If it weren’t for the Rapid Ramen Cooker, many UC Davis students might not immediately associate the university with student enterprise. Although the frequency of startup businesses in Davis might not match that of startups at other schools, there is a growing effort to change the culture of entrepreneurship as it is seen on campus.
“What I tell my students is [this]: ‘Look at your idea and try to find out if there is a market for it, if people will want to use your idea and if people will want to pay for that,’” said Lucas Arzola, the director of the Engineering Student Startup Center (ESSC) at UC Davis. “‘If you can find that, then you have the possibility of having a business.’”
The ESSC started up in October 2013 as a project by Arzola and his company, Betaversity, to encourage entrepreneurship at UC Davis. Since then, the center has served over 600 students. The group also offers workshops taught by student staff which cover topics such as design thinking and computer programming, and provides instructions on how to use the equipment found at the center, which include a 3D scanner, a 3D printer and a “shopbot” for wood fabrication.
“We’re basically what is called a ‘maker’s space,’” Arzola said. “We provide rapid prototyping equipment so that students can go from idea to product very quickly.”
The ESSC is open to any student, regardless of major. As long as they attend a safety workshop and get certified to use the equipment, students can use the resources at the center for free. This openness allows a broad range of ideas to filter into the community of entrepreneurship that Arzola is trying to create.
“We’re also working with student organizations,” Arzola said. “The idea is [that] we want to bring people with different skills, different perspectives, into our space to create coalitions where new ideas can happen. We’ve been working with student organizations in manufacturing, design, engineering, computer science and business. We are bringing all those people together to create a community around innovation.”
This quarter, the ESSC can begin to provide financial resources to students with promising ideas. The center received a $40,000 grant this year through a network called Venture Well, which provides funding to promote student entrepreneurship.
“The College of Engineering is matching that one-to-one,” Arzola said. “So we’re going to have a micro-grants program over the next three years to provide students not only awareness, not only the space and resources, but actual funding they can use to invest in their projects.”
On top of providing financial resources and a space to develop ideas and create prototypes, the ESSC helps students by connecting them with other resources throughout campus and supports them in turning their ideas into reality.
“Usually students that come here have an idea that’s early — maybe they’ve done a little work on the idea or the technology, but they don’t know how to take it further or to really go about starting a business around it,” Arzola said. “So we give them that support and that knowledge where they can learn about what resources are available at UC Davis and nationally. The outcome that we want to see is for students to gain the skills to be more entrepreneurial.”
Arzola pointed out that the ESSC is fairly young, with its start less than two years ago, and that it and some of the other resources are beginning to work more closely together as part of a shift in the culture of startups and entrepreneurship at UC Davis, giving thanks to a supportive university administration.
One of the resources the ESSC might point an entrepreneur to is the ASUCD Entrepreneurship Fund (E-Fund).
“We get a certain amount of money allocated to us each year that we then essentially give out as grants or as initial seed funding to startups run by UC Davis students,” said Daniel Riesgo, a third-year managerial economics major and ASUCD E-Fund Committee Chair.
Twice a year, the E-Fund gives out up to $2,500 to potential businesses which have at least one student attending UC Davis — ideally, the founder.
“We look for all kinds of ideas in all kinds of development phases,” Riesgo said. “Obviously it’s hard to not give a preference to startups that are a little more developed. Some of these startups have prototypes or might already have other investments or already sold products, but we accept all kinds of applications.”
Multiple applicants might win if their ideas are good enough, in which case the money is divided between them based on the decisions of the committee.
“We understand that even $2,500 isn’t much,” Riesgo said. “But what we’re trying to do with that is make a statement and really encourage entrepreneurship at UC Davis. That’s really the main goal of E-Fund.”
Although new ideas are encouraged, Riesgo mentioned that sometimes it is difficult to judge applicant’s ideas due to high expectations. One thing he noted was the popularity of developing new applications for Apple or Android platforms.
“I think apps are really popular because they’re easy to make,” Riesgo said. “Those are fun to mess around with, but they’re typically ambitious. I’ve noticed this pattern when we’re judging an app… It’s difficult because we don’t want to break these [people’s] dreams or ambitions, but at the same time we have to be realistic and objective when they come and pitch and we give them feedback.”
The pool of applicants for the E-Fund is relatively small. Riesgo estimated an average of 20 applications per cycle, but he noted that the number was increasing.
“I think entrepreneurship is not really viral here yet,” Riesgo said. “I think it’s getting there, for sure, because we’ve seen an increase in applicants and discussions about that, but it’s just not prominent at UC Davis.”
Although the rate of entrepreneurship might be relatively small, Davis is definitely home to a number of startups and small businesses. Research done by the Davis chapter of Consult Your Community (CYC) suggests that there are over 250 small businesses in the local area.
Sunny Chui, a third-year applied mathematics major and one of the founding members of CYC Davis, commented on what the club is planning to do in the near future.
“We provide free consulting services to small business in the Downtown Davis and Sacramento area,” Chui said. “I like how this club is helping small businesses instead of helping big companies make even more money.”
CYC started in Berkeley in February 2013 and has quickly spread nationwide and shown up in colleges along both coasts. At Davis, the club is in the development stage and will be looking for clients this quarter and beginning consultations in the spring, after it is done training its members.
Chui wants to keep the club’s members capped at around 20 people, as he believes that a small amount of dedicated members is better than many inactive members.
“We’re looking for people that are actually serious. All of us are very social, but when we get to work we’re all serious and get stuff done,” Chui said. “We want people who can really put in effort to this club.”
The application cycle is currently closed but will open up as more members are needed.
Chui emphasized the significance of volunteer service in regard to startups and small businesses.
“Why would you charge when people are already struggling or willing to help?” Chui said. “It’s not like we’re losing something or they’re losing something. We give them recommendations, and they can take it or not. At the same time they give us an opportunity to do research [for] eight to 10 weeks. It’s a win-win.”
The primary tasks of the club include collecting and analyzing data to determine how business might be improved.
One of the common themes of these nascent resources for startups at UC Davis is an emphasis on education. CYC plans to work to educate current and potential business owners specifically about how their work can be better conducted. The E-Fund committee is attempting to increase the amount of education available to students regarding entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, Arzola is teaching a course on entrepreneurship which meets in ESSC space every week.
“I would say that the innovation ecosystem is mature enough now so that we have entrepreneurship spaces and programs that serve different parts of campus,” Arzola said. “We’re also seeing larger integration and collaboration between them, so any student that has that inclination to be more innovative, they can find the resource on campus that can help them best.”
The ESSC is open every weekday from 3 to 7 p.m. in Academic Surge 2060.
“My job really is to help students be successful and to help them make their ideas a reality,” Arzola said. “I think that’s a great position to be in.”
Photo Courtesy Engineering Student Startup Center