While keeping up with heavy course loads, some students have decided to take on the extra challenge of creating and maintaining a startup company.
Creating a startup, however, is no easy feat. A recent Harvard University study found that 75 percent of startup companies do not return investors' capital. Even with the odds stacked against them, undergraduates and recent alumni are still attempting to beat the odds with their own initiatives.
A current example of Duke students' entrepreneurial success is junior Bryan Silverman, who is also Entrepreneur magazine’s College Entrepreneur of the Year for 2012. He created a company called Star Toilet Paper, which prints advertisements on recycled toilet tissue rolls. The ads are repeated every eighth tissue, each selling for less than a cent.
Silverman’s company has promoted 70 local businesses and has expanded to include industrial-sized rolls.
“Being at Duke has been invaluable to starting up the company,” Silverman said.
Silvermand added that Duke's alumni base and resources, among other aspects of the Duke education, have contributed to his early success.
One Duke alumnus who is trying to beat the odds is Austen Vernon, Trinity '12, who co-founded SquadUP, an online platform that helps plan events. SquadUP handles logistics, sends invitations, tracks RSVPs and promotes events using Facebook and Twitter.
The inspiration behind SquadUP stemmed from Vernon's frustration when his friend planned a graduation event and could not collect the money from guests to fund it. As such, SquadUP uses an online platform to allow guests to contribute money.
He described his company with the passion of a parent for a child.
“SquadUP is my life,” he said. “This is our baby. When things aren’t going well, it’s frustrating, even embarrassing. But when things go well, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Vernon noted that he used his education from within the Gothic walls to foster his entrepreneurial spirit.
“The educational experience can't be taken away," he said. "I’ve learned so much during my first year running this company.”
Jack Stauch, a former Duke student who dropped out in 2012 to focus on business, used an idea from a Duke science class to create NeuroSpire, which measures the positive and negative brain activity in response to a product or an advertisement.
Stauch could not be reached in time for publication.
Silverman said Duke was invaluable in helping him grow his business.
"Being at Duke fosters entrepreneurial thinking [and] has helpful resources, like the Duke Startup Challenge and DUhatch," he said. "While not plentiful, they are of high quality and they help students turns ideas into businesses.”
Although Vernon credits his education at Duke with teaching him to think outside of the box, he suggests the University can do more to promote startups.
“I wish there had been more of an emphasis on startups, on the tech industry and generally on how to take an idea and turn it into a business,” he said. “The career center and recruiters did such a good job of involving students in other industries that I feel more could have been done in the tech startup space.”
There are three specific programs that Duke entrepreneurs can utilize—The Duke Start Up Challenge, DUhatch and Duke GEN.
The Duke Start Up Challenge offers students an opportunity to create startups. More than 100 entrepreneurial teams compete, and they benefit from judges who offer feedback. Students are addressed by leaders in the industry and the winner gets the grand prize of $50,000.
DUhatch connects students with local industry and faculty mentors, provides office space and helps entrepreneurs solve problems they have in common with other young companies.
Howie Rhee, Fuqua '04, managing director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Duke, noted that Duke GEN helps Duke alumni and students connect.
"It’s a good way to tap into the collective high mind of Duke entrepreneurs everywhere," Rhee said at a Research Triangle Park conference April 5.
Although many young entrepreneurs worry about the successfulness of their startup, Silverman is optimistic that his Duke education will allow his business to thrive.
“If Duke can foster not just thinking, but entrepreneurial thinking, and if it can provide resources to convert ideas into businesses, Duke will be at the top of entrepreneurship," he said. "There’s no doubt in my mind that Duke alumni will continue to be at the top of those who create businesses that excel and change the world.”