Like many kids, Cullen Harper played a lot of sports growing up: baseball, football, basketball.
Virgil Platt’s vision for a startup may have caught the eyes of judges in the sixth annual Clemson MBAe EnterPrize competition, but the real winners of the entrepreneur’s business idea may be military personnel.
As the winner of the graduate school’s competition, modeled after the TV show Shark Tank, Platt won $15,000. He’ll use the prize money to purchase inventory for his business, Armed Eyewear, which will provide fashionable, military-approved glasses to service members.
Platt, of Fayetteville, N.C., was one of 26 Clemson MBA candidates who competed for $26,000 in prize money at EnterPrize events held in Columbia and Charleston and at the finale in Greenville.
As an area manager for retail vision centers in the heart of military country, Platt identified an unmet need for military personnel. With Fayetteville being home to the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg, the world’s largest military installation, Platt regularly heard of dissatisfaction over the limited eyewear choices available to service members because of the military’s restrictions on frame and lens aesthetics. In addition, glasses cannot have emblems or brand logos on the outside.
Realizing that more than 2 million U.S. military personnel were subject to these restrictions, he set out to find a solution. Platt discovered many alternative eyewear designs that his acquaintances in military human resources divisions said met standards. He was even able to work with frame manufacturers who would serve the military marketplace.
Armed Eyewear’s website is in development; Platt expects its soft launch by the end of the year with online sales. He would eventually like to sell through military channels as well.
Platt said Clemson’s part-time MBAe program was a good fit for him in several ways. “Having a network of cohorts in this with you really helped. You have 15 to 20 people all trying to open their own businesses, and they come with a wide variety of backgrounds, be it marketing, finance, sales or accounting,” he said. “When you add in the professors who have their own specialties, there’s so much expertise to tap into.”
Other winners in the competition included Jimmy Palmer, a full-time MBAe student who placed second and won $3,000. His startup, Comma Furniture, specializing in furniture that assembles and disassembles easily, is targeted to students and those early in their careers who are moving frequently.
Third place and a prize of $2,000 went to Michael Siegel, also a full-time MBAe student. His startup, Groundshare, allows landowners to rent land to hunters similarly to how Airbnb works.
EnterPrize judges included James Bennett, owner of Upstate Home Care Solutions; Joe Gibson, founder of Helping Businesses Grow Profitably; Beth Veach, career and business coach at Entrepreneur Acumen; Cory Bridges MBAe ’17, co-founder and chief operating officer for RingoFire Digital; and Sadie Perry MBAe ’17, an Eggs Up Grill franchisee.
Through grit, determination and generous scholarship donors, she has overcome numerous obstacles and hopes to use what she learned from the school of hard knocks — and Clemson — to help others like her move beyond the hardships in their lives.
Lewis is a junior business management major with a nonprofit leadership minor and a concentration in entrepreneurship. Her future looks bright, but it wasn’t always that way.
The oldest of five children, she experienced a tumultuous childhood, having lived a nomadic existence from Texas to Virginia. She spent a good deal of her adolescence homeless, raising her siblings, working multiple jobs while in school, and in foster care. She attended eight high schools, four middle schools and a dozen elementary schools. Lewis’s 17th birthday was marked by her mother’s suicide. Through it all, her spirit and drive to help others hasn’t wavered.
Like the road to Clemson, Lewis’s experience since arriving has been atypical of most 21-year-old college students. When she’s not commuting more than three hours a day to and from Greer, her day is consumed with a variety of jobs, volunteering and, of course, studying.
Scholarships have helped her with the financial burdens of tuition, but she is still supporting herself and has had to work upwards of 50 hours a week to cover living expenses, like food, gas money and car insurance.
“I worry all the time about my future, money and my family,” Lewis said. “Happiness for me would be not having to worry about having food to eat, a place to live or not having to sleep in my car. Without the scholarships, a lot of my career objectives wouldn’t be possible.”
Outside the classroom, she’s learning and contributing to helping others less fortunate through her involvement in AmeriCorps and organizations like Youth for National Change, which advocates free college tuition for financially challenged foster children.
Lewis sees herself pursuing an entrepreneurial career path in helping people help themselves. “I see myself going the startup route in a way that will enable people in need to be able to sustain themselves and become self-sufficient on a path to stability and becoming productive members of society,” she said.
One startup idea Lewis is championing involves building “tiny” homes for the homeless, where the future inhabitants would play a role in their construction, giving them skin in the game and an accountability. She calls the concept Micro Homes for Macro Hope, and she floated the concept last fall at the Clemson IDEAS student organization’s “Startup Weekend.” The idea received an honorable mention and won the event’s social entrepreneurship award.
“My path to Clemson hasn’t been like a lot of others here, but I’ve learned from it,” Lewis said. “That, combined with the nonprofit leadership and entrepreneurial track of my education here, is preparing me well to make a difference in the world.”
As for life after Clemson, Lewis wants to continue helping others who walked in her footsteps, perhaps through the Peace Corps.
“I’d like to work in business development in the nonprofit sector, maybe helping people start their own business, again along entrepreneurial lines.”
To support students such as Lewis through your giving, go to clemson.edu/giving or call 864.656.5896.
Innovation isn’t always creating a new, flashy product. Sometimes it’s taking something that already exists and finding a different or more efficient way to use the same product.
This idea, this intersection of form and function, is where science and the humanities come together. It’s also the place where universities like Clemson can allow students to stretch boundaries and truly innovate without the obstacles that often face companies — cost, time, bureaucracy of the process.
“It’s not just about making the machine, it’s also about seeing how people are going to use the product,” said David Blakesley, the Campbell Chair for Technical Communication and professor of English. He works extensively with students on the future of the traditional book — what forms it will take, how it will be published and how it will be read.
GIVING SHAPE TO IDEAS
Building on the idea of innovation while allowing for creativity is integral in Clemson’s new MBA in Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MBAe) program, which just graduated its inaugural class from the one-year program.
Designed for individuals who want to start their own companies, the program attracts students who come with a business idea, and then they spend the year networking, developing and refining their idea in the effort to graduate with a market-ready company.
“One of the primary goals of the MBA in Entrepreneurship and Innovation is to ensure that we incorporate a bias for creativity, experimentation and innovation,” said Greg Pickett, associate dean and director of the Clemson MBA program. “Just as an entrepreneurial mindset encourages big ideas, the knowledge gained from our unique curriculum provides students the real-life tools necessary to bring ideas to the marketplace.”
Starting a company wasn’t even a consideration for May MBAe graduate Riley Csernica when she began her undergraduate career at Clemson in bioengineering in 2008. “I kind of stumbled upon it and really liked taking charge and being creative,” she said.
What started out as an idea for a capstone project for her senior design class is now being made into a full-fledged business. She and her group mates were paired with a clinician from Greenville Health System, and from discussions with him, they created a shoulder stabilization brace for athletes and active individuals who experience recurring shoulder instability issues.
With idea in hand, Csernica entered the MBAe program — and now she and one of her original group members have begun Tarian Orthotics. They’ve already received a $50,000 National Science Foundation I-CORPS award as well as $7,500 from the Clemson EnterPrize Awards, the MBAe capstone business pitch competition. They have worked through the Clemson University Research Foundation (CURF), which promotes technology transfer of Clemson intellectual property, to file a provisional patent on the brace.
“There are definitely good days and bad days — there aren’t really any rule books we can look into for answers,” she said. “But through this program, we now have an idea of where we’re going and who to talk to. It was a great time for me to be able to focus on what we are trying to do big picture.”
BUILDING A CABINET OF CURIOSITY
Using an approach to education that fosters innovation, Clemson’s Creative Inquiry program immerses undergraduates in the research process. Students work in teams with faculty mentors, take ownership of their projects and assume the intellectual risks necessary to solve problems and get answers. Team-based investigations are led by a faculty mentor and typically span two to four semesters.
Creative Inquiry students develop critical-thinking skills, learn to solve problems and hone their communication and presentation skills, alongside getting to work on incredible projects with entrepreneurial prospects.
When Greenville Health System Children’s Hospital expressed the need for a pediatric arm stabilizer that could be used to facilitate blood draws from young patients, a Creative Inquiry class took the idea and worked for two years on a solution. The project team included 12 students majoring in mechanical engineering, nursing, bioengineering, business and general engineering, and CURF has since filed a provisional patent for the invention.
In a recent agricultural mechanization Creative Inquiry project, students converted a four-passenger electric golf cart into a teaching platform by building and designing a powertrain and utilizing a diesel engine with hydrostatic transmission. The students incorporated GPS guidance and variable rate controllers.
“We can now demonstrate agricultural power and machinery principles in addition to precision agriculture technologies in a more efficient and student-centered manner,” said Kendall Kirk, agricultural and biological engineering research assistant.
Clemson’s charge from the very beginning has been to innovate and improve the field of agriculture. And while the study of agriculture is far from new, researchers’ work is never done.
A team of professors and students in the agricultural mechanization and business program has designed and implemented technologies that allow a zero turn mower — a standard riding lawn mower that has a turning radius that’s effectively zero inches — to use its existing hydraulic circuit to power cylinder and motor–actuated implements. It can also operate accessory attachments such as log splitters, scrape blades, wood chippers, leaf blowers and others.
“This technology substantially increases the versatility of zero turn mowers and eliminates the need for additional internal combustion engines to drive accessories,” Kirk said.
As part of a horticulture class, students Malisia Wilkins and Allison Kelley recently tackled the idea of vertical gardening as a way to feed the hungry in small-space urban environments. Vertical gardening involves a simple structure, built vertically, that doesn’t require soil and retains water. To build one, they upcycled several standard wooden pallets and outfitted them with materials found at your average hardware store.
“When it came to designing the vertical garden, our first priority, beyond feeding people, was sustainability; our second priority was to design something inexpensive and easy to build,” they wrote in their report.
The three prototypes of varying sizes were then filled with cilantro, bell peppers, Italian parsley, kale, basil, sweet marjoram, oregano, chard, micro-greens, lettuce, strawberries, thyme — all plants that grow at shallow soil depths and, more importantly, provide nutritional value and health benefits.
“We believe that by educating individual families to produce on a micro-scale, we can work to eliminate food insecurities and hunger,” they said.
SPRINGBOARD FOR INNOVATION
Partnerships with Greenville Health System (GHS) and private corporations are helping drive innovation in the classroom as well as the business sector. From advanced materials to bioengineering, recent academic innovations have given rise to commercially applicable medical advancements.
These advancements are fueled by the 20-year partnership between the College of Engineering and Science and GHS, and more recently, the opening of the Clemson University Biomedical Engineering Innovation Campus (CUBEInC) on the Patewood medical campus. This facility includes translational research laboratories that focus on cardiovascular and orthopedic engineering. CUBEInC enables the translation of high-impact medical technology and devices from the laboratory to bedside, providing numerous opportunities for entrepreneurial pursuits.
“GHS is a wonderful partner for Clemson,” said Martine LaBerge, bioengineering department chair. “Where Clemson has a comprehensive understanding of biomaterials, the hospital system is the go-to organization in Upstate South Carolina for medicine and surgery. When these areas of expertise are combined, there exists a real opportunity to make a difference in the quality of life of the people of our state.”
Using CUBEInC as a springboard for innovation, assistant professor John DesJardins and colleagues have mentored two recent senior biomedical engineering design projects that have development technologies destined for the marketplace — one of those being the newly formed Tarian Orthotics.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Innovation and change happening in Clemson classrooms isn’t just affecting industry and business, but the future of teaching and classrooms.
“It’s so important for teachers to be able to think creatively and to be able to inspire this thinking in their students because they are charged with educating young people for an unknown future in a digital, global world that requires students to be literate across an interweaving media — from written text to the body to digital imagery to sound,” said Alison Leonard, assistant professor of arts and creativity.
To address this, she has created the Arts and Creativity Lab in Godfrey Hall, which was physically and aesthetically designed to cultivate creative and artistic thinking. The design of the space, along with the pedagogy of the class, nurtures ideas among students.
“We cannot continue to train teachers the same way that many of us were taught. The world is different,” Leonard said. “Ways of communicating continually are changing, and young students are literate in ways that are so multifaceted and mediated, that being flexible, creative, able to function and communicate effectively across cultures, contexts and media is essential.”
The same goes for long-standing products like books. In Blakesley’s class on the future of the book, his students approach creating a book in both traditional and non-traditional ways. Each has to think linearly across platforms — how will this read on the printed page? How will it read on a tablet? What will make this more interactive? In the end, the whole process is scrambled, and the writer has to rethink the approach. A book is no longer just a book in the simplest sense of the word.
The consequences of such innovation is that long-standing roles and processes need to be changed, adapted or simply eliminated. And change is hard.
“I like to think of our students as ‘change agents,’” Blakesley said. “Down the road, they’ll be more capable and likely to bring about innovation in the workplace. And they’ll be better prepared to anticipate the cost and challenges because they’ve done this already, in the classroom.”
Clemson writers Ron Grant and Jonathan Veit contributed to this article.