Dan Driscoll, and Jonathan Van. We became the “Office of the EIR”. Nick Spiller joined our team later and right after graduation he joined UT to continue the charge as an entrepreneurial catalyst across the school.
This approach was very effective - the students, after all, were my customers and who better to tell me what the customer needed than the customer themself. Two core problems came up frequently during our first meetings. The community was hungry for mentorship, which we did our best to solve by setting up weekly EIR and guest EIR office hours, and a need for seed funding, which is why we started working on the UT Discovery Fund.
Our team had peers at the Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures, so we knew it was possible to have a student run fund benefiting student run ventures. We wanted a peer-to-peer capital source, with student leaders from across campus working together and funding starters, builders, and makers on the Forty Acres.
In my recent Lucky7 post, the new Golden Age of Tech, I wrote:
Today, most people — anywhere in the world and with purchasing power — are online… and online is portable. We all have a supercomputer in our pockets (and a rare few of us wear them on their faces — me not being one of those). Your ability to reach the world market has never been greater or more efficient. The price and speed at which you can launch a new business because of cloud services like Amazon’s Web Services or Google’s Cloud Platform has never been lower or faster, respectively. The price to experiment — and potentially create something valuable that the world needs now — has never been lower (both in terms of time and money).
Data shows the global youth are increasingly more entrepreneurial — both out of necessity as well as benefiting from all of those that came before them (and the access to those lessons in today's age of the networked "global village"). While the costs of experimenting have gone down, they aren’t nonexistent, and with most students taking out five-figure loans to pay for school, finding and obtaining the additional capital to start your company is often extremely difficult. As my good friend and one of our initial investors at Bazaarvoice, Josh Kopelman, said, "Just because it takes less capital to build a company now, doesn’t mean it doesn’t take any.”
How many companies would we be talking about today had they received that first small check? UT students and subsequently dropouts like Michael Dell, John Mackey, and more recently John Arrow of Mutual Mobile show the enormous potential the people who come to UT Austin have. So much has changed since they launched their ventures and the potential is exponentially greater. I witnessed that potential every week during my office hours, and I heard the same from the guest EIRs we invited to do office hours as well.
Organizations like the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency, Freshman Founders, the Office of the EIR, and numerous efforts across campus are supporting student entrepreneurship. None of these existed when I was an undergrad student. However, one missing - and hugely important - ingredient is a bit of seed funding to cultivate the startup community on campus. Some might argue the students could get funding from venture capitalists from around Austin, but these funds aren’t structured to write very small checks. There’s a gap that should be filled to seed student innovations, as Dorm Room Fund, Rough Draft Ventures, and others have shown.
That’s why I am very excited to announce the founding of the UT Discovery Fund!
The UT Discovery Fund will be a $1,000,000 student run fund (ranging from $5,000-$25,000 per company) sponsored by UT Alumni, Austin-focused venture capitalists, and successful entrepreneurs.
Hurt Family Investments has proudly sponsored the first $25,000 into the fund.
The team driving this project includes the original four students of the Office of EIR, plus Nick Spiller, and Jonathan Van has been leading the charge for the past ten months. We are quickly closing on the first $100,000 to start operations (be on the lookout for team applications) and will be supported by the UT development offices to fundraise the rest of the fund. Our most famous entrepreneur on campus, Dr. Bob Metcalfe, Professor of Innovation, has agreed to supervise the student investment team.
Core to the fund are these features:
- Be run by students – not suits. A student investment team would know the entire student and campus ecosystem – allowing them to find, screen, and invest in the best ideas.
- Be located on campus, so that it constantly has a feel for the vibe on campus.
- Students are engineers, marketers, financers, writers, doctors, lawyers, and researchers – and allow them to focus on investing in companies that disrupt big markets that they (students) have expertise in. Diversity thrives in this environment.
- Finance students based on their needs. Students are scrappy and often just need that first $5,000 — $25,000 in order to build their product and ship a minimum viable product.
I’m convinced the students, the University of Texas at Austin, and the city of Austin will greatly benefit from the Discovery Fund. Through this fund, we will build cross-campus collaboration and impact and show with our dollars that we believe what starts here changes the world.