Demo Day showcases progress of The Commons’ first class

Students presented their startup projects to an audience of student peers, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders and angel investors.

Last updated on July 7th, 2019 at 02:37 pm

After 10 weeks of assembling business models, prototypes and market research, student startup teams under The Commons presented their masterpieces-in-progress during a Demo Day event held Sunday at Ward4 Milwaukee.

Students presented their startup projects to an audience of student peers, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders and angel investors.
Students presented their startup projects to an audience of student peers, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders and angel investors.

The event gave all 11 teams a chance to show off the strides they have made since launching their efforts in September.

For some, Demo Day also opened up an opportunity to pitch their ideas in hopes of garnering additional financial support and establishing key connections in the startup space.

The 11 teams enrolled in The Commons over the last two months represent the first official class of the entrepreneurial skills accelerator, which is a project of Startup Milwaukee and Innovation in Milwaukee (MiKE).

The Commons, announced in August 2014, marries academia with industry as it gives college students from regional institutions a platform to begin building early-stage companies as well as learn from executives at companies like Direct Supply and Brady Corporation.

The accelerator, open to any student from participating schools, kicked off with a pitch event in September, during which select student entrepreneurs and companies explained their ideas to a room full of students.

About 65 students threw their entrepreneurial ambitions into the first class, with five student teams focused on fleshing out startup ideas and six other teams centered on finding solutions to fit the needs of local companies.

Among the top successes of The Commons’ first round was “seeing so many of the students go from nothing to something,” said co-founder Matt Cordio.

That progress was partially driven by the input of more than 30 area mentors – including experienced entrepreneurs and corporate executives – who advised teams on the critical elements of business development.

“We really tried to help students with their professional network while they’re still in school because we hope that will really help retain them in the region if they have a professional network that they can interact with,” Cordio said.

Teams also completed a base-level curriculum designed to teach students how to take an idea, validate that it has a market, and develop a business model and plan to scale it, according to Cordio.

Early-stage company AE.DRUMS excelled in its market research, thanks to guidance from The Commons, said Carla Marzari, a sophomore at Milwaukee School of Engineering and the company’s hustler, or sales and marketing lead.

The company, composed of seven people, is behind the development of a quiet drum – one that has a practice pad that muffles each hit without detracting from the acoustics and physics of a normal drum.

AE.DRUMS is marketing its drum to student musicians who need a more inconspicuous practice tool as well as individuals in apartments and dorms who want to practice without disrupting their neighbors.

In conducting market research, team members tapped the insight of percussionists and band directors at Waukesha North High School and also met with managers of local music stores.

Marzari credits The Commons with propelling AE.DRUMS’ advances from day one and for helping its team create a strong dynamic from the get-go.

“Everyone brings in their own expertise, and that’s how we’ve gone forward so far and so quickly,” Marzari said.

Through mentorship and legal advice delivered through The Commons, the company filed a provisional utility patent for its drum and, moving forward, plans to file a full utility patent. It will spread awareness and raise additional dollars for its drum products through a Kickstarter campaign and will remain affiliated with The Commons as it continues to scale.

Adam Kouhel, a sophomore at Marquette University, also learned the value of a strong team dynamic in startup ventures through his 10 weeks under The Commons.

Kouhel was part of a corporate team that set out to better connect college students and Kohl’s by constructing a back-to-school registry through which a student can select merchandise he or she wants for his or her college experience. From there, relatives and friends can enter the registry and purchase items to gift to the student.

Through the registry, the team hopes to help Kohl’s overcome its struggles to reach millennial consumers.

Among the most significant challenges for the six-person team was blending backgrounds, skillsets and mindsets as each student had different ideas about the direction to take the project.

During each fork in the road of the development process, team members had to work through their varying perspectives to ensure they could reach an end product they would be proud of Kouhel said.

That end product, according to Kouhel, consisted of a process and a system of features and technology that Kohl’s could someday implement into its ecosystem. With a tight 10 weeks to flesh out its idea, the team could not produce a registry ready for primetime.

While it is not yet clear if Kohl’s will adopt the input of the student team, the process was a learning experience for Kouhel and his peers, he said.

The Commons will launch its next class of startup teams in February and is currently accepting applications.

Cordio and his colleagues will continue assessing the accelerator to ensure that they are “delivering the best possible experience” to students.

“I think every day we’re learning new things about how to be better entrepreneurial educators and how to constantly improve that experience with The Commons,” he said.

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