Entrepreneurial program promotes student innovators

By Abbey Reighard / Staff Writer

Alec Davis’ app didn’t win last year’s Big Idea Competition, but he did find a new mentor. 

After seeing potential in Davis’ project Flippo, a smartphone application that allows busy students seeking an on-campus delivery to connect with other students who are willing to make that delivery for a fee, Alex Gindin approached Davis, hoping to help him develop his idea.

Gindin invited Davis, a senior majoring in marketing and French, and his team to bring Flippo to PantherlabWorks, a business incubator Gindin manages, for further development. A business incubator is a center that fosters development for business growth. 

PantherlabWorks is a startup accelerator for entrepreneurs who want to expose their products to the market. The program is based in the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, a Pitt organization located in the Gardner Steel Conference Center on Thackeray Avenue and O’Hara Street. 

The institute connects local businesses and entrepreneurs with Pitt resources, such as mentoring programs. It is now under the umbrella of Pitt’s Innovation Institute — an ongoing collaboration between the Office of Technology Management, Office of Enterprise Development and Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence — which aims to better support students developing and marketing their ideas on campus and throughout the region. 

Ann Dugan, former executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, founded PantherlabWorks in 1999. 

“PantherlabWorks was created to really look at not only the innovations that Pitt has and how they can be implemented or infused into other companies, but also to look at what a company needs that Pitt laboratories can help with,” Dugan said.

Students account for about a quarter of the clientele at PantherlabWorks, according to Gindin, and the rest of the clients are business owners based in western Pennsylvania. 

Gindin said he and his fellow consultants typically work with about five student-run companies at any given time.

People who want to work with PantherlabWorks — whether they are students at the University or not — must first submit an application. 

Gindin accepts applicants on a rolling basis, and he said his ideal candidates would be able to carve out a space for themselves and their product in the marketplace.

For Gindin, the most important qualities of a potential applicant are “a forward momentum and that the entrepreneur is invested in his or her own company.” 

“We work with new venture commercial technologies and ideas and work with the companies to accelerate their business within the common marketplace,” Gindin said. “We help them find potential product users and customers and potential investors.”

PantherlabWorks typically follows a step-by-step startup process with companies. 

Gindin said that he and his fellow consultants at PantherlabWorks will first examine the market to understand where the applicants’ product fits in with consumers. 

“We don’t require tangible prototypes or finished products. We just need to know that they have an idea of what the market is, who they will be going after in the market, what the product or service will look like and how they will get it into the marketplace,” Gindin said. 

PantherlabWorks consultants also examine companies’ teams to determine how the company or product could improve to maximize market potential.

“We identify [the companies’] position in the marketplace and look at current trends and conditions so that [companies] can navigate quickly and get their product into the market right away with a solid position,” Gindin said.

Aside from simply developing their own projects, students can learn from and work with other entrepreneurial companies within PantherlabWorks.

“We have access to other companies that we work with in various stages of development who are looking for student innovations,” Gindin said.

Gindin said each team applying to work with PantherlabWorks must show proof of market research, including target markets, alpha tests (testing by potential users or customers before the software goes to beta testing) and prior sales of the product.

For instance, Gindin deemed Davis’ startup a good fit for his program because PantherlabWorks tends to deal with technology-based startups. Thus, the Flippo team and PantherlabWorks joined forces last semester, and since, Davis and his team are preparing to release an alpha version of Flippo to Apple’s App Store within the coming weeks.

This year, PantherlabWorks hosted its first annual Startup Bootcamp on Jan. 11 to help student entrepreneurs prepare for this year’s Big Idea Competition, a yearly contest held at Pitt that awards money to would-be entrepreneurs. The Randall family, who fund the event each year, will award a total of $100,000 — in prizes ranging from $20,000 to $2,000 — at this year’s event.

The Innovation Institute organized this year’s fifth-annual Big Idea Competition. The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, also founded by Dugan in 1998, previously organized the annual competition.

Participants must submit applications for the competition by Feb. 8, and the series of events for the competition culminate April 10. 

Before the competition, the bootcamp allows students to participate in activities that help them brainstorm ideas about their potential product or business.

“It walks you through the basics of what you need to think about as you start your business and develop your ideas,” Dugan said.  

Davis sat on a panel at the bootcamp with a number of other distinguished entrepreneurs and he said the panel gave advice to other prospective innovators.

“PantherlabWorks has been awesome so far in guiding us and mentoring us as we go through this process for the first time. It’s great to have an outside force helping to push us forward without losing focus on the core value we provide,” Davis said.