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WMU Develops Talent in Kalamazoo with Starting Gate

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Do you have what it takes to create your own start-up company? Before you picture yourself as the next Bill Gates, factor in that you are also attending college, too.

Seems overwhelming, right? Well, thanks to Western Michigan University's Starting Gate program, it's not for many students.

Touted as a start-up business accelerator, Starting Gate is open to any WMU student through a competitive application process. After demonstrating a promising idea for a product or service, individual or small groups of student entrepreneurs are accepted into the program.

With feedback from at least one like-minded mentor, student entrepreneurs aim to complete their venture within the program's 100-day window, the culmination of which is Investor Day.

During Investor Day, members of the local investor community are invited to attend student entrepreneurs' formal presentations. In addition to demonstrating their hard work, the start-ups are also vying for feedback, exposure, and ultimately funding.

This year's Investor's Day took place Friday, April 11, and featured three businesses, E-Z Bind, SupplierRateMate, and Personofy.

Co-founded by aster's student Persefoni Lauhon and undergrad Alex Woodward, E-Z Bind is a redesigned chain binder similar to strap and chain binders used in heavy trucking and hauling industries. The pair improved on existing chain binder models to increase operator safety and usability. Enhancements included a locking mechanism to improve safety when tightening loads as well as in transit and an extendable handle to increase leverage and range of motion.

As an engineering student, Lauhon said the Starting Gate program helped her see beyond the engineering aspects of E-Z Bind's evolution.

Currently working towards a third prototype, Lauhon said she also enjoys seeing the product change and improve based on feedback from other Starting Gate participants and mentors.

"That's been the fun part," she said, "designing and improving. We bounce ideas off of each other."

Integrated supply management undergrad Justin Wing described SupplierRateMate as a website created to "help small manufacturers quickly select a high quality supplier." Co-founded with fellow integrated supply management student Andrew Taylor and WMU professor Dr. Sime Curkovic, the site is expected to develop into a subscription-based customer review site, allowing like-minded manufacturers to share opinions and references about suppliers based on a matrix of specific questions and ratings.

Wing said Starting Gate was a great fit for his personality.

"I've always had a strong interest in entrepreneurship and wanted to find something that would help me grow through the process," he said.

In addition to feedback from peers and mentors, Wing said he found the plentiful resources provided by the program and sense of accountability helpful to the site's development as well.

Portage native Matt Rumora is a self-described travel enthusiast. The management and economics major worked independently to create Personofy, a website designed to create travel suggestions based on the user's personality type. Eventually, Rumora hopes to develop a mobile app as well. Using a check-in system similar to other social media platforms, users are guided to establishments and attractions based on their personal preferences as well as commonalities between themselves and other visitors with similar characteristics who rated the destinations favorably.

"What Starting Gate means to me is an opportunity over everything else," Rumora said, an opportunity he initially found intimidating.

"(The program) helped me get over my fear of approaching people, asking for help, and not having everything just right in regards to my idea," Rumora said. "I realized that it's about building something. You don't have to be afraid or embarrassed."

WMU instructor Lara Hobson serves as Starting Gate's Director of Operations. A small business owner herself, Hobson said the program would have been helpful as she started her company ServiceWorks.

"It would have saved me a lot of time-just knowing who to ask and the ability to get different perspectives," she said.

A start-up in itself, Starting Gate is in its beginning stages, Hobson said. A total of 12 companies have/are participating in the program, which is solely funded by donations, to date.

Hobson hopes additional students will apply for the program and take advantage of all the resources and momentum Starting Gate has to offer.

The program is open to students of all majors in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. Applications for the next session are due May 1. For more information, visit Starting Gate's application page.

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