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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 3, 2017 2 years ago

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University of South Florida's entrepreneurship program has grown into a nationally known business launching pad.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Executive Summary
School. University of South Florida Industry. Entrepreneurship Key. School's Center for Entrepreneurship has produced a wide variety of companies.

The University of South Florida continues to lead the charge in fueling Florida entrepreneurship in the region. Its Center for Entrepreneurship graduate program is ranked No. 10 by Entrepreneur magazine and the Princeton Review, and it's the only Florida school to make the national rankings.

Located at the university's Muma College of Business, the 15-year-old center provides hands-on learning experiences for its coursework, a student innovation incubator, access to mentors and alumni, and competitions for startup funding. It offers 58 graduate entrepreneurship courses, with access to 59 mentors, and 92% of its faculty has entrepreneurial experience.

Another impressive feat: In the past five years, graduates have started 318 companies and have collectively raised $15 million in funding.

These stories are four examples of companies that launched at the Center for Entrepreneurship.

Dez Williams
Aquamelon

Dez Williams came up with the idea for his watermelon juice company, Aquamelon, after he trained with friends for a 12.5-mile Tough Mudder obstacle course. They would go home and devour a watermelon after training, finding the juice refreshing after a long workout.

Williams researched the benefits of watermelon juice, learning about its high concentration of amino acids and electrolytes.

The surface water remediation specialist decided it might be time to start his own venture — a watermelon juice company. He approached USF about getting a master's degree in entrepreneurship with one goal: “I don't care about the credential,” he told the school. “What I'm really interested in is if you guys can help me launch this company.”

The school agreed, and Williams was able to use the company, Aquamelon, as his example in more than 75% of his coursework. Aquamelon later won $20,000 from the Syntech Business Plan Competition and was a first runner-up at the Florida Venture Conference. He poured his savings into the business.

He partnered with Global Produce Sales, one of the state's top watermelon growers, and built a small watermelon juice factory in the corner of a fridge. He started by taking ugly watermelons off the line to make his juice.

The beta testing year was 2015, when Aquamelon sold 30,000 bottles of the juice — which he says has 30% to 50% less sugar and calories than most other juices — in 10 months. Six-and-a-half months later Williams realized the company needed a bigger facility. He partnered with Wish Farms, a Plant City strawberry and blueberry grower.

Then, in 2016, says Williams, the company went into hibernation to raise capital. During that time two other companies knocked off his idea, Williams says. One was an orange juice manufacturer who he had originally asked to manufacture for Aquamelon. “I was going into a den of hungry lions,” Williams says. “That's how we created our competition.”

But Williams has persevered. He worked with a USF chemical engineering professor who made an investment in Aquamelon to design a larger factory line. He also found another equity partner, a USF donor who was in private labeling and manufacturing, “That's how we got the boost,” he says.

Williams hopes to open the company's new facility next month. He aims to grow, but says he wants to “grow controlled.” He learned early on that getting into Publix on day one might not be his best bet; he needs to first build a name for himself. Says Williams, “We cut our teeth on independent food service hospitality companies.”

Masud Hossain
Sense A Life, ThinkRTC

Masud Hossain is one of USF's prized entrepreneurs. The biochem-chemistry student joined the school's Student Innovation Incubator with some friends to start two companies: ThinkRTC and Sense A Life.

The Student Innovation Incubator provides a shared workspace (with 24-hour access to facilities) and access to mentors, lawyers and media coverage. Though Hossain has graduated from school, and his three cofounders have also left school or jobs to work on ThinkRTC, they continue to work through the incubator. Hossain and his team put in 60 to 70 hours every week on the venture.

ThinkRTC, founded in October 2016, allows companies to screenshare and video chat directly from their websites with a CRM platform — without needing to set up a GoToMeeting or Skype call. Current customers include car dealerships such as Mercedes and software-as-a-service companies.

The company has been growing 15%-20% monthly, says Hossain, bringing in between $300,000 to $400,000 in sales annually, he says. He expects the business to have 10,000 users by the end of the year.

ThinkRTC is completing a funding seed round, where it hopes to raise $750,000 to $1 million. It will use the funds to hire more engineers and a sales and marketing team.
Though he'd love to get investment from a Florida entity, Hossain says he's been asked by a couple investors to move to Silicon Valley. “If you're a tech company, you kind of have to,” he says.

Markus Vogel
Metabology

Markus Vogel says without the USF Center for Entrepreneurship, “I couldn't have met my business partner, and I wouldn't have my job.”

Vogel is cofounder of Metabology, a which offers a full week of prepared meals delivered twice a week. Clients are people looking to lose weight, eat healthy or build muscle. The plans range in price from $112 to $195 a week.

The company is working on adding a line of fitness clothes and nutritional supplements for workouts. It also plans to launch the Metabology games, a weekend-long fitness competition. The idea is to create “a one-stop shop for anything fitness,” Vogel says.

A computer engineer, Vogel says he met his business partner at USF in February 2016. His partner had started a company preparing meals for friends. Vogel's family had been in the food business “for centuries,” he says. Vogel opened a restaurant in 2008 that ultimately shut down during the economic crash.

The two realized they could work together to build a company leveraging Vogel's web experience. They built Metabology from the center's Student Innovation Incubator.

Each partner is a self-proclaimed gym rat — the kind of person who also spends hours on Sundays planning and preparing all the food for the week. “Nutrition is a huge component,” Vogel says.

Their food service company makes it convenient for someone to write down the nutrients and add up the total calories for the week.

They built the menu off the most popular cuisines for which people go to restaurants. They made Mexican, Chinese and Italian dishes so people can eat the food they like without feeling guilty.

The first Metabology meals were delivered in July 2016, and the business was up to $10,000 a month in sales in less than a few months. The company recently implemented an online-ordering system through its website and plans to start posting social media ads and hosting marketing events.

The goal is to build more recurring customers in Tampa, hoping to reach 1,000 or so before venturing to new markets. Vogel and his partner, so far, have eschewed outside funding. They instead decided to bootstrap the company, says Vogel, because they believed it would be “hard to pivot when another person was in the conversation.”

Amy Abdnour and Casey Henry
South Tampa Paintball

Most people are surprised when they find out two women started South Tampa Paintball.

Perhaps even more surprising is the two owners, Casey Henry and Amy Abdnour, do it as a side job. They carry full-time jobs as a finance director of a law firm and a mental health therapist, respectively.
It all started as a nostalgic story. Henry would tell her friend Abdnour about growing up playing for a paintball team after she first tried the sport in sixth grade. “From that moment, she spent her free time pulling weeds, cleaning houses, raising pigs and doing all types of odd jobs to raise money to play on her paintball team,” Abdnour says. “Paintball gave her something to do and a place to belong.”

Abdnour, attending USF for a master's in social work, was intrigued by the idea of therapeutic recreation for families and groups. So the pair started to dream up an idea for a business. They moved the dream forward in 2013, when they won $15,000 from the USF's Fintech Business Plan Competition.

The new business owners used the winnings and some personal funds to purchase a property for the venture, 10 minutes south of Tampa. They spent a year taking out dead trees and fencing and dealing with illegal dumping. They also learned the ins and outs of web design and marketing, and began a networking tour. They set up lunches, toured a paintball factory and interviewed dozens of paintball players.

The business opened in fall 2014. Clients vary from a police SWAT team for training to corporate events to birthday parties.

Abdnour says they are ahead of the company's growth projections. They currently aren't compensated for the time that they spend out on the field, because they are reinvesting all of the money back into the business. “I know the funds are there,” Abdnour says.

Working full time and the startup can be quite the balancing act. “We have a good staff,” she says, “but we're owners in action,” she says. The duo is up early in the morning, late at night and every weekend making sure the fields look good, the schedule is set and the sprinklers are on in the right place. Abdnour says she enjoys learning about something new. Says Abdnour: “It's good for the brain.”

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